I am sure you have heard it before, that what you think makes a difference. Maybe you have heard it so much that it is a cliche that frustrates you because you haven't yet figured out how to change the story you tell yourself. And that is because it is not an easy task. In my next post I will go into some strategies for changing your story, but in this post I want to focus on some of the science that shows why it actually does make a difference what we believe and tell ourselves. This science also sheds some light on why it may be so hard to change the narrative that is inside our own heads.
Did you know there is a whole field of Narrative Medicine? That you can get a masters degree from Columbia University in Narrative Medicine? Yes, that is right. To me this is testament to the fact that our stories matter, and that this is not just some fringe, new age idea.
The field of epigenetics is the study of how genes are turned on or off, affecting the production of proteins that can modulate everything from our stress response, to what tastes good, to whether or not we develop cancer. And just about everything has an epigenetic affect, from what we eat, where you live, how old you are, your life experiences, and even the experiences of your ancestors four generations before you! Yes, you read that right. Trauma that your great great grandparent experienced could be affecting your gene expression, and thereby your story. But the good news is it is also reversible.
In terms of the experiences in your own lifetime, trauma most certainly can affect your chances of developing disease, as shown by the ACE study's, which looked at Adverse Childhood Experiences and their cumulative affect on adult levels of disease ranging from depression, addiction, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders. Indeed, these experiences are some of the strongest predictors of disease and illness later in life. Our bodies hold a memory of our life events. Trying to treat the disease or illness without asking ourselves what is really hurting is treating the symptom, not the cause. And so the hurt will make itself known again. But once again, the hurt doesn't have to lead to any of these diseases. The question is not how to fix the hurt, but can you be with the hurt.
Whether or not an adverse childhood experience leads to disease has a lot to do with one's ability to heal through positive experiences and develop a mindset of resilience and stress hardiness. Not easy, I know. And I promise next time we will talk more about how to do this.
But let us look at what the narrative of resilience and stress hardiness looks like versus one of helplessness and pessimism.
A mindset of helplessness is often characterized by interpreting an event as personal, pervasive, and permanent. For example, when that cup slips out of your hand and shatters on the floor your inner narrative jumps to "It's my fault," (personal), "Why am I always so clumsy," (pervasive; the problem is not just this incident. It affects all parts of my life), and "I will never be graceful," (permanent; the problem is unchangeable).
Compare this with an attitude of stress resilience, characterized by challenge, control, and commitment, where for the same incident your inner narrative might go something like this, "Whoops! That was silly. Look at that mess." (you see a challenge rather than a fault), "I guess I will have to clean that up," (a sense of control), "I can do that," (commitment to act, thereby creating a positive experience of overcoming the challenge rather than a negative one of self loathing).
Quite a difference, right? And a difference that can affect so much of how we approach our lives and from how we react when we splurge on more cookies then we should have, to when a relationship doesn't work out, to when we get a diagnoses of a potentially terminal illness.
And these thought processes come from core beliefs about ourselves. It is impossible to have a reaction of "Whoops! That was silly," when you are filled with self loathing. These beliefs about ourselves then affect our actions and our bodies by influencing what chemicals and neurotransmitters are released within our body, potentially having epigenetic effects on gene expression. And, at the same time, trauma held as genetic memories could be contributing to your tendencies for negative self talk by affecting the way your body creates and metabolizes neurotransmitters. Crazy, right?
In light of all this, of course it isn't easy to change our stories. Perhaps the first step is to have compassion for ourselves about this fact. To be able to notice when we are in a negative thought pattern and just hold that part of ourselves that is hurting with love and forgiveness. It is ok. We all mess up. It is not your fault. It could very well be your great grandmothers experience that is part of the reason you tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion. Once you notice what you are doing try to just be with it. And maybe have a little laugh about it. "There I go again, berating myself just like my mother used to do, because her mother did it!" Or have a good cry about it. "It sure hurt as a child to watch my mom beat up on herself every day and feel so helpless."
So a little more about epigenetics. You have your mothers genome and your fathers genome. Then there is your gut biome, which could be thought of, collectively, as a 3rd genome, whose genes can also be turned on and off. The gut plays a huge role in emotional regulation, from regulating the synthesis of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, to also regulating how fast such neurotransmitters are metabolized and stay in the blood stream, to communicating with the vagus nerve. It probably even does more that we have yet to fully understand. Because of this, diet and gut health can play a huge role in your ability to respond to stress with resilience.
With all these possible variables it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and want to throw up one's hands and say, "I give up!" But just as certain genes can be turned on they can also be turned off! And just as negative experiences may lead to you carrying a genetic memory of a trauma, positive experiences can build resilience on the genetic level! This is done through both tangible changes like diet, sleep, and exercise, as well as less tangible ones like your thoughts, relationships, and stress levels.
Next time we will talk more about how to take an active role in determining your own genetic story, which includes shifting your inner narrative.