PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions. ― Susan Pease Banitt
Intergenerational Trauma is the idea that serious trauma can affect the children and grandchildren of those who had the first-hand experience, due to living with a person suffering from PTSD and the challenges that can bring. What’s new is – thanks to the emerging field of epigenetics – science is discovering that trauma is being passed down to future generations through more than simply learned behaviors.
One widely reported example is of holocaust survivors passing the effects of trauma to children and grandchildren. It seems that trauma or its effects are being passed down through our genes, and it has enormous consequences for us as a species.
What are we Passing on our Children?
The single most dangerous idea I learned in school is that the genes you get from your parents are passed on to your children, and nothing you do in your life changes them. Thankfully, however, the findings of the new scientific field of epigenetics is starting to change this dangerous attitude. We do indeed pass on the exact same chromosomes from parent to child, however, the quality they are in when we receive them can be improved or diminished according to what happens to us, and the choices we make, during our lifetime.
The reason why it’s dangerous for us to believe otherwise is that it has lead to entire generations of people believing that their choices concerning their own body and the environment affecting it have no detrimental effect on the genes of future generations. In short, it has the potential to see us devolve, simply out of ignorance. Fortunately, as awareness of epigenetics spreads, it’s helping people understand that how we live our lives can change the quality of our own genes for the better and those we pass on to our offspring.
What Is Epigenetics?
We all know the image of a DNA double helix. Imagine now that each of the thirteen rungs in the spiral ladder that makes a chromosome is not simply a rung, but a binary, amino acid ‘on/off’ switch. You may have received an exact same chromosome that your mother or your father carried, but this chromosome has been changing according to the way you’ve been living your life. Some rungs in the ladder are off where they were once on and vice versa. Your genes are responding to the environment like you are, because like you are, they are alive.
Our DNA exists at the heart of our cells and provide the instructions for new cells to be created. Therefore, better quality DNA equals better quality instructions for cells to be created and in turn, a happier, healthier body. On the other hand, continued degradation of the epigenetic structure of our genes could be leading to lowering of immunity and fertility and increased susceptibility to cellular mutation.
When Emotional Trauma Becomes Overwhelming
In simple terms, trauma occurs when we reach a point where we can’t cope. We are overwhelmed and we don’t have the tools or skills to find our way through. We find ourselves in a state where our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive and we can get stuck in fight or flight mode for far longer than our body is designed to be. Sustaining this state of high alert causes depletion and disruption of the normal functions of our system. In our culture, we refer to acute cases of this as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Thanks to this diagnosis, we have this somewhat arbitrary boundary which almost says that the truly traumatized people are on one side and the rest of us are on the other. The reality is that the boundary between those who suffer from PTSD and everyone else was invented, created, made up by the human mind, with little regard for the fact that trauma is carried within us all in varying degrees. Each of us is on a sliding scale that goes all the way up to and past the line that tips a person to being diagnosed with PTSD.
The kind of trauma we all carry can include the smallest things, like the time we were laughed at for not knowing the answer to a question or other seemingly insignificant things, such as being teased as a child. It can include any moments of pain and tragedy that have occurred throughout our life, but by far the biggest factor of whether the pain remains with us as trauma is whether it was overwhelming and whether it continued to be overwhelming.
According to transpersonal psychologists, when the trauma is so overwhelming that our only defense mechanism is to avoid feeling it, then we continue to carry it until someday, we have the courage and strength to finally feel all of it and come to emotional completion, though the physical event may have ended long ago. A number of problems can prevent this: a person may not feel like they are in a safe enough environment, or not supported enough to go into the vulnerability of feeling their old pain in order to release it. The person may struggle with being re-traumatised by going back into the memory of what happened.
Releasing Our Trauma So It Doesn’t Get Passed On
For some people, it’s enough to explain to them that they simply need to accept and allow the feelings of pain and discomfort to exist, instead of trying to hide them, avoid them or push them away. As soon as a person judges and labels their inner pain as something bad or something they don’t want or don’t like, they are inadvertently and unwittingly grabbing and holding their pain and preventing it from leaving.
Allowing the pain to flow, instead of trying to stop it from happening, is how we allow it to leave us and be released, however, there is considerable risk of re-traumatization. In my opinion, this occurs when a person wakes up their old pain and trauma to try to release it, but then instead of accepting and thereby allow it to flow out of them, they contract around it with their judgment that this is something they don’t want. So they experience the pain again but do so without actually releasing it.
For those at the extreme end of the trauma scale known as PTSD, these experiences of past pain and trauma, coming up in order to be released, are uninvited and involuntary. During these bouts, which can be triggered by anything that remotely resembles the original trauma or nothing at all, re-traumatisation is occurring repeatedly and compounding the problem.
What Happens When We Can’t Release Our Old Pain and Trauma?
If a person experiences trauma and they are never able to come to emotional completion, because it is simply too overwhelming, the environmental influence of those events on the body, through immense amounts of stress hormones, signal to the genes that the environment is hostile and unsafe. This has an effect on the epigenetic quality of the genes. The epigenetic structure of the genes changes and therefore genes in this state can then be passed to subsequent generations.
The worst examples of intergenerational trauma occur when a generation is born carrying the trauma of their parents, and the parents and children are still living in circumstances that are traumatic. In some cases, this can go on for generations, particularly in cases of ongoing war, colonialization, and genocide. Prof. Judy Atkinson speaks about her work helping entire indigenous communities heal from transgenerational trauma in her book Trauma Trails, and the traditional approach she works with can be found in the following Uplift article. Techniques such as breathwork and vipassana have been successful in releasing trauma, as well as severe cases of PTSD being healed through psychedelic means, such as MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, or ceremonial use of Ayahuasca.
Evolving – Not Devolving – As A Species
I like to think that the epigenetic structure of our DNA can be like either a rock or a crystal. The molecules in a rock can be identical to those found in a crystal, with the only difference being that the molecules in a rock are jumbled, whereas those in a crystal are more aligned, allowing light to pass through. In the same way, perhaps there are more jumbled, and more aligned states that those amino acid ‘on/off’ switches in our DNA can find themselves in. The good news is that if our epigenetic structure can become relatively jumbled due to challenging and painful environmental factors, they may also become more aligned as we make healthier decisions about exposing ourselves to less environmental contaminants and, if possible, less emotional contaminants, like stress and trauma.
My personal theory about life is that the reality we live in is a rigged game; that all paths lead to learning and growth. The less gentle path may be for the quality of our DNA to degrade, perhaps increasing the likelihood that a) those that can’t adapt fast enough don’t survive, as well as b) sudden mutation jumping us to a different sub-branch of the evolutionary tree. The more gentle path to evolution may be by bringing our epigenetic code into higher states of alignment by healing our past pain and trauma and perhaps even healing the trauma that was passed to us from our ancestors. The only question that remains is: what kind of species do we wish to be?
It’s logical. We care trauma from the womb. I’m a advanced energy healer. Trauma is in us all
What’s sad is, this article provides zero scientific support – data, peer-reviewed articles, studies, etc. – for “epigenetics.” So, it’s selling a pop-science approach, with no empirical support.
Sure, generational trauma is an established phenomenon. I would offer, and a lot of literature supports, that it is a behavioral (learned) phenomenon. See https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml for an overview.
For the interested student of behavior, there’s plenty of knowledge to be found in the work of B.F. Skinner, and the field of Applied Behavior Analysis that grew out of his work. Don’t just take my word for it. Learn for yourselves.
It is fascinating that the effects of trauma could be transmitted genetically, but I wonder if that has anything to do with resolving the problem. Arthur Janov has certainly added enormously to this area and anyone who is interested in it could probably learn a great deal by reading his work. It goes far beyond the “Primal Scream”.
I have been involved with resolving my own buried pain since 1973, and was amazed to find, 40 years later, that much of what I had learned on the subject was discovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. That comes from reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s work, particularly “Reconciliation: healing the inner child.”
I would love to know more, i myself was going through severe trauma whilst pregnant, and my son witnessed and suffered from it for over two years. We have both now had a loving and supportive environment for over a year now, he’s doing better at it then i am.
Within a year of a two traumatic events, my mother became pregnant with me. I’ve always believed this effected me. I carry feelings of guilt and remorse for no apparent reason.
Thirteen rungs in one chromosome? Ah huh … so much for credibility. Need not read further.
I have always been deeply interested in human behaviour as well as animal and plant and from my observations I came to the understanding that emotion can be passed on to other generations,but have worked at healing self and taught that to my family so this wouldnt happen.
One ‘thing’ that got epigenetics as a science to be taken seriously was the discovery in Sweden of a statistically significant thoroughly documented correlation between a proneness to diseases of grandchildren of people who when you had experienced starvation or some seriously deficient access to nutrients.
Helpful article and interesting comments. I believe there’s some truth to each theory and together, they make up probably the whole truth. And that truth is constantly evolving. But what wasn’t mentioned, is that there is a program to heal intergenerational trauma. That’s ACA or ACOA – Adult Children of Alcholic and Dysfunctional Families. It is a 12 Step program that has changed my life. And it’s affordable for everyone as it’s donation only. Not $150+ per hour. I realize that the article wasn’t about how to heal trauma. But I’m assuming that the author and anyone who was attracted to this article, probably has some unresolved trauma. So if this reaches 1 person and they start recovery, I will be happy.
Does the same applies to the African Caribbean/American child when we re-look at slavery?
What if the trauma was physical and emotional over a long periods as with young men in POW camps for 3 – 4 years. Starvation, disease etc compounded with desensitization to horror. I wonder about the influence of physical deprivation on DNA. I have no background in Epi genetics.
In homeopathy, the Swiss Dr. Jean Elmiger wrote a book called “Re-discovering Real Medicine” regarding the imprinting of trauma and how it can be passed on ad how to use homeopathy to release it.
Since his book came out, the homeopathic community has evolved a method for the release of trauma by using specific homeopathic preparations. This includes inherited trauma, not only from the parents, but even from the generations of trauma humanity has suffered through the ages.
