We’ve all been there. Something annoys you, angers you or sends you into a rage. Time passes and so does the emotion but for some of us the repetitive thoughts don’t turn off. “I should’ve done it another way”, running through the scene over and over in your mind. Carrying around worry, guilt, jealousy and hatred will make you sick. If you’ve been there, you’ve probably also been told that by a caring friend or family member. This age-old wisdom doesn’t require a medical degree.
One of the most common reasons patients come to me is difficulties dealing with stress in their lives. Your body has mechanisms to handle it for a while, but there comes a breaking point when your system can no longer keep up and that’s when a host of symptoms can follow. ‘Adrenal fatigue’ has become a buzzword and it is indeed legit. But is it just a hormonal cascade or something more? Do you need to be in a state of adrenal exhaustion before it affects your health?
Chronic stress and negative emotions both take their toll on the body. Relatively recent discoveries finally explain why your mind can have such broad reaching effects on virtually every body system. We used to think this was just driven by hormones and nervous systems chemical messages. It turns out that it is much deeper than that explanation.
Emotions of fear, frustration and anger can actually result in genetic changes. If you have been following me for a while, you may have already guessed where this is going.Yes, negative emotions and reactions to stress can affect your DNA through a process called epigenetic modification. This means that your DNA gets tagged in a way that it can completely turn on or off certain genes. And this is a big problem! For example, turning off a tumor suppressor gene could result in proliferation of cancer cells. Your DNA contains the code for all your body proteins and enzyme systems, so no bodily function is off limits here.
We have historically made the connection between poor sleep as a stressor that causes weight gain just because of cortisol, but recently a study was published that demonstrated epigenetic changes occurring from loss of sleep. There have also been published reports for DNA changes induced by daily life ‘stimuli’. This means pretty low grade stressors are affecting your genes on a daily basis. This is starting to seem dismal because we all have stressors in our life that aren’t going anywhere. So what are we to do?
Fortunately, you can turn this around. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Dr. Wayne Dyer a couple of years ago. He was an internationally known motivational speaker and author. One of his books and most well known quotes was, “Change your thoughts, change your life”. This quote couldn’t be more appropriate here. You see, when your thoughts change to joy, love and gratitude, your DNA responds and so will your health. One of my favorite ways that I share with my patients to start to turn the tide is a gratitude journal. This is so simple and can be life changing. I encourage you to get a small journal, or even a simple coil bound notebook and start this practice as soon as you can. Or just grab a piece of paper. Write down 10 things you are grateful for today. This is best done in the morning or before bed. The next day, do it again and make sure you have at least 3 new things on your list. It works even better, if you evoke some emotion while you record your daily list. There are more tips and tools in my book, Unzip Your Genes, on specific techniques to improve your stress response.