Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Epigenetic impacts on emotional well-being

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Epigenetic impacts on emotional well-being:
How can epigenetics influence emotional well-being?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

The role of epigenetic impacts in biology has been brought to awareness in recent decades, these impacts until recently was restricted to physical factors such as diet and exercise, and once brought to attention, those who were conscious of this proceeded their daily lives with alert and care in order to prevent health risks in future generations (Yehuda, 2018). Modern research has suggested that these impacts can extend to emotional stressors, that may impact emotional wellbeing in gene expression. If this is accurate, then specific motivation implementations and research could prevent similar health risks and create awareness for the next generation. This study emphasizes the importance of how we maintain our emotional wellbeing as the negative effects can be impacted trans-generationally (Conching, 2019). If further longitudinal research is conducted towards this topic, it could can help enhance how we conduct environmental factors in which a child is exposed to and the types of measures that could be put into place to prevent risks (Cunliffe, 2016). With the attained knowledge towards epigenetic impacts combined with specific motivation and emotional theories could help uncover ways of preventing cross-generational impacts and potentially, reverse pre-disposed mechanisms. Although a fairly modern concept, the research conducted towards the influence on emotional wellbeing, is best seen in observational and archival research. A case study conducted by a college in the United States considered the history of mental illness in the offspring of Holocaust Survivors, it was found that many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and low self-esteem (Conching, 2018). With knowledge behind the results of trauma and how it influences emotional wellbeing, this may be able to help future research towards how emotional well-being is healthily regulated.

Focus questions:

  • What is epigenetics?
  • How can it impact emotional wellbeing?
  • What measures can we put in place to prevent risks?
  • How can this help future research?

Epigenetics[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. The DNA sequence stays the same, gene expression changes.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable mechanisms that strongly influence gene expression without changing the Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequence. Epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation and histone modifications, play key roles in the development as well as in the maintenance of genomic integrity and imprinted gene expression (Watson, 2014). Common impacts include changes in DNA methylation and histone modifications (Tirado, 2014). Altered epigenetic impacts can influence the development of cancer and developmental disorders, an increased understanding of how epigenetic changes obtained in one generation such as nutrition, can influence the next generation (Watson, 2014).

Epigenetic impacts on emotional wellbeing[edit | edit source]

The role of epigenetics suggest that the modification of gene expression could impact not only physical factors but also emotional wellbeing (Thayer, 2019). Reactions to life events, create all forms of emotions, which generate feelings that arouse the body to action and that provides a motivational state or a sense of purpose which leads to an expressive behaviour (Reeve, 2018). Theorists stress the importance of regulating these emotions as research has indicated that the outcome of a particular significant stimulus event, such as the trauma, that one generation experiences, will impact the next generation (Conching, 2018). Epigenetic modifications create biological pathways for historical trauma to affect health. Emotional trauma is a physical and emotional response to exposure of a life changing event. These events include but are not limited to events such as experiencing a natural disaster, loss or an accident and rape (APA, 2020). Trauma occurs in multiple ways and reactions may vary from each individual to the next, some may experience the effects immediately and some may suffer in the long term (APS, 2020). Living with trauma can be responsible for poor health, which leads to epigenetic changes as they interplay with the epigenome and when there are changes to the epigenome, the genome alters the gene expression for offspring.

Relevant theories on emotional well-being[edit | edit source]

Emotions create many forms of bodily responses, expressive behaviour and drive, the significance of controlling these emotions by healthily regulating them is a primary way of avoiding negative outcomes. Emotional regulation techniques have been considered the main way to prevent the changes in gene expression before it affects the next generation and reverse the biological impacts that epigenetics changed in the offspring's gene expression (Beech, 2016).

The following emotion theories listed below would help reverse the negative epigenetic impacts emotional well being, these are some relevant theories from cognitive, biological and social aspects:

Cognitive aspects

The cognitive aspects of emotion suggest that emotions provide adaptive responses that reflect cognitive appraisals and cognitive mental representations, events and objects as either negative or positive (Reeve, 2018). One major cognitive theory that enables us to be self-aware of our cognitive emotions is Arnold's appraisal theory of motivation (see figure 2). This theory suggests that the initial emotion that is perceived, will determine the action (Beech, 2016).

Figure 2: Arnold's Appraisal Theory of Emotion: Life event, good or bad, liking vs disliking and approach vs withdrawal.
Perception of situation: The life event or experience.
Appraisal: This is what causes the emotional outcome, not the event. Appraisal drives the individuals emotional wellbeing as good or bad as it determines the significance of the life event. The individual asks themselves "is this event significant to me?".
Emotions: The outcome of the appraisal determines if the emotion is a good or bad emotion. 
Action: The outcome of the reaction to the emotion, will determine whether the individual is motivated to approach or withdraw from the situation. Note: If the appraisal changes, then the action outcome will change.  

