If life were a game and you entered at square one, there is only one thing that you would bring with you – your genetic blueprint. Every part of you is mapped out there, your psychological traits along with your physical characteristics.
For many years, it was largely a word-of-mouth observation that certain temperaments seemed to run in certain families; there was seldom only one drug abuser or wife beating drunk to a clan. But along with warnings from mom about “crazy Uncle Bob,” there is now also a great deal of scientific evidence to support the idea that the variations in individual psychological traits, both normal and dysfunctional, are substantially influenced by our genes. Your personality starts in your cells, before you even make it out of the womb.
You should know about your mental genetic background for the same reason that a doctor needs to know about your physical history when treating you for a medical condition – if the people in your immediate family suffer from recurring patterns of mental illness or behavior disorders, there is more of a chance that you too will be affected. Why is this so important? Because once you know what you’re dealing with, you’re in a better position to do something about it. You may be able to do a lot more than you realize.
We tend to think of our genes as something inescapable and inevitable. On a certain level, this is true; there is nothing we can do to get rid of the DNA in our cells. But this doesn’t mean we can’t alter their outcome. Take a look at human fat cells – we are all born with them, and once we have them, or add to them, they are there forever, barring liposuction. But those cells are also plastic. We can shrink them, from over-inflated to normal size, and we can do it through our own efforts. Believe it or not, your genes have similar qualities. And, just as you can have fat cells that do not inflate, you can have genes that never manifest – or that manifest to a far lesser degree.
Plasticity is a little known, but intriguing feature of our genes. It may have been intended as a survival mechanism; it gives an organism the ability to adapt quickly in response to the environment. This adaptability is your opportunity to have a measure of control over seemingly inevitable odds.
Plasticity is based on an operant system of conditioning. Many genes, including those indicated in personality disorders, have a system of internal mechanisms similar to on/off switches. At first, the switches are all off, and an individual does not exhibit any of the gene’s behaviors. But when an environmental stressor specific to that gene trait occurs, it can flick one of the switches on. Over time, if enough switches turn on, that gene characteristic kicks in.
Another phenomenon that affects the development of many genetically disposed conditions is “kindling.” The name was chosen because the process can be compared to that of building a fire. It’s very difficult to get a large log to ignite, but if you put it on top of a bed of twigs and broken wood pieces (ie, kindling) and set a match, the bigger log will eventually catch on fire from the collective smaller flames. In this vein, a condition with a strong genetic component might initially be triggered by random environmental stressors. If those stressors continue to accumulate unchecked, the brain can become sensitized to the point where episodes can be triggered with the slightest spark, or even without one. The log is now officially on fire. The more episodes one has, the harder it is to treat each subsequent episode, the same way that after a fire that has spread and grown in size it is more difficult to put out.
Once any condition has become fully ignited, it can’t just be turned off again; now you are dealing with a full-blown disorder and acute symptoms. This, in a nutshell, is why intervention and self management is so important. If we can stop those switches from turning on, there’s a chance that whatever our genetic flaws, they will never reach truly dangerous levels. It may be true that there are some genetically influenced conditions that manifest in ways that we cannot control. But for those that we can, preventative medicine may be more than an alternative idea – it can be a decision that changes the very course of our lives.