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Debunking Mental Health Myths Part 2

This is the second video I made for mental health myths. This is the transcript from that video. Similar to my last post, its not edited for reading so take it as it is :) If you want to watch the video, you can do so here.

So, here's a quick recap from last week if you missed that video. Long story short, you did not inherit your mental illness, and there are no biological or physical markers linked to mental illness in any way. It is all based on a person’s experience and definitely not objective.

If you are curious how that can be the case, go back to my previous video and watch that before jumping in here. 

Okay - so no inheritance, biological or physical markers. Then what the hell is happening? Why are some people more susceptible to mental illness than others? 

To really understand this, we have to have a conversation about genetics and epigenetics. 

So… welcome to genetics and epigenetics 101. 

Contrary to popular belief, genetic inheritance does not determine the better part of our destiny, who we are, what we suffer from, and what we are capable of. 

If you are like me, you probably think that Genes are the language of life. And whatever genes you inherited are the genes that will be with you forever. Well, as far as modern science can tell, that is wrong. 

Dr. Mate explains it this way,

“... Genes are not, in fact, life’s language, any more than a scrambled alphabet or a randomly arranged dictionary is a Shakespeare play [...] For letters or words to become language, they must be arranged, enunciated, inflected, punctuated, with pauses, EMPHASIZED, or softened.”

What he is telling us is the genes are there, but they are just building blocks. And those building blocks can be arranged in all kinds of different ways. 

So, what influences the ways genes get activated, accented, or quieted? 

That would be Epigenetics. 

So, what is epigenetics? Well, the Latin prefix epi means above, over, or on. 

So epigenetics means “above genes” or “on top of genes.”

Epigenetics is the study of how messages from our environments are delivered and translated into messages that influence our gene expression. 

In other words, through epigenetics, experiences dictate how our genetic potential expresses itself over our lifetimes. 

I want to be clear here: it is not that genes don’t matter; they do, and they influence a lot of our lives, but quoting Dr. Mate here,

“[...] they cannot dictate even the simplest behaviors, let alone account for most illnesses or address possible cures for them. [...] genes answer to their environment; without environmental signals, they would not function.”

So epigenetic influences turn specific genes “on” or “off” in response to stimuli outside of the body. Epigenetics greatly improves our understanding of evolution and demonstrates that circumstances themselves can shape how genes adjust to the environment. 

So let me give you a very summarized accounting of how this shows up and how it has been studied in laboratories. I am going to simplify this information dramatically, but the original study is cited in the description of this video if you want to drop into the source material. 

So this guy, Dr. Szyf, and his team in Montreal wanted to figure out how a mother’s influence in the first few days of life affected the development of the offspring over the lifespan. 

So he and his team took a bunch of rats and manipulated the environments so some rats got the care they needed as babies and some did not. Then, they observed them across their lifespan. 

They were particularly interested in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (also called the HPA axis)

Put simply, the HPA axis is a stress response feedback loop between our brain function and hormonal response. Proper functioning of the HPA axis is fundamental to an organism's ability to manage stress. 

Again, this is a complicated process that I am summarizing in a couple of sentences. If you want to learn about the HPA axis, I have included a link to a study in the description. 

Okay, back to the rats. 

So Dr. Szyf and his team found that these rats who did not get the care they needed had whacked out HPA axes. They could not regulate themselves. 

Additionally, they found that key epigenetic factors were different in the brains of the rats who had received more or less nurturing contact from their mothers. 

AND the rats who did not receive the care they needed went on to parent the same way they were parented - under-nurtured.

Szyf and his team found that both the physiological and behavioral effects of early nurturing patterns were found to be nongenetic; they were not transmitted through the genetic code. Instead, they were epigenetic, influenced by the environment that signaled what genes should be turned on or off. 

Okay, great - the environment affects rats, but we are humans, so what?

Well… we have a similar study unplanned thanks to the natural environment. 

Enter Mother Nature. In 1998, a massive ice storm swept through Quebec and decimated local infrastructure. People were left without power, in the cold, and without food. 