Biological aspects

The biological aspects of emotion help us understand the physical bodily processes that occur when reacting to an emotion. Although there are multiple theories towards the biological perspective (Reeve, 2018). There are three main biological factors that the biological perspective emphasizes when reacting to an emotion; 1. Autonomic nervous system, 2. Subcortical Brain Circuits and 3. Facial Feedback. These three factors are significant because they in the instance of facing a situation that will provide an emotional situation, will provide the appropriate bodily and and emotional reaction (Moors, 2013).

James-lange theory: This was the initial theory of emotion, it questions whether each individual emotion, has a unique bodily reaction (Reeve, 2018) 
Contemporary perspective: Criticizing the James-Lange theory as outdated and inaccurate, contemporary theorists suggested all of the emotions were aligned with the same bodily reaction, therefore emotion regulation techniques should be applied to all emotions universally (Moors, 2013). 

Social aspects

In an individual's social interactions, they are able to converse with others about their emotions. Social interactions determine emotional outcomes, experiences with others may alter the reaction compared to an individual experience (Reeve, 2018).

Social affective sharing: This occurs through a social interaction, when one person converses with another about an emotional experience. Conversing about a social experience gains empathy and attention (Reeve, 2018). The benefit of social affective sharing, it allows the individual to receive comfort and unconditional positive regard which could benefit long term coping effects (Conching, 2018)
Cognitive sharing: Enables the individual to reframe or reappraise the emotional event to increase deeper understanding and help cope with emotions, maybe even bring to end some distress (Reeve, 2018)

Freud and the Psychodynamic Perspective

Famously termed by theorist Sigmund Freud, suggested that the psychodynamic perspective considers that our desires, feelings, thoughts and behaviours are driven by unconscious forces (McLeod, 2017). Understanding our unconscious mental processes, can enable positive emotional wellbeing (Bradshaw, 2006). The following psychodynamic theories may be useful to become more aware of or counteract epigenetic alterations.

Dual-instinct theory: An individuals emotions are driven by two forces, life instinct (Eros) and death instinct (Thanatos) (Reeve, 2018). 
The unconscious - Much of our mental being is unconscious, in therapy an individual's dreams are explored to enhance deeper understanding (Reeve, 2018) 
Repression: Forgetting information to reduce anxiety (Reeve, 2018). 
Suppression: Removing conscious thoughts and placing them into the unconscious (Reeve, 2018).
Ego Psychology and development: This occurs when an individual develops from dependent to interdependent healthily (APA, 2020). Failure to develop in a healthy manner, will lead to ego defense. 
Object relations theory: The gratification target of one's drives (APA, 2020)
The four aspects of emotion (Reeve, 2018)
  1. Feelings
  2. Bodily Response
  3. Sense of purpose
  4. Expressive behaviour

Quiz questions:[edit | edit source]

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 what is epigenetics?

(a) the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.
(b) an organelle found in large numbers in most cells, in which the biochemical processes of respiration and energy production occur.
(c) the study of heredity and the variation of inherited characteristics.

2 What is emotional trauma?

a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
Psychological, or emotional trauma, is damage or injury to the psyche after living through an extremely frightening or distressing event and may result in challenges in functioning or coping normally after the event.
is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.
all of the above


Research and historical examples[edit | edit source]

Although the consequences of epigenetic impacts on emotional wellbeing has only been a modern concern, it has been evident in historical instances where the offspring of victims of trauma have displayed negative emotional well being and mental illness. Some studies have indicated that some of the offspring would even display sever symptoms and episodic occurences as if they had experienced the trauma themselves. Research into these historical instances provide insight towards how being well informed of ones family history may enable them to understand and maintain their own emotional wellbeing as mentioned before, major stressful situations can alter the epigenome (Cunliffe, 2016).

Children of holocaust survivors[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Child survivors of the Holocaust filmed few days after the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp by the Red Army, January, 1945.

Multiple studies with the children of Holocaust survivors have indicated there are symptoms of many forms of mental illness, in mild circumstances some displayed low self-esteem and in extreme cases, Post-Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with poor physical health (Cunliffe, 2016). Initial reports suggested this positively correlated with the heritable changes in gene expression, that did not occur in previous generations (Yehuda, 1998). A case study conducted by a college in the United States considered the history of mental illness in the offspring of Holocaust Survivors, it was found that many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and low self-esteem (Conching, 2018).These studies stressed the significance of the correlation between exposure to trauma and the shape of the epigenome as those displaying these symptoms impacted their daily functioning as they displayed episodes of traumatic stress as though they had experienced the holocaust themselves (Cunliffe, 1998). One study even stressed the accurate resemblance between the offspring's mental illness symptoms and the survivors (Yehuda, 1998).

