The Ghosts of Our Ancestors: How Intergenerational Trauma Shapes Our Genes
“Just like a single cell, the character of our lives is determined not by our genes but by our responses to the environmental signals that propel life.”
- Bruce Lipton
Intergenerational trauma refers to the phenomenon where the experiences of past generations can influence the behavior, emotions, and well-being of future generations. Recent research has revealed that trauma can trigger epigenetic modifications, which can be inherited and change gene expression. This can increase the risk of mental health issues and autoimmune diseases in offspring.
In this blog, we will delve into the concept of intergenerational trauma and its effects on gene expression. Specifically, we will explore how epigenetic markers can be retained and transmitted across generations, even during the reprogramming process. We will also examine the connection between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and epigenetics. Additionally, we will discuss Dr. Rachel Yehuda's groundbreaking study on the impact of severe parental trauma on DNA methylation in Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Nature vs. Nurture
In the past, it was believed that an embryo's epigenome was entirely erased and rebuilt from scratch. However, this is not entirely true as some epigenetic tags remain as genetic information is passed from one generation to the next, which is referred to as epigenetic inheritance. This unconventional finding challenges the notion that inheritance happens only through the DNA code passed on from parent to offspring, as it suggests that a parent's experiences, in the form of epigenetic tags, can also be passed down to future generations. The process of reprogramming is crucial in the development of complex organisms from specialized reproductive cells such as eggs and sperm. Reprogramming erases the epigenome to create a genetic blank slate, allowing the cells to differentiate into every type of cell in the body. Nevertheless, for a small number of genes, epigenetic tags are retained during this process and are passed down from one generation to the next.
Epigenetic tags can be passed on from parent to offspring through a process that completely bypasses the egg or sperm, which avoids the epigenetic purging that happens during early development. For instance, nurturing behavior in rats can affect the epigenetic differences of the pups, which can affect their response to stress later in life. Female pups that receive high-quality care become high nurturing mothers while those that receive low-quality care become low nurturing mothers, transmitting epigenetic information onto the pups' DNA without passing through egg or sperm. Another example is gestational diabetes, which increases the likelihood of the daughter developing gestational diabetes herself, as high glucose levels trigger epigenetic changes in her DNA.
There is evidence of epigenetic inheritance occurring in plants, fungi, and invertebrates. Although some researchers are skeptical of the possibility of epigenetic inheritance in mammals, there is some evidence to suggest it is happening. For example, the use of a fungicide called Vinclozolin on pregnant rats caused lifelong epigenetic changes in the pups, resulting in low sperm counts, poor fertility, and a number of disease states in male offspring. These changes persisted into the third generation and are the best case for epigenetic inheritance in mammals to date.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can affect individuals who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. However, recent studies have shown that the effects of PTSD can extend beyond the individual experiencing it, impacting future generations through epigenetic changes. These changes can alter the expression of certain genes, resulting in physiological and emotional changes in offspring, leading to a cycle of intergenerational trauma.
PTSD and Epigenetics
“The depth at which we take in the preceding generations astonishes me. There is likely an epigenetic component to this as well as transmission through the internalizations that get passed down through the generations. Whole cultures are carried forward that way, so it makes sense that family legacies might be transmitted that way as well.”
- Bonnie Badenoch
PTSD is a complex disorder that exhibits a range of symptoms including anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, and avoidance behaviors. It is well-known that the stress of trauma can result in physical changes, such as altered cortisol levels and changes in brain function.
Unfortunately, in some cases, the effects of PTSD can persist even after the traumatic event has ended, leading to chronic stress and changes in body chemistry that can be passed down to future generations through epigenetic alterations.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that are not caused by changes to the underlying DNA sequence, but rather, by modifications to the DNA molecule itself, such as the addition or removal of chemical tags.
The impact of PTSD can be passed down through epigenetic modifications of certain genes, leading to changes in gene expression in future generations. For example, the stress of PTSD can cause epigenetic changes to genes that regulate the stress response, altering the way these genes are expressed in offspring. This can result in an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions in the next generation. Moreover, the physical impact of PTSD can also be passed down through epigenetic changes. Chronic stress can cause changes in cortisol levels, leading to alterations in the expression of genes that regulate the immune system, which in turn can increase the risk of autoimmune disorders in future generations.
It didn’t start with you - How Inherited Trauma can influence our lives
“When entangled, you unconsciously carry the feelings, symptoms, behaviors, or hardships of an earlier member of your family system as if these were your own.”
- Mark Wolynn
Mark Wolynn is a psychotherapist and director of the Family Constellation Institute and has been researching the topic of inherited family trauma extensively.
In his book “It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle” he provides numerous case studies from his clients to illustrate how inherited family trauma can manifest in different ways, including anxiety, depression, addiction, and physical ailments.