A team of researchers went in and studied the objective stress (cold, hunger, home damage, darkness, etc.) pregnant mothers experienced during this time and the long-term effects this had on their children. 

Well, no surprise here; it mirrors the findings of Dr. Szyf and his team in the rat study. 

Okay, so let’s sum this part up: the environment influences how epigenetics turn on or off specific gene functions, making it either more or less difficult for us to regulate our emotions, have functioning hormones, and manage stress. 

Let’s add one more piece to this puzzle. 

Do you know how we measure biological as opposed to chronological age? 

It is represented in the length of our telomeres. If you are unfamiliar with telomeres, they are sheathes at the end of chromosomes that protect them from fraying and sticking together. 

Think of them as the plastic protective ends we have on our shoe laces. 

When we are born, we have around 10,000 base pairs of telomeres and around 4000 at death. As we age, telomeres shorten, and we age biologically. When the telomere gets too short, the cell dies, and we begin to deteriorate. 

And guess what, stress, trauma, toxic environments, and adverse events all shorten the length of our telomeres. 

It is entirely possible that twins who are the same age chronologically are not the same age biologically, depending on the stress they undergo. 

So what does this mean? 

Essentially, as we are subjected to environmental stressors, we are deteriorating biologically, which affects our ability to stay healthy. 

BUT there is very good news here. Just as telomeres shorten as we go through stressors, they can also lengthen when we engage in activities and experiences that build stress tolerance. 

We can literally reverse the biological aging process when we engage in things like meditation, exercise, adequate nutrition, and stress management. 

Okay, so let's quickly recap everything up to this point. Epigenetics are influenced by our environment and turn specific genes “on” or “off.” 

These gene expressions influence our ability to self-regulate, hormonal response, and overall sensitivity to stress. 

This, coupled with environmental stressors that shorten the length of our telomeres, leads to greater susceptibility to mental and physical illness, aging, and, ultimately, biological death. 

Now, you may hear all of this and feel a little overwhelmed or a little scared of these implications. But I want to suggest to you that this is actually a profoundly hopeful message because it means your mental health issues are not inescapable. 

They are not the permanent, chemical, biological, and genetic arbiters of your wellness. They are environmental and behavioral, which means you HAVE control and you are not destined to struggle with this forever.  

Ultimately, this is a message of HOPE because we have some control here. 

Psychologist Charles Snyder is a respected researcher who spent his time studying hope. He found that hope requires three key things. 

First, a goal; second, agency; and third, a plan.


So, within that framework, it is likely your goal is to reduce the intensity of your mental health symptoms. 

And now, with the information presented in this video, we have established that you have AGENCY. This is the key here. We are reestablishing agency and giving you the power to drop the limiting beliefs that keep you stuck.

Lastly, with an empathic and connected therapist or trusted other, you can create a PLAN to address the environmental and behavioral facets of your life that keep you stuck. 

Alright, so to wrap this all up. 

I specifically chose this topic as my first two long-form videos because I think they are foundational to understanding how we approach mental health in a holistic way. We have to throw out the pathological paradigm that is not grounded in truth. 

And we HAVE to acknowledge that we not only have the ability to change this, but if we approach this the right way; this becomes the way we make meaning in our lives. 

I am going to talk a lot about meaning-making over the course of this year. 

Thanks again for tuning in. If you made it this far, I really appreciate you. My info is in the description of this video, and if you are struggling with mental health issues, feel free to reach out. 

Also, give me a like, subscribe to the channel, and share with people who are interested in this stuff. 

I’ll see you next week! 

Szyf M, Weaver IC, Champagne FA, Diorio J, Meaney MJ. Maternal programming of steroid receptor expression and phenotype through DNA methylation in the rat. Front Neuroendocrinol. 2005 Oct-Dec;26(3-4):139-62. doi: 10.1016/j.yfrne.2005.10.002. Epub 2005 Nov 21. PMID: 16303171.

Dunlavey CJ. Introduction to the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis: Healthy and Dysregulated Stress Responses, Developmental Stress and Neurodegeneration. J Undergrad Neurosci Educ. 2018 Jun 15;16(2):R59-R60. PMID: 30057514; PMCID: PMC6057754.

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