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Considering nature or nurture as the basis for behavior


Dear Ask A Therapist,

Can you explain the concepts of nature and nurture in relation to mental health conditions? I would like to have a better understanding of why we are the way we are and how much self-determination we have in our own behavior.

Dear reader,

The nature vs. nurture aspects of mental health have been explored for quite some time.

Nature meaning that you are the way you are based primarily on your genetics.

Nurture meaning you are seen as a “blank slate,” and you are the way you are based on your upbringing and your life experiences. The truth is that both influence you and both can impact your mental health.

Clearly, we are influenced by our genetic traits - whether you have curly hair like your father, blue eyes like your mother or inherit athletic ability like the Manning family.

But if we were solely impacted by our genetic traits then our lives would be determined at birth - our lives mapped out by our genetic traits, which is not the case either. Our genetics do impact many things - like how we look, our personality traits, genetic disorders and the prevalence of developing a mental illness.

Nurture also has a clear impact on who we become. For example, if a child does not receive adequate nutrition or is not properly cared for they may not meet developmental milestones and can have lasting impact on their development and behaviors.

Additionally, studies have shown that the effect of racism (how someone is treated solely based on the color of their skin) has been tied to increased stress and chronic disease.

Nature and nurture work together in complex ways and both influence mental health and substance abuse. For example, someone may experience depression after experiencing a loss, divorce or death of a loved one. Also, addiction has been shown to have a high prevalence of occurring in offspring where there is a history of addiction in parents.

But if you experience a traumatic event you may not develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and if your parent struggled with addiction you may not develop an addiction.

With nurturing, some habits and beliefs in family cultures can be traced back generations. If some of these are unhealthy patterns, you also have the power to change them. For example, updating a traditional family dish to be more healthful. At the same time, we owe a debt of gratitude for support from previous generations, with encouragement to better oneself as a gift each generation extends to the next.

So here is what is not up for debate: There are many reasons that you may be the way you are, but that does not excuse you from not being responsible for your actions and not taking charge of your mental health.

Through your motivation and commitment to treatment, you can work to change your thoughts and your responses to stress. And if you choose self-help (such as books, exercise or support groups) it may be enough, but always be mindful of the benefits of treatment with a trained therapist.

If you are concerned about yourself or someone else, come in for an intake assessment to see if you have a mental health or substance abuse diagnosis and if treatment is recommended.

Adrienne Sines, LPC, NCC, is a bilingual intake program manager at Community Reach Center in Thornton. She has a history of serving in school-based, residential, in-home and outpatient settings.

Submit a question to Ask A Therapist at AskATherapist@CommunityReachCenter.org This column is for educational purposes only, and opinions are not those of this Colorado Community Media. Answers are not a substitute for regular or urgent medical consultation and treatment.

Community Reach


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