What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Genes determine the long-term effects of stress

A new study uncovers the workings of resilience

For some people, no strain means no gain. They seem to come out of every crisis a stronger person, with renewed insight and energy. Others, however, bear the emotional scars of their traumatic experiences for years.

A study by researchers at the Medical University of Vienna has shed new light on why there is no one-size-fits-all outcome of stressful experiences. Their findings show that similar life events have very different effects on our brains depending on three specific genetic variants that have previously been linked to depression.  

These gene variants determine the long-term effects of our ordeals by modifying the reaction of the hippocampus to stress. The hippocampus is an area of the brain described as the “central stress interface”. It changes in size depending on the degree and quality of the pressure you're under. When you’re faced with a perceived threat to your safety, it shrinks, whereas the type of stress you may experience in exciting social situations can actually make it grow larger.

In those suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress, the hippocampus is often found to be smaller than average, a finding to which many of the symptoms of these disorders have been attributed.

In order to examine the interaction between stress, genes and hippocampal size, the researchers gathered information on the life events of 153 healthy subjects, as well as carrying out MRI scans and DNA extractions. Their results showed a clear interplay between stress and the three risk-factor genes.

"People with the three gene versions believed to encourage depression had a smaller hippocampus than those with fewer or none of these gene versions, even though they had the same number of stressful life events," explains study leader Lukas Pezawas.

On the other hand, those who had only one or none of the gene variants studied, showed the opposite reaction to stress: Their hippocampi were enlarged after experiencing comparable burdens.  

These findings indicate that to a large extent, our genes dictate whether stressful events will ultimately build us up or bring us down.

"These results are important for understanding neurobiological processes in stress-associated illnesses such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. It is ultimately our genes that determine whether stress makes us psychologically unwell or whether it encourages our mental health," according to Mr Pezawas.

If this all sounds a little too fatalistic to you, don't be alarmed. Previous research has shown that our mindsets also moderate the effect that stress has on us, and that we are able to change those beliefs in order to increase our resilience. Understanding the way you naturally respond to stress is key to developing better coping strategies that work for you.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
Man taking selfie in front of car
health
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore