Our Bodies are Full of Stories: Intergenerational Trauma & Epigenentics
TW: This topic may involve sharing of traumatic events that could include triggering content. Please take care of yourself.
In the field of trauma, a growing body of work is recognizing how the experiences of the past, ours and our ancestors, can exist in the bodies of future generations.
There are two commonly understood ways trauma is inherited. First, traumatic experiences left unhealed or integrated shape how we function in the world. These adjustments for safety in turn shape how we care for the next generation.
For example, if you were in a bicycle accident as a kid and later became a parent, you might not let your children ride a bike. Perhaps you let them ride, but only with you present and on a designated trail. This could influence the development of autonomy and agency in the child; it could also imprint them with a fear of riding their bike in the street, which does not have any link to their own experience.
The other discipline of intergenerational trauma is epigenetics, the science of how our genes are turned on and off in response to our environment, to behavior, stress, trauma, and healing.
This video is a brief breakdown of how this works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuIM39dcUs4
For example, lab studies with rodents discovered that test subjects who were exposed to a trigger repeatedly without negative consequences would eventually slow or stop responding with stress to the trigger (This is some of the basis for cognitive and exposure-based therapies).
They also show genetic changes in descendants up to nine generations later based on their ancestors' experiences. In the same way we can embody the stress responses of the past, we also can connect to the positive resilience of the past.
When it comes to genetics, we do not only inherit the changes from adverse experiences, but also the resilience of our ancestors.
While writing this piece, my kids were watching the Disney movie, Moana. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. At one point in the movie, Moana sneaks a fishing boat beyond the coral reef against her father's wishes. Though she's raised to fear the ocean, she's always felt connected to it. When she returns from the quick dip out, she comes home exclaiming, “We were voyagers!"
I realize it's a fictional story, but it's a great picture of how self-discovery and connecting to our ancestors' stories can reveal parts of us that we've yet been able to name.
Many neurodivergent presentations are believed to be in part genetic. We also know neurodivergent folks are more likely to experience PTSD (the DSM label for when traumatic experiences get stuck in your body). Within this framework, we can imagine the amount of stories — both tales of triumph and tragedy— tucked within our bones, steering the ship as we attempt to navigate a complex world.
What do you think about the idea that we can look to the stories of previous generations to help make sense of your current challenges and strengths?
The Dutch Hunger Winter, NYTimes