You hear it everywhere. People mention it to me every single day. It’s a phrase that unconsciously traps us into believing that we are helpless to guide our own health. “It runs in my family”, and its correlatives; “My mother, father, siblings, or second cousin’s sister in-law had it.” These all boil down to the same thing –- dumping responsibility. Indeed, there are some conditions that are truly chromosomal, like hemophilia and cystic fibrosis, but the litany of later-life conditions that people attribute to genetic causes is quite remarkable. I have personally heard arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, flat feet, lung and colon cancer, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, back pain, tight hamstrings, poor posture, acne, bad teeth, sleep apnea, asthma, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, depression, and flatulence attributed to a person’s genes. Now, if all of these conditions are truly hereditary, it’s a miracle that the human race has survived at all without devolving into some disfigured, wrinkly creature with horrible breath and powerful armpit odor used as a defense mechanism.
Why, then, do so many of us follow in our parents’ painful footsteps, especially when, as young people, we say, “I’ll never end up like that!” Researchers are working on those sorts of questions as we speak, but so far this is what is coming out of the laboratory:
Gene expression is an entirely new field of research, since the genome code was so recently cracked. What researchers are learning now is exactly how genes turn on or off, based on certain events or stimuli. Studies have shown that activities such as exercise and laughter actually change the way genes behave, and these changes occur at any age. In essence, no matter what your genetic profile, the greatest factor for gene expression is behavior- or in other words what we do, what we eat, how we think, and what we allow ourselves to feel.
This ultimately boils down to the old nature-versus-nurture question. Do I develop a condition like heart disease simply because my father did? Is nature playing some sort of fatalistic prank where I have no control over my own health and future? It might look that way, especially when we see a relative’s health suffer, and then we actively change the way we act by launching into an exercise program and adopting a healthier diet, only to suffer a similar grouping of ailments as we age. Actually, even making changes to exercise and diet would drastically reduce the chances of developing a chronic degenerative condition; however the other two pieces to the puzzle are much more intriguing; how we think and feel.
How many times have you caught yourself reacting to something or saying something out loud and then stood back in shock as you realize that you sounded just like your mother or father? This seems to happen to me with alarming frequency as I raise my own son. We almost can’t help behaving in the ways that were modeled for us when we were young. At very deep levels our internal compass has been programmed with judgments and perceptions that we learned while growing up. If your parents regarded working hard and self-sacrificing as admirable and good qualities, then on some level you will most likely view the world in the same way. In this scenario, if you perceive yourself as not working hard enough, you will reflexively see yourself as being of less value than others whom you perceive as working harder. You may also judge others whom you perceive to not be working very hard as being worthless and catching a free ride. In the subtler scheme of things, no matter how much you change your diet or exercise, unless you do a whole lot of introspection, you will probably still think the same way your parents did. Now since our feelings are based largely on how our “thinkings” interact with the environment, we will most likely end up feeling the same way about things as our parents did.
If the work with gene expression is valid, what it suggests is that nurture is more powerful than nature as far as degenerative disease conditions are concerned. If our behavior, including our thoughts and emotions, determines how our genes function, then we can begin to glimpse fresh opportunities for living a healthy life. Of course, the real trick is in discovering how behavior is usually determined. For most of us, the way we act is more an unconscious habit than a conscious choice. As humans we pride ourselves on our intellectual superiority and ability to use rational sense to make the choices that serve us best; yet one doesn’t need to look any further than the corner store to see the limitations of this thinking. Everyone knows that smoking and excessive alcohol use are damaging to the body. Even people who use these substances regularly admit this, yet do not change their behavior. Rationally they know that the behavior does not serve them, yet they persist in carrying it out. This is no different from the more socially admirable workaholic or overcommitted caregiver, two lifestyles that have been shown to significantly weaken the immune system. In large part, no matter how smart we think that we are, the conscious mind doesn’t determine our behavior– our past conditioning does.
So, if our behavior is determined by conditioning that happens below our level of conscious awareness, how do we change our behavior if we don’t even realize how we are behaving? How do we change how we think and feel about things when we don’t even understand why we think or feel a certain way to begin with? First we start by simply training ourselves to become more aware of what we think and how we feel through frequent observation. It is easiest to start this self-observation process when life is on an even keel; however, the opportunity is most potent when we are experiencing anxiety, frustration, intolerance, or anger. These emotions are signals that our perception of reality is out of sync, and our genes are expressing themselves in ways that will cause degenerative processes. Once we become aware of what we think and how we feel about the circumstances of our life, we forgive ourselves, and ultimately detach from any self-judgment regarding our reactions. At this point we aren’t trying to change anything, we are simply observing, forgiving, and detaching. By doing these three things consistently we will generate an abundance of change in our behavior without having to force ourselves to change. To get started, simply notice when you feel anxious because you are attached to a specific outcome, and are worried that it won’t happen; or when you are angry because your expectations are not being met; or when you express intolerance because your views or values aren’t being shared. Remember that all of these emotions naturally exist in the human condition and aren’t wrong; forgive and accept yourself for all that you feel. Finally, detach from the emotion so that it may be experienced and released. Repeated judgment of the self and others ensures our imprisonment within the condition, and thus we re-live the emotion physically again and again, causing the genetic expression of “hereditary disease”.
Love your parents for all they have given you. Stand on their shoulders and follow your own path. Leave room for your own children’s way to a new inherited condition called abundant health.
-Brian Trzaskos, IRQTC