One example is a woman who had always struggled with anxiety, despite having had a relatively stable childhood. She had a loving family and had never experienced any major traumas in her own life, but her anxiety had persisted for years. When she came to see Wolynn, he guided her through a process of exploring her family history, and she eventually uncovered the fact that her grandfather had been a prisoner of war. As she learned more about her grandfather’s experiences, she began to make connections between his trauma and her own feelings of anxiety. By understanding the impact of inherited trauma, she was able to begin to heal and move forward.
Another example is a man who had struggled with addiction for years. He had tried many different approaches to recovery, but nothing seemed to work. When he came to see Wolynn, they explored his family history and eventually discovered that he had inherited the trauma of his mother’s miscarriage. This trauma had been passed down through the family, and had contributed to his feelings of emptiness and disconnection. By acknowledging and processing this trauma, he was able to break the cycle of addiction and begin to live a more fulfilling life.
Wolynn describes four unconscious themes that can be passed down through families as a result of inherited trauma. These themes reflect patterns of behavior, thought, and emotions that can be transmitted across generations, and can have a profound impact on an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being.
The four unconscious themes are as follows:
Wolynn explains that by recognizing these unconscious themes and the ways in which they may be affecting their lives, individuals can begin to break the cycle of inherited trauma and create new patterns of behavior and thought that support growth and well-being.
The Effects of Severe Parental Trauma on DNA Methylation in Holocaust Survivors and Their Offspring
Genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations. The conclusion is from a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda, which stems from the genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture, or who had had to hide during the Second World War.
They also analyzed the genes of their children, who are known to have an increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war.
According to Yehuda’s findings, the gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents. Her team’s work is the clearest example in humans of the transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance”. This refers to the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet, and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren.
The idea is controversial, as scientific convention states that genes contained in DNA are the only way to transmit biological information between generations. However, our genes are modified by the environment all the time, through chemical tags that attach themselves to our DNA, switching genes on and off. Recent studies suggest that some of these tags might somehow be passed through generations, meaning our environment could have an impact on our children’s health.
It’s still not clear how these tags might be passed from parent to child. Genetic information in sperm and eggs is not supposed to be affected by the environment - any epigenetic tags on DNA had been thought to be wiped clean soon after fertilization occurs. However, research by Azim Surani at Cambridge University and colleagues has recently shown that some epigenetic tags escape the cleaning process at fertilization, slipping through the net. It’s not clear whether the gene changes found in the study would permanently affect the children’s health, nor do the results upend any of our theories of evolution.
Whether the gene in question is switched on or off could have a tremendous impact on how much stress hormone is made and how we cope with stress.
Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma
“This toxic pattern within the broken family system will continue from one generation to the next, until one brave survivor finally ends the cycle of abuse. The dysfunction, bullying, and abuse didn’t start with you, but it most certainly can end with you.”
- Dana Arcuri
It is unfortunate that the trauma of our parents and grandparents can impact our genes and continue to be passed down to future generations. However, the cycle of intergenerational trauma can be broken through therapy and somatic therapies such as Somatic Experiencing, Brainspotting, and TRE.
These therapies recognize that trauma is stored not only in the brain but also in the body and work to release it through bodily awareness and tension release techniques.
Somatic Experiencing helps individuals restore balance to their nervous system by focusing on bodily sensations and movements. Brainspotting involves identifying a "brainspot" in the body related to a traumatic memory and using eye movement to process it. TRE activates the body's natural shaking and trembling response to release tension and trauma. These therapies can reduce symptoms of PTSD and promote overall well-being.
Lifestyle changes such as exercise, healthy eating, and stress reduction techniques can also help reduce the impact of PTSD on the body - especially when they are combined with meditative practices.
Increasing awareness of the potential impact of trauma on future generations is key to breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Seeking support from mental health professionals, engaging in self-care, and building supportive relationships with loved ones can help address trauma and prevent its transmission.
In conclusion, the effects of PTSD can extend beyond the individual experiencing it, impacting future generations through epigenetic changes. Through therapy, lifestyle changes, and increased awareness, we can work to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and create a healthier future for ourselves and our children.
Here at Red Beard Somatic Therapy we have a team of dedicated somatic practitioners that specialize in trauma healing and nervous system regulation tools.
If you are interested in starting your own hero’s journey towards breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma please reach out and schedule your free consultation call now!
We would be honored to support you on every step as you walk along your path of healing, growth and transformation.
List of references:
Badenoch, Bonnie (2017): The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Elliott, Alicia (2020): A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. New Jersey: Melville House.
Lipton, Bruce (2015): The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Carlsbad: Hay House.
Ravnik-Glavac, Metka/Hrašovec, Sonja/Bon, Jurij/Dreu, Jurij/Glavac, Damjan: Genome-wide expression changes in a higher state of consciousness, in: Consciousness and Cognition (2012):
Wolynn, Mark (2017): It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How To End The Cycle. London: Penguin Publishing Group.
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