top of page

Wired to Worry: Deciphering Genes, Anxiety, and You

Khadija Fatima & Clara El Hayek 

Copy Editor & Contributor

Via Pixar

Authors’ note: This article is a reminder that knowledge is a powerful ally against anxiety disorders. Believe in yourselves and know that this new emotion from Inside Out 2 does not have to take over your Joy. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out; here is a suicide hotline that is easy to remember: 9-8-8.

Think of the letters A, T, C, and G as the alphabet that writes the tale of our biology. But there is more to it than just these genetic letters – the true complexity unfolds with unseen epigenetic authors, subtly guiding the rhythm of our story. When you are looking up menus of restaurants online and reciting your order 10 times ahead of arriving, remember that it is not just the ATCGs you were taught in highschool biology that are responsible for anxiety. There is an entire invisible team of epigenetics adding layers to our narrative of gene strands, highlighting certain feelings whilst editing out others, and ultimately shaping our encounter with anxiety. 

To delve into our individual narratives, it is crucial to first grasp the concept of epigenetics. Common knowledge dictates that our phenotypic traits, like eye color or finger length, are determined by the human genome (DNA). At the molecular level, DNA consists of long chains of nucleotides — Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Cytosine (C), and Guanine (G). These chains of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, consistent in size and number across all cells, are enfolded around histones, which act like anchors. However, the distinguishing factor between the cells of eyes and those of hands lies in epigenetic mechanisms, as explained by Nicole Palacio, Ph.D. Student at McGill University in the Integrated Program in Neuroscience.

Visualize epigenetic mechanisms as small chemical compounds attaching and detaching from the genome — they do not alter the genetic code, but instead regulate its expression. Palacio explains that genes often express themselves by coding for proteins which are crucial for orchestrating our cell functions. As our cells contain the genetic instructions for diverse tasks, it is crucial to “turn off” or repress some of the genes for specializing cell functions. The variance between cells in the eye and the hand emerges from differences in protein formation due to the selective repression of DNA – a phenomenon termed “epigenetics.”

Furthermore, epigenetic mechanisms transcend cell specialization; they encompass gene-environment interactions as well. Palacio explains that environmental factors, like one’s diet, can impact genes. One specific epigenetic mechanism, known as "DNA methylation," occurs when a molecular "methyl" group attaches itself to the DNA strand, thereby repressing the associated gene. To elaborate, these methyl groups target the C nucleotide (Cytosine) in a Cytosine-Guanine sequence (CpG), inducing DNA strands to coil around the histones, thus inhibiting the expression. In easy terms, DNA methylation is akin to crumpling a paper; if you crumple this article (not recommended unless you are aiming to break hearts), reading it becomes impossible.

Additionally, other mechanisms such as acetylation – which relaxes the genes around the histones – and non-coding RNA (ncRNA) also influence these epigenetic modifications. Recognizing the importance of these modifications is crucial as they can be inherited by subsequent generations, potentially correlating with behavioral patterns. Since genes encode proteins that regulate cell functions, any hindrance in their expression could lead to significant changes in our daily lives. The next time your heart races in the grip of social anxiety as you raise your hand in class, blame it on the subtle methylation of a few DNA strands.

While it might seem obvious that epigenetic mechanisms cause environments to shape individuals, their inheritance remains less evident. Gametes’ formation, like spermatozoids and ovaries, is highly regulated through a process of cell division called meiosis, aiming to establish a “clean slate” for offspring DNA by wiping away epigenetic markers. According to a study conducted by Emily Cartwright for Novus Biologicals, some markers persist and are transmitted to daughter cells and subsequent generations, contributing to contemporary concepts, such as “intergenerational traumas,” commonly circulating on social media.

As humans, our programmed behaviors are influenced by our surroundings, and our response to stress, a known trigger for anxiety, varies from person to person. Stress is a natural response, designed to help us navigate immediate challenges, such as exam worries. In contrast, anxiety extends beyond, persisting even when prepared for situations like exams, eventually evolving into an anxiety disorder when it starts interfering with daily life. Beyond innate predispositions, some individuals learn to become more prone to stress through personal experiences, fostering anxiety. This, in turn, triggers lasting changes in DNA structure through DNA methylation. These modifications in the epigenome persist through cell division, transmitting to daughter sex cells and subsequent generations. This challenges the view that only genetic mutations are inherited, emphasizing that changes in the epigenome, while not mutations, are crucial modifications controlling whether genes are turned “on'' or “off.”

However, decoding behavior from a genetic standpoint remains intricate, given that a plethora of genes collectively contribute to our brain chemistry. Various studies adopt different approaches; Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) delve into small DNA sequences, linking them to phenotypic traits. Using GWAS to study anxiety is like learning the language of genetics through flashcards - you might win the spelling bee, but are still struggling  to hold a meaningful conversation in that language. In contrast, Twin Adoption Studies - studies that involve identical twins that were raised in different environments - are much more popular and offer the empirical knowledge that about half of the variance in personality is attributed to genetic effects. 

Anxiety is an emotion closely tied to our environment, and ongoing research suggests that the world around us can influence the way our genes function, impacting mental health and potentially affecting future generations. While heredity contributes to anxiety disorders 30-50% of the time, the environment, encompassing work, school, personal life, and traumatic events, plays a more dominant role (50-70%). The article by Steven et al. underscores the need to manage environmental factors, as DNA methylation, an inherited epigenetic change, can also be influenced by experiences.

Examining a collaboration between genes and neural pathways reveals the complex molecular processes influencing our physiological reactions to stress. Genes play a crucial role in regulating stress, since turning “on” and “off” genes impacts the function of the nervous system. We are specifically interested in the autonomic involuntary nervous system (ANS), which has two main parts related to anxiety: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activating our “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) responsible for the “rest and digest” mode. Information flows in the nervous system in the form of chemicals known as neurotransmitters, and changes in their quantities affect these systems.

In the primitive sense, these systems are essential for survival, but epigenetic mechanisms can impair them, leading to anxiety disorders. These disorders are characterized by excessive fear and behavioral disturbances. DNA methylation can make the SNS more reactive, increasing stress responses. Conversely, turning off genes related to calming signals in the PNS can result in less effective relaxation after a stressful event. These changes may seem “permanent” after repeated experiences with stress and are coined as disorders.

Dealing with anxiety can feel challenging, but changes in the epigenome are not irreversible. Anxiety manifests itself in various ways, including worry, fatigue, tension, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, rapid heartbeat, and restlessness. Experiencing an anxiety disorder that modifies our gene expression does not insinuate that it has to necessarily stay that way. In this hopeless loop of stress, understanding the bidirectionality of epigenetics is crucial for mitigating anxiety and preventing its potential transmission to future generations.

Several coping mechanisms are available to help with anxiety. Practicing mindfulness and meditation for short durations upon waking up or right before you sleep can be very helpful. Meditation consists of focusing on your breath and observing your thoughts as they flow through your brain. This is shown to reduce activity in the SNS, the system that causes increased heart rate and regulation of cortisol - the stress hormone. Meditation activates the PNS, promoting relaxation by slowing the heart rate. Moreover, you can also take one mindful minute during your day to focus on your breath and pay attention to the sounds around you, or practicing unconventional mediation which still works just as well. For an active alternative, practicing yoga meditation combines both movement and calmness. Additionally, if some of you have a subscription to Chegg Studies: all subscribers have free access to Calm. This mindfulness app offers guided meditations and relaxing sounds for stress management that can also get you better sleep. 

Another effective technique during challenging times is considering what advice you would offer a friend in a similar situation. Research by Igor Grossmann highlights our ability to provide insightful advice to others, advice we do not necessarily follow ourselves. It is easier to think wisely about someone else’s situation than it is about our own. Therefore, viewing our worries from an external perspective helps channel the wisdom needed for making good decisions for ourselves. 

Additionally, sharing emotions with others promotes a sense of comfort and validation. Card games like We’re Not Really Strangers facilitate open conversations and understanding among friends. It makes you open up and understand each other fully, helping one another by just hearing each other out. 

If you are looking for a professional opinion, Dawson provides counseling services for short-term therapy through the Dawson Student Assistance Program (DSAP), which can guide you to long-term commitments if need be. Having access to a professional opinion can help you personally cope with your troubles and allow for individual  growth.

Engaging in hobbies like writing, journaling, reading, listening to music, and baking are all additional ways that might aid releasing stress . As Natasha Daniels says in her book Anxiety Sucks! A Teen Survival Guide, start this weekend maybe by trying out foods that can help with anxiety such as oatmeal, bread, pasta, bananas, and potatoes - bonus points if you make them yourself!

As you navigate your emotions, it is essential to recognize your individuality and understand yourself to determine which mechanisms work best for you. Whether it is by practicing mindfulness, engaging in self-reflection, or exploring therapeutic interventions, these small steps can significantly impact your emotional state. Comfort can be found in those small acts of gratitude, in self-complementing in the mirror, and remembering that you, as a complex organism, are important.  You are not your anxiety. Embrace your story, authored by the interplay of genetic letters and guidance of epigenetic authors. Through its many highs and lows, with the right strategies, no obstacle is insurmountable.



bottom of page