Children of Native Americans[edit | edit source]

Similar studies were found in the descendants of Native-Americans, as historically the ongoings have occurred for longer. Studies with the trans-generational affects of the descendants suggested they were likely to display characteristics of low-self esteem and struggles with resilience compared to those who were not descendants of Native Americans (Conching, 2018). The rapid culture change that occurred in that time in history explained the positive correlation between struggles with self-identity and poor emotion regulation (Denham, 2008).

Pre-natal exposure to mice[edit | edit source]

Through the knowledge of how historical trauma has impacted offspring of trauma victims, recent studies have flagged the impacts of poor emotional regulation of those born shortly after 9/11 when their mothers were heavily pregnant being primary witnesses of the event (Yehuda, 2018). Researchers in this study chose to do case-studies on mice to consider whether pre-natal exposure could implement symptoms of trauma in their offspring. This study emphasized the sensitivity of the epigenome during the pre-natal period and that any stress or trauma experienced throughout this time could create serious implications for the next two generations (Cunliffe, 2016).

Figure 4: Researchers used pre-natal exposure to trauma on mice to discover where their offspring would be pre-disposed to symptoms of trauma.

Further research opportunities/suggestions[edit | edit source]

  • For Australian research purposes, the epigenetic impacts of trauma and the offspring of the stolen generation..
  • The impacts of growing up in a low SES environment and emotion regulation.
  • The stress and trauma of COVID-19 and how it affects the offspring of those who experienced it.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

As much as it impacts biological aspects, epigenetics has been found to also influence emotional wellbeing. It has shown its significance towards how we maintain a healthy emotional regulation strategy and concentrate on techniques to ensure there are no heritable mechanisms that could potentially affect gene expression. From historical aspects, research on descendants has shown that epigenetic impacts can affect emotional wellbeing, so the take home message from this topic is to ensure individuals understand and practice healthy emotional regulation in order to give the best chances to their offspring. Although there are multiple theories on emotional wellbeing, there are plenty of ways to ensure the global populace are well informed and able to reverse any negative epigenetic alterations.

The Grandchild in the prescence
  1. The Hawaiian proverb 'Ka moʻopuna i ke alo' meaning 'the grandchild in presence' emphasizes the significance of how one generation can affect future generations (Cunliffe, 2016). 

See also[edit | edit source]

Internal Links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychological Association. (2020). Trauma. Psychology, 33-34.

Conching, A., & Thayer, Z. (2019). Biological Pathways For Historical Trauma to Affect Health: A Conceptual Model Focusing on Epigenetic Modifications. Social Science and Medicine, 230, 74-82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.04.001

Cunliffe, V. (2016). The Epigenetic Impacts of Social Stress: How does social adversity become Biologically Embedded? Epgenomics, 8(12). https://doi.org/10.2217/epi-2016-0075

Denham, A. (2008, September). Rethinking Historical Trauma: Narratives of Resilience. Transcultural Psychiatry, 45(3), 391-414.https://doi.org/10.1177/1363461508094673

Frias-Lasserre, D., Villagra, C., & Guerrero-Bosagna, C. (2018, July 13). Stress in the Educational System as a Potential Source of Epigenetic Influences on Children's Development and Behavior. Behavioural Neuroscience, 1. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00143

Gone, J. (2013, June). Reconsidering American Indian historical trauma: Lessons from an early Gros Ventre war narrative. Transcultural Psychiatry, 51(3), 387-406.

Hoke, M., & McDade, T. (2015). Biosocial inheritance: a framework for the study of the intergenerational transmission of health disparities. Annals of Anthropological practice, 1, 187-213. https://doi-org.ezproxy.canberra.edu.au/10.1111/napa.12052

Klimkeit, E., Bradshaw, J. (2006). Heritable mental disorders: You can't choose your relatives, but it is they who may really count. Behavioural and brain sciences, 29(4), 385-452.

McLeod, S. A. (2017). Psychodynamic approach. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html

Moors, A., Ellsworth, P. C., Scherer, K. R., & Frijda, N. H. (2013). Appraisal theories of emotion: State of the art and future development. Emotion Review, 5(2),119-124. https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/2958617/file/6776022

Reeve, J (2018) Understanding Motivation and Emotion. 7th ed. 330-401.

Watson, R. (2014). Epigenetics. Encyclopedia of Toxicology, 438-443. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-386454-3.00966-0

Yehuda, R., Schmeidler, J., Wainberg, M., Binder-Bynes, K., & Duvdevandi, T. (1998). Vulnerability to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Adult Offspring of Holocaust Survivors. American Journal of Psychiatry., 155(9), 1163-1171. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.155.9.1163

Yehuda, R (2018) Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry., 17(3): 243–257 doi: 10.1002/wps.20568

External links[edit | edit source]