The Genetics Behind Holiday Stress

There’s no shortage of stressors in life, especially this time of year. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association recently reported that 31% of U.S. adults say they expect to feel more stressed this holiday season compared to last year. Interestingly, how we respond to stress may have everything to do with our genes.

Scientists at PNRI believe that our individual genetic makeup provides either greater susceptibility or resistance to developing stress-related health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Because we are all genetically different, doctors currently can’t predict how each person’s body will handle stress.

PNRI scientists Dr. Lisa Stubbs and Dr. David Galas began tackling this issue by launching the Decoding Stress study. The goal of the study is to answer some of the biggest questions about how our genes determine whether we adapt or succumb to the damaging cycle of chronic stress.

Our brains decipher our daily experiences and signal to our bodies how to respond. But the brain’s responses are influenced by our genetic code, and therein we may find the answers to how external pressures can alter metabolism, mood, and so much more. Last year, Dr. Stubbs spoke with Molly Shen of KOMO-TV regarding these connections. You can watch the KOMO News story here:

With the study now underway, Drs. Stubbs and Galas are leading their teams in analyzing and mapping genetic data in blood samples collected from over 200 patients at the Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, LA, half of whom are living with chronic stress. Soon we will have the data we need to help design an even larger study to better understand how our genetics influence our resilience or susceptibility to the damaging effects of chronic stress.

The findings of the Decoding Stress study will ultimately provide the basis for new genetic screens that identify people who are at the greatest risk of developing stress-related disease, as well as guide doctors in choosing the right treatment for each person.

“Today, doctors have to wait until their patients start presenting with symptoms, often years after the stress has already damaged their physical and mental health,” Dr. Galas said. “We want to make a major step toward providing truly precision medicine, making sure that we know who is at risk and, if necessary, making sure that the interventions are right for each patient.”

Perhaps future holidays won’t be as stressful once we know more about our own genetic resistance or susceptibility to stress.

Resources for managing holiday stress:
Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping – Mayo Clinic
4 Mindful Tips to De-Stress This Holiday Season – Johns Hopkins Medicine
10 Ways to Cope with Holiday Stress – Psychology Today