Over 90% of people are affected by stress and Covid 19 pandemic has surely worsened it. Stress is something that harms our mental and physical health by affecting our genes' activity and function. However, some people effectively handle stress and some get overwhelmed. Why’s that?

According to a recent study, strong social support and a sense of belonging are good indications of physical and mental health. Having a network to lean on in times of need significantly helps in dealing with stress and other ailments.

This can come from a variety of natural sources, including family, friends, partners, pets, coworkers, and community organisations. Alternatively, formal sources such as mental health specialists can be used.

As per the study by Divya Mehta of the Queensland University of Technology which is published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research today, having supportive social structures buffers and even reverses some of the negative effects of stress on our genes and health.

This can be achieved via the process of epigenetics.

What is epigenetics?

Our health is influenced by both our genes and our surroundings. Our DNA code is inherited from our parents and does not change throughout our lives.

Epigenetics is a layer of instructions that sits on top of DNA and controls how it affects the body. This layer has the ability to chemically modify DNA without changing the code. It works as a switch, turning genes on and off, which has an impact on our health.

Environmental factors such as stress, exercise, diet, alcohol, and drugs cause epigenetic changes throughout our lives.

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Key points of the study

  • The research looked into both positive and negative factors that influence a person's stress response, as well as how this affects gene epigenetic profiles.

  • Emergency responders, medical workers, and police officers, for example, are more likely to experience stress as part of their daily work.

  • Ms Mehta's research team recruited 40 Australian first-year paramedical students at two points in time, before and after being exposed to a potentially stressful event. At both points in time, the students provided saliva samples for DNA analysis and completed questionnaires detailing their lifestyles and health.

  • Epigenetic changes before and after exposure to stress were examined.

  • Results show stress influence epigenetics and which leads to increased rates of distress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms among participants.

  • Stress-related health outcomes were lower in students who reported high levels of perceived social support.

  • Students who felt a strong sense of belonging to a group, organisation, or community coped with stress much better and had fewer negative health outcomes after being exposed to it.

  • Both of these groups of students had fewer epigenetic changes in genes that had been altered by stress.

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