Aug 05

“What can I do, it’s in my genes!” In recent years, this has become a standard explanation for many of the health problems we have to face in our lives. Indeed, there are few human diseases without scientific studies trying to pinpoint ‘genetical causes’ as the root. Consequently, there are efforts to find genetic roots of mental problems as well. But 150 years after Mendel (the ‘father of modern genetics’) had outlined his ‘Laws of Inheritance’, we have still to see significant therapies that could wipe out major human burdens like cancer, addictions, diabetes or violence by purely genetical means. This is not to say that genetic science doesn’t have potential; but all the other influential factors should not be forgotten.

One of the weirdest aspects of the notion that all things human are genetically predetermined is that it takes everyone completely out of the context of their environment. We might as well not put personal or societal energies into trying to improve ourselves or others, because it’s inevitable and unchangeable anyway… But in fact there is just a very small number of very rare diseases that are truly genetically determined. Most complex conditions like ADHD, schizophrenia, a tendency to violence or addiction might have a predisposition that has a genetic component, but a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination. Genes just seem to give us different ways of responding to our environment. Some of the childhood influences and the method of child rearing in turn also affect gene expression; they can actually turn on or off various genes to put us on a different developmental track which may suit the kind of world we’ve got to deal with.

For example, a study done in Montreal with suicide victims looked at autopsies of the brains of these people and it turned out that if a suicide victim had been abused as a child, the abuse actually caused a genetic change in the brain that was absent in the brains of people who had not been abused. That’s an epigenetic effect: an environmental impact that is capable to either activate or deactivate certain genes.

So, in adaptation to the famous quote of Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our scientific world.” And there are more things we can do to change ourselves than we might imagine.

(This short article is part of a weekly series dealing with psychological expat problems and general mental health issues and was published in various newspapers and magazines in Thailand, 2011)

Oct 28

Psychosomatic medicine is rooted in the idea of a mind-body connection, which recognizes that what a person experiences emotionally and mentally can affect his or her body. The medical community now fully recognizes the value of psychotherapy: today it is state of the art in Western clinics to offer patients complementary counseling or psychotherapy if they have to deal with severe diseases like cancer, genetic diseases, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular diseases and others, or if patients require surgery. Often, therapeutic counseling is also offered if someone has to deal with infertility, psychosomatic illness, allergies or other burdening physical problems where psychological factors might play a part.

Psychotherapy has been shown to improve compliance and to reduce fears and phobias related to treatment procedures. It can further help reduce anxiety and depression, and to communicate better with the physicians. Observational studies evaluating the psychosocial status of patients with severe diseases like cancer even showed that patients with low levels of social and emotional support, or that suffered from chronic depression were more likely to die from cancer. Studies by S.Levy, for example, showed that breast cancer patients that had poor adjustment and lack of social support had a lower natural killer cell activity, and that natural killer cell activity predicted disease progression and disease recurrence.

However, even if some results of similar studies have shown insignificant results and though there has still lots of research to be done to find out about the correlation of well-being and physical recovery when having to face diseases, the fact that complementary counseling during treatment and recovery can strongly improve quality of living and contribute to a more balanced emotional state calls to consider counseling or psychotherapy as an important part in a holistic treatment approach. Way too often, patients recovering from surgeries or other effects of severe diseases develop depression or anxiety – and often enough it is on us – good friends or relatives – to help them regain their mental wellbeing and strength as well.

(This short article is part of a weekly series dealing with psychological expat problems and general mental health issues and was published in various newspapers and magazines in Thailand, 2010)

06.01.16