I recently posted an article on social media about a scientific study showing that trauma memories can be passed down to as many as 14 generations. There was a whole lot of interest in this article. Probably because SO many people suffer from trauma symptoms like adrenal fatigue, anxiety, and depression. In fact, 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety and about 16 million suffer from depression. Inherited trauma could be the cause of these symptoms for some people.
Note that this study was done on worms. Clearly, humans are not the same as worms! But this study is so interesting because it demonstrates just how long these trauma memories may last. We haven’t been able to study the genetic expression of that many human generations yet. But, science has shown that the impact of environmental change (like stress and trauma) can be passed down to children and grandchildren. We've seen in this in the descendants of Holocaust survivors as well as in the Dutch famine of 1944.
I want to explain this complicated topic in very simple terms. This is an oversimplification but hopefully, it's helpful. The experience of trauma does not change the genetic code but it can apparently change the expression of the gene. This is called an epigenetic change. The body is designed to “remember” experiences so that it’s better prepared for similar future experiences. It will respond to the traumatic event by turning on or turning off certain genes. Then it can remember the experience in the genes for future use. This trauma memory can be passed along to future generations.
We used to think that our genetic blueprint was our destiny. We now know that our biology is greatly affected by our environment. I was first introduced to this concept in 2005 by Dr. Bruce Lipton who wrote “The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles." He teaches that our physiology is fundamentally controlled by the physical and energetic environment with very little contribution from our genes.
Through Dr. Lipton and other scientists, we've learned about epigenetics which simply put is the mechanisms that turn genes on or off. Environmental factors including stress, diet, toxins, etc. all play a big roll in gene expression. In other words, the environment can turn on or turn off the good genes and can also turn on or off the bad genes.
This is GREAT news because it means that we are not victims of our genes. We can make changes in our environment that can affect the expression of our genes and ultimately improve our health and wellbeing.
What is trauma?
Trauma occurs when you are in a stressful situation that you can’t resolve. Once your body senses a threat the autonomic nervous system takes over to help you deal with the situation by secreting stress hormones and other chemicals in a process called "fight or flight." The body can only handle this fight or flight state for a short period of time because it takes so much energy. If the problem is not fixed fairly quickly then the "freeze" mechanism sets in to help conserve energy for survival. This state of freeze is what happens when an animal plays dead to escape a predator. Another example is when the body goes into shock after an injury. Trauma is the point where you can’t say “no” to a situation and you can’t resolve it so your nervous system gets overwhelmed and shifts from the state of fight or flight to freeze.
This stress management system is a very tightly regulated process connected to all the other systems in the body including the cardiovascular system and the immune system. Severe stress and trauma can lead to the dysregulation of stress hormones that can then ultimately lead to disease if left unresolved. So another way to think of trauma is the severe or chronic dysregulation of the normal stress response system.
Everyone reacts to traumatic situations differently. I always tell my clients that trauma lives in the system, not in the event. A particular event could severely impact one person’s system and for another, it only causes minor stress. So what are the factors that determine how we respond to stressful situations? Here is a list with some of the things that can affect our response to stress:
- The perception of the event (did I find it stressful?)
- The outcome of the event (did it get resolved?)
- Was there help available to resolve the event
- The amount of support and social connection
- Amount of stressors - compounding stressors impact the ability to cope
- Level of overall health (hormone balance, gut health, diet, exercise, etc)
- Toxins - toxic foods, toxic chemicals, toxic people and relationships
- Amount of trauma in a person's childhood known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
- Genetics and inherited or generational trauma
*For more info on ACE's and find out your level of Adverse Childhood Experiences HERE
Some people are born with highly sensitive systems that are very easily dysregulated due to the experiences of their parents or grandparents. Their ancestor's stress genes were turned on because of trauma and those epigenetic changes were then passed down to them. These highly sensitive children are much more prone to the negative effects of stress and neglect (ACEs)in childhood and later in life - IF they don't have a nurturing environment and can't build resilience in their system.
Dandelion vs Orchids
Dr. W. Thomas Boyce writes about highly sensitive children in his book called “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.”
He calls highly sensitive children “orchids” because like orchids these kids take a very specific and highly nurturing environment to thrive. In contrast to the “dandelion” children who are more resilient. They can thrive in more challenging situations like the hardy dandelion plant that can grow virtually anywhere.
The dandelion kids are less sensitive and less reactive, tend to be more often extroverted, are more comfortable with novel situations. They have average health in both low and high-stress situations.
The orchid kids are more sensitive and more reactive, often very shy, they withdraw from novelty, have lots of sensory sensitivities. These children have the best OR worst health depending on the environment they were brought up in.
The Best or the Worst
These highly sensitive children are much more prone to the negative health effects of neglect and stress but if they grow up in a nurturing environment they tend to have better health outcomes. They have either the BEST outcomes when reared in safe and nurturing environments or the WORST outcomes when brought up in high-stress environments (have a high number of ACEs). The environment is key to the expression of our genes.
To be clear - not all highly sensitive children have inherited trauma. It is something to keep in mind when we’re trying to understand our own stress patterns and when we’re supporting others with their trauma symptoms. It can be easy to pass judgment on those highly sensitive people and think of them as "weak-willed" or as being "too delicate." Understanding that their highly sensitive systems could be a result of inherited trauma may help us to have more compassion and patience for these people and for ourselves.
There are many different signs and symptom that result from trauma. Here's a list of the most common symptoms that I see in my clients:
- Low tolerance for stress
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships
- Often dissociated or checked out or can be overly reactive and emotional
- Exhaustion, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue
- Gut and digestive problems
- Hormonal imbalances
- Chronic diseases and chonic pain
Working with inherited trauma is often the same or very similar to the process of healing from our own traumatic events. This is because the past event that created the trauma symptom is not as important as what is happening in the system now in present time. Remember trauma lives in the system, not the event. But, since there can be a lot of shame around having a sensitive system and living with the symptoms of trauma many of my clients have been relieved to know of the possibility of inherited trauma being at the root of their symptoms.
Trauma messes up our body's coherence. Coherence is when all the body’s systems are working together in harmony. In this state, there is increased synchronization between the cognitive, emotional and physiological systems. This is where your mind and your body come into alignment. Coherence promotes healing and creates a sense of wholeness which is your natural state of being. Whether it’s our trauma or the trauma passed down to us from our ancestors it disrupts our natural state of coherence.
More GREAT news
Besides the fact that we are not victims of our genes, the great news is that building resilience and returning to a state of coherence after trauma is possible with the right tools and support regardless of the source. There are so many things that we can't control in this world. We do have some control over our environment. Learning how to adapt the environment to promote healing and build resilience is part of the healing process. Once we do this we can pass down this resiliency to the next generation.
Thanks for reading! I hope you found this interesting and helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or comments below.
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