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Yes, you can “inherit” the trauma your ancestors experienced

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What you should know -- bad and good -- about this emerging scientific theory.

For weeks after my grandmother died, my grandfather would tell the story of how it happened to everyone he saw. Over and over, the same story: how they walked in the door together, how she collapsed, how he called his brother down the street, how his brother came down to help, how the ambulance finally arrived. He wasn’t really telling the story to us, but to himself. He was processing it out loud, making it real, learning how to come to grips with the loss of his wife.

This is a common and healthy way to deal with loss and grief. But there’s an equally common pattern of repetition that can occur when trauma is simply too overwhelming to process, and it plays out in future generations. It’s called “inherited trauma,” and it’s not woo science or psychobabble — it’s written into a person’s biology, all the way down to the cellular level.

Films for Action excerpted a chapter of It Didn’t Start with You, a book by psychiatrist Mark Wolynn that details the emerging science of inherited trauma:

Scientists are now able to identify biological markers — evidence that traumas can and do pass down from one generation to the next. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is one of the world’s leading experts in post traumatic stress, a true pioneer in this field …

Yehuda and her team found that children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD were born with low cortisol levels similar to their parents, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation. Her discovery of low cortisol levels in people who experience an acute traumatic event has been controversial, going against the long-held notion that stress is associated with high cortisol levels. Specifically, in cases of chronic PTSD, cortisol production can become suppressed, contributing to the low levels measured in both survivors and their children.

It sounds bleak at first, I know. My first thought was, what a terrible thing to study. How can people hope to overcome trauma that’s written into their biology? But of course, that’s exactly why there’s such a growing interest in the field — to help discover ways to help those who inherit trauma.

In many cases, simply connecting their own inexplicable, overwhelming emotions to a concrete event in their parents’ or grandparents’ lives is a huge relief. Knowing there’s a reason for the way they feel and that it’s not their fault can give people the courage they need to begin the process of healing from the effects of trauma.

But what’s fascinating is that not all the effects of trauma are negative. According to Yehuda, traumatic events trigger epigenetic changes, which are chemical modifications that occur in our cells. The purpose of these changes is to expand the way we respond in stressful situations. It’s an evolutionary change that’s meant to give us an advantage and improve our outcomes in future traumatic events.

Basically, epigenetic changes are a superpower. So, while inherited trauma can be overwhelming and seemingly inescapable, it also functions as an enhanced survival mechanism. Wolynn’s research has already showed promising results in helping patients identify, accept, and cope with the negative effects of the trauma they inherited. At the same time, it’s also empowering them to recognize and embrace the legacy of strength and resilience that inherited trauma has written into the very cells of their being.

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