It is called Sequential Homeopathy, Heilkunst or Sequential Therapy, and is used by a relatively small group of trained specialists who continue to explore that way of dealing with trauma release – both recently acquired (and how to release it before passing it on) and the trauma we have grown up with or inherited at birth – no matter what age we are.
Considering that homeopathy is a philosophy and entire medical system, it will surely contribute to the solution of this deeply human problem. In fact, it already is doing so in practical ways.
This article unfortunately really misrepresents how epigenetics works. For instance – someone who was traumatized and has PTSD will have epigenetic markers from that experience – yes. But those markers don’t mean their offspring inherit “their trauma” or even that they inherit PTSD.
For instance: in one study, the researches got a bunch of rats addicted to heroin, and this resulted in epigenetic markers on their DNA. But the offspring of those rats actually had no interest in heroin – it seemed that the epigenetic markers from heroin addiction actually made the offspring LESS likely to ever get addicted than they would have been if their parents hadn’t been addicted.
The article also presents this idea that by working through trauma and releasing it, that the epigenetic markers of that trauma would then be healed. But again, epigenetics doesn’t work that way. The markers are still there. For instance, in another study, people who experienced starvation in the ages 9-12 but then later had a regular diet, still had epigenetic markers from that on their DNA years later – but their children again were better off for inheriting that. Their children were much less apt to develop diabetes, if I remember the study correctly (I need to check that.)
Point is: epigentics has unfortunately become a huge hotbutton topic in the prophetic community – but – often it is misunderstood and incorrectly taught. We want to line up epigenetics with things we value spiritually – like living a wholesome life, and like forgiveness, and healing – and want to think that epigenetics demonstrates if we hold to those values that our offspring will be better off. But epigenetics is not spiritual, and just doesn’t work that way.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Refocusing (EMDR) is an extremely powerful tool for releasing PTSD. I came from a dysfunctional family and as well, I was hit by a train and have had several other less than major traumas. EMDR took every one of these away. It’s important to see a therapist with level two training in EMDR. You can recover in a short time and stop the passing on of PTSD. The founder of this work is Francine Shapiro Ph.D
This article is a great read apart from the fact that it was totally ignorant of the African Holocaust here on this very soil and how that has played a major factor in how Africans raised in this country as Slaves, that total and horrific history and the descendants of those slaves children ongoing systematic traumatic existence on this same soil… Those who are children of those responsible for this horrific history are the same people that are talking about how to deal with your trauma yet fail to acknowledge that it was their fore-parents that did a great majority of the traumatizing… this just sounds twisted… but a great read all the same.
Refer to work done by Rachel Yehuda PhD regarding PTSD and Epigentics.
Real science has measurable predictive value. Speculation and consensus building are what myths are made of.
Walking Between the Worlds ~ Gregg Braden…..very informative re being able to shift our dna, exactly as you’re saying, thru processing of trauma, etc
Okay … nice read but I see no real science backing up this idea that the genes are physically altered.
Very interesting. I would like to suggest the author do an edit: “genes you get from you parents “
I would like to direct to you an instrumental book about trauma that will help you understand it in more ways than what had been described here. Your article is well written, but lacks a good foundation for defining what trauma is, among other things. Read Peter A. Levine’s book “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma”.
This is spot on!!!
While the idea that trauma can be passed on from one generation to the next is nothing new (Alice Miller’s, “The Drama of the Gifted Child”), the idea that it’s passed-on genetically is likely off the mark a bit.
Over the last couple of decades, the discoveries of fascia science have really shed light on various areas of darkness in our understanding of the human body. Fascia is involved in the flow of energy and the flow of fluids between and around our cells–each of which contains their own DNA. Studies have also identified a connection between the fascia and the Autonomic Nervous System, especially the Sympathetic component thereof.
Additionally, it has been determined that healthy, normally functioning fascia is responsible for maintaining intercellular communication. This is significant in that cells actually depend on each other to maintain their identities. When this intercellular communication is disrupted, the cell goes through a kind of identity crisis. This can actually lead to mutation during cellular DNA recombination.
When a person is living with unresolved trauma, PTS, the Sympathetic Nervous System is activated. The person is said to be at a high state of “neural arousal.” In this state, the entire fascia system is super-energized (fight or flight) or de-energized (freeze). Regardless of which response mode is triggered, the result is the same: The fascia is not flowing or functioning properly.
Fascia is a form of connective tissue that has a hollow micro-tubule structure, much like the semi-conductors used in computer chips. Fascia, however, at least healthy fascia, is filled and surrounded by a glycosaminoglycan liquid called, Ground Substance. This fluid allows the fascia to serve as a super conductor. In fact, fascia is capable of receiving and transmitting electrical signals exponentially faster than our nervous tissue.
This greater understanding of fascia challenges many of the principles that modern medicine–derived from the study of dead bodies–is based on. Sadly, because of that very fact, fascia science remains ostracized from the larger medical and scientific community. I find it convenient, in that sense, that the author of this article would suggest that the transference of trauma is genetic, rather than exploring the fascia connection.