Recently, I attended a training around the topic of intergenerational trauma. Sometimes called transgenerational trauma, these psychological terms assert that trauma can be transferred down the generations. There were a number of valuable inputs – from people like Peter Levine and Stephen Porges. An American psychiatrist, Rachel Yahuda, inspired me to put together this page as she highlighted a number of important things. She demonstrated how we can carry biological remnants of our ancestral experiences and ‘inherit’ parental trauma.
HEALTH WARNING: This is not an easy topic to discuss. Some of the material may seem spooky, but its not really! Our bodies can response in strange ways; sometimes that response is motivated by deep and unconscious forces. Other times, it may have little or no hidden or extra meaning – it’s part of breathing in and out. Trouble is: it’s difficult to decide which is which! As you read this page, you may find your mind drawn to possibilities and I ask you to just notice them. They may be significant, or they may not. Be open to the possibility without assuming it is ‘meaningful’.
I offer this warning as human beings are constructed to be meaning-making creatures and are capable of discovering meanings that are not really there!
There is a useful commentary on this topic at:
There are several ways in which the ‘hot potato’ of trauma is passed on from one generation, to another.
A key word, here, is epigenetics: that is, the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression (when parts of our DNA get switched on and off) rather than alteration of the genetic code itself (when the DNA is physically altered). There are two ways in which this ‘switching’ can happen:
- through the influence of early environmental exposures, including pre- and post-natal care, for example, arising from maternal stress during pregnancy. For example, children may feel that they were imbued with a special mission to compensate for their parents’ disrupted lives and losses.
- through changes associated with a trauma experienced by a parent prior to a child’s conception. One oft-quoted example is the famine experienced in Holland at the end of World War Two. German responses, in the face of imminent defeat, resulted in many people dying from starvation. Many who did not die experienced the event as a trauma. That experience was picked up by subsequent generations. A similar experience was reported in people coming home from concentration camps, This feature continues to be reported in modern times where genocide has continued around the globe. Survivors are still able to reproduce even as they struggle to work through the themes of loss, separation, guilt, and hopelessness within their family. This can instil specific Drivers, Allowers and Stoppers. For example, it has been observed how parents may struggle more to ‘let go’ of their children as they grow, This well-known feature can create a particular bond between survivors and children, and kept the parents overly involved in their children’s lives.
Conventional psychological identified sometime ago how such trauma can be transmitted through parental behaviour (‘role modelling’ that instils specific feelings such as fear and anxiety in our children) as well as cultural and other sociological factors (‘narratives’ that spread stories and legacies within a community). Less well-known are the biological mechanisms. It is not possible to attribute intergenerational effects in humans to a single biological determinant. Instead, the place of epigenetic mechanisms needs to be described. It is now better understood how these mechanisms can pass on intergenerational trauma.
This website: What is epigenetics?: MedlinePlus Genetics explains more by saying that epigenetics is the study of how cells control gene activity, without changing the DNA sequence. This is an important point: I am not talking, here, about organised and managed genetic modification (GM), but about more subtle influences that lead our Body/Mind to ‘decide’ what genes to turn on, and when to do so. Epigenetic changes can modify DNA over time when new patterns are established through the regulatory process that determines which genes are turned on or off. These modifications do not change the sequence of DNA building blocks.
The changed patterns can be inherited by generations-to-come. Because these modifications are difficult to predict, they vary among individuals, within different tissues and even in different cells within a tissue. Environmental influences, such as a person’s diet and exposure to pollutants, can impact on these processes. Modern concerns around obesity are put forward as a visible example of this phenomenon
Now, all this is complicated and you may want to do your own research into the topic. You might want to start by finding out what is meant by ‘DNA methylation‘.
For my part, I am concerned with the implications of intergenerational trauma when it comes to the design and implementation of small, safe experiments.
One particularly important feature is to acknowledge that few people are going to say “I have an inter-generational trauma“. Instead, some people – unable to identify a single incident traumatic event in their lives – will report an uneasiness. They notice something that unsettles them but they are not able to describe a specific event from their own personal history or experience. For instance, adult children of survivors have spoke about not being able to remember actual moments when their parents told them about their past, yet somehow, they could recall images, phrases, and incomplete memories related to what their parents had experienced in their own history.
Some relevant responses include a sense of debt, or even little right to exist; a sense of feeling damaged, guilty anxious or experiencing morbid grief; a burden and some presssure to compensate parents, or others, for past losses. As reported by one researcher “my house was a cemetery with no joy or laughter.”
I emphasise such examples to give you permission to just notice any feeling or sensation that is unsettling. My aim, here, is to make it OK to describe and ‘just notice’ things that are weird, without thinking that you are odd. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ does not come into it. As long as my health warning, above, is kept in mind then ‘just noticing’ is fine.
Some practical observations
Rachel Yahuda demonstrated that cortisol levels appear to be reduced in people reporting trauma. Adrenaline and cortisol are two neuro-transmitters associated with arousal and high emotion. The can be effective in motivating us to take care of ourselves, but only for short period of time. These short-term aids are not so helpul when they slosh around in our bodies time after time, without much respite. Long term, or chronic exposure to these neuro-transmitters can have an adverse impact on our physical well-being, e.g. it is possible that hippocampal mass is reduced when these over-exposures persist.