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Can Trauma be Passed on through our DNA?

By Jonathan Davis on Thursday March 3rd, 2016

Can trauma be passed between generations

Learning to release trauma before we pass it on to the next generation

PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions. ― Susan Pease Banitt

Intergenerational Trauma is the idea that serious trauma can affect the children and grandchildren of those who had the first-hand experience, due to living with a person suffering from PTSD and the challenges that can bring. What’s new is – thanks to the emerging field of epigenetics – science is discovering that trauma is being passed down to future generations through more than simply learned behaviors.

One widely reported example is of holocaust survivors passing the effects of trauma to children and grandchildren. It seems that trauma or its effects are being passed down through our genes, and it has enormous consequences for us as a species.

Alt text hereScience is showing that intergenerational trauma is a reality

What are we Passing on our Children?

The single most dangerous idea I learned in school is that the genes you get from your parents are passed on to your children, and nothing you do in your life changes them. Thankfully, however, the findings of the new scientific field of epigenetics is starting to change this dangerous attitude. We do indeed pass on the exact same chromosomes from parent to child, however, the quality they are in when we receive them can be improved or diminished according to what happens to us, and the choices we make, during our lifetime.

The reason why it’s dangerous for us to believe otherwise is that it has lead to entire generations of people believing that their choices concerning their own body and the environment affecting it have no detrimental effect on the genes of future generations. In short, it has the potential to see us devolve, simply out of ignorance. Fortunately, as awareness of epigenetics spreads, it’s helping people understand that how we live our lives can change the quality of our own genes for the better and those we pass on to our offspring.

Alt text hereIs trauma passed down through our DNA?

What Is Epigenetics?

We all know the image of a DNA double helix. Imagine now that each of the thirteen rungs in the spiral ladder that makes a chromosome is not simply a rung, but a binary, amino acid ‘on/off’ switch. You may have received an exact same chromosome that your mother or your father carried, but this chromosome has been changing according to the way you’ve been living your life. Some rungs in the ladder are off where they were once on and vice versa. Your genes are responding to the environment like you are, because like you are, they are alive.

Our DNA exists at the heart of our cells and provide the instructions for new cells to be created. Therefore, better quality DNA equals better quality instructions for cells to be created and in turn, a happier, healthier body. On the other hand, continued degradation of the epigenetic structure of our genes could be leading to lowering of immunity and fertility and increased susceptibility to cellular mutation.

When Emotional Trauma Becomes Overwhelming

In simple terms, trauma occurs when we reach a point where we can’t cope. We are overwhelmed and we don’t have the tools or skills to find our way through. We find ourselves in a state where our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive and we can get stuck in fight or flight mode for far longer than our body is designed to be. Sustaining this state of high alert causes depletion and disruption of the normal functions of our system. In our culture, we refer to acute cases of this as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Alt text herePTSD is widespread among survivors of war and other traumatic events

Thanks to this diagnosis, we have this somewhat arbitrary boundary which almost says that the truly traumatized people are on one side and the rest of us are on the other. The reality is that the boundary between those who suffer from PTSD and everyone else was invented, created, made up by the human mind, with little regard for the fact that trauma is carried within us all in varying degrees. Each of us is on a sliding scale that goes all the way up to and past the line that tips a person to being diagnosed with PTSD.

The kind of trauma we all carry can include the smallest things, like the time we were laughed at for not knowing the answer to a question or other seemingly insignificant things, such as being teased as a child. It can include any moments of pain and tragedy that have occurred throughout our life, but by far the biggest factor of whether the pain remains with us as trauma is whether it was overwhelming and whether it continued to be overwhelming.

Alt text hereWe need support to be able to feel and process our trauma

According to transpersonal psychologists, when the trauma is so overwhelming that our only defense mechanism is to avoid feeling it, then we continue to carry it until someday, we have the courage and strength to finally feel all of it and come to emotional completion, though the physical event may have ended long ago. A number of problems can prevent this: a person may not feel like they are in a safe enough environment, or not supported enough to go into the vulnerability of feeling their old pain in order to release it. The person may struggle with being re-traumatised by going back into the memory of what happened.

Releasing Our Trauma So It Doesn’t Get Passed On

For some people, it’s enough to explain to them that they simply need to accept and allow the feelings of pain and discomfort to exist, instead of trying to hide them, avoid them or push them away. As soon as a person judges and labels their inner pain as something bad or something they don’t want or don’t like, they are inadvertently and unwittingly grabbing and holding their pain and preventing it from leaving.

Alt text hereLearning to release trauma before it is passed on to our children

Allowing the pain to flow, instead of trying to stop it from happening, is how we allow it to leave us and be released, however, there is considerable risk of re-traumatization. In my opinion, this occurs when a person wakes up their old pain and trauma to try to release it, but then instead of accepting and thereby allow it to flow out of them, they contract around it with their judgment that this is something they don’t want. So they experience the pain again but do so without actually releasing it.

For those at the extreme end of the trauma scale known as PTSD, these experiences of past pain and trauma, coming up in order to be released, are uninvited and involuntary. During these bouts, which can be triggered by anything that remotely resembles the original trauma or nothing at all, re-traumatisation is occurring repeatedly and compounding the problem.

Alt text hereRe-traumatization can compound the problem

What Happens When We Can’t Release Our Old Pain and Trauma?

If a person experiences trauma and they are never able to come to emotional completion, