“There is no fate but what we make.” – Terminator 2
The hope for someone who was predisposed to development of disease due to early stress/trauma is emphasized through the concept of neuroplasticity and human ability to adapt throughout life. Exploring epigenetic mechanisms of the reconsolidation process has led to the understanding that “repeated [memory] retrieval trials that occur consecutively or over a number of days result in memory extinction…this process results in a reduction of fear and anxiety with memories for traumatic events,” (19). While the body may be engraved on a cellular level, the mind can alter those DNA expressions or repressions. This is undoubtedly, a formidable task. It requires persistence, consistent effort. Those who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression struggle to achieve this without a support network, thus highlighting the need to supply the necessary systems to help them forge neuroplastic changes until they can provide it for themselves.
“Adapting to a constantly changing environment requires the ability to acquire new behaviors and change old ones in response to environmental contingencies. For this reason, much of our behavior is controlled by its consequences…These experiences are learned and remembered through several well-defined neural circuits that are involved in acquisition, consolidation, and expression of memories,” (52). For years, memories were thought to be stable once formed. However, researchers are now exploring the human potential to alter memories after they have been consolidated. The process of reconsolidation “is a unique stage in which memory content can be modified” (14). This possibility is remarkable and encouraging as it indicates that the human experience can be mediated through deliberate efforts to initiate neuroplastic changes in the brain. For those suffering from PTSD and depression these findings are life changing.
The tendency towards psychiatric diseases like PTSD or depression can be grooved at a young age. “In adaptation to a stressor, an organism reacts with epigenetic changes that lead to changes in gene expression profiles and in consequence to alterations of biological pathways and neuronal functioning. If the stressor overstrains the capacities of the organism to adapt, it can lead to maladaptive changes and dysregulation of biological systems…Early trauma can engrave biological marks and exert a life-long impact on health and disease trajectories,” (31). Trauma is particularly complicated because “stressors may be physiological or psychological. The effect of the stressor may be appraised by individuals differently, leading to responses that neuropsychologists term ‘resilient’ or ‘susceptible’,” (118). A resilient person will be able to withstand pressures and successfully cope with stress during subsequent exposures, one who is susceptible is vulnerable and more easily succumbs to events that traumatize him. As each individual will respond uniquely to the stressful stimulus, it is crucial to generate a multi-tiered approach to recovery and healing (antidepressants, dietary modifications, behavioral therapy all prove helpful in a variety of cases).
David Goggins embodies exactly how a man may alter body and mind over the course of his life. Through repeated trauma and failures, this mighty warrior broke his barriers and now inspires others.
Akbarian, Schahram, and Farah Lubin, editors. Molecular Biology and Translational Science: Epigenetics and Neuroplasticity, Evidence and Debate. vol. 128 128, Elsevier, 2014.