Inherited Family Trauma

We inherit trauma from our parents and grandparents in much the same way we inherit our ancestors’ blood type or eye color. It may sound like something straight from a science fiction novel, but researchers have discovered that trauma actually causes measurable changes in our DNA.

Like the fight or response that triggers surges of adrenalin and other hormones, the changes in DNA are another of nature’s built-in ways of helping our body adjust and survive in periods of extreme stress.

Trauma experienced by our parents and grandparents, (and maybe even our great-grandparents), may help explain struggles with depression, anxiety, obsessions, fears, phobias, eating disorders and addiction.

Mark Wolynn, Director of the Inherited Family Trauma Center and author of the book, It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, calls this phenomenon the “residue from traumatic events.”

Traumatized Mice

As is often the case, research begins with mice or rats. In one study, female mice exposed to trauma displayed altered DNA, thus passing the trauma along to subsequent generations who displayed marked behavioral differences when compared to the progeny of non-traumatized mice.

When sperm of traumatized male mice was injected into non-traumatized offspring, the progeny displayed similar results, including stress, anxiety and slowed metabolism. This suggests to researchers that parenting style isn’t involved, as male mice are minimally involved in care of their young.

Another study involved mice that were jolted with a mild electrical shock whenever they were exposed to the aroma of cherry blossoms. In time, the mice were trained to fear the smell even when no shock was forthcoming. Mice that weren’t exposed to electrical shock displayed no fear.

The surprising result was that the offspring of the mice, including some in subsequent generations, displayed signs of stress when exposed to the aroma of cherry blossoms.

Holocaust Survivors and Inherited Trauma

A genetic study of holocaust survivors netted similar results. The study followed individuals who had been in concentration camps and those who experienced or witnessed torture during World War II.

When the genes of holocaust survivors were analyzed, they were markedly different when compared with the offspring of Jewish individuals who weren’t exposed to trauma, including those who lived outside of Europe during that time period. Researchers determined that the genetic changes were due to severe trauma experienced by their parents.

More Answers to Come

While findings regarding inherited stress are remarkable, scientists aren’t sure how trauma is passed from parent to child within our DNA, or how trauma affects stress hormones. This new field of study, known as epigenetics, seeks to provide answers.

Researchers believe our DNA may hold the key to prediction, diagnosis and treatment of disorders such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress and other mental and physical illnesses.

What Can you Do?

If you hope to break the cycle of inherited trauma in your own family, there are steps that may help:

  • Heal unresolved issues with your own family. Reconciling damaged relationships may prevent the pain from being passed on to your own children.
  • Learn more about your own family and trauma experienced by your parents and grandparents. Be discreet, as older people are often hesitant to talk about painful episodes. However, it’s important to know so you can determine how you may be affected by past trauma.
  • Seek help at a drug and alcohol treatment center or rehab if you are struggling with substance use or addiction.
  • Be open with your children about your traumatic past and that of your family, in an age-appropriate manner. Encourage children to talk about their own concerns.
  • However, be careful of displaying stress to young children who may especially sensitive to trauma-induced genetic changes. Some researchers think that even infants in the womb are susceptible to stress experienced by their parents.

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