Inherited Trauma: It Did Not Begin With You

What is Trauma?

If you were to look up the word trauma on WebMD, you would find “a serious physical injury.” While that may be the medical definition, trauma is much more than that. Trauma is an emotional response to a traumatic event and according to the Canadian Psychological Association, an event is considered traumatic if an individual “experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others. The person’s response must have also involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.” But how do you explain your trauma symptoms if you have not personally gone through a traumatic event?

Epigenetics and Trauma  

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is comprised of 46 chromosomes- 23 from the mother and 23 from the father. Every human being has a unique genetic code which makes up their DNA sequence. While the genetic code rarely alters, modifications to gene expressions can occur through heritable changes. In simpler terms, genes can be switched on and off based on your ancestral environment and/or lifestyle.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that traumas experienced by earlier generations can be passed down through changes in DNA. Mark Wolynn, a leading expert on inherited family trauma, stated that it is typically traumas that have not been talked about or resolved that gets passed on to children. In an interview with Psychology Today, Wolynn mentioned one of his clients, a young woman who would cut herself so deeply that she would be hospitalized due to the large amount of blood loss. When asked what she thought about before piercing her skin with a sharp object, she said “I deserve to die.” This young woman had a good childhood and a healthy relationship with her parents. She did not hurt anyone nor did she witness anyone getting hurt (i.e. murder, suicide attempts). After much digging, it was found that her paternal grandparents were in a car accident due to her alcoholic grandmother driving into a telephone pole. Her grandmother survived but her grandfather bled to death before the ambulance arrived. While this event happened much before this young woman was born, it was rarely talked about in the family. Essentially, this young woman was cutting herself in connection to that traumatic event. She punished herself as a result of her grandmother’s actions (i.e. deserving to die) and connected with her grandfather through the blood loss.

Breaking the Cycle

The first step to breaking this trauma cycle is by linking your issues to the root cause. Once the root cause is identified, you can begin the process of healing. One method of healing is through Somatic Experiencing; a treatment method aimed at targeting symptoms that stem from mental and physical trauma. This form of therapy focuses on the client's perceived body sensations in order to address the physiology of trauma and stress. The awareness developed in somatic experiencing sessions helps to release physical tension that may remain after trauma or a traumatic event. If you feel anxious, scared, confused, guilty, or angry and you think it may be trauma related, click here for more information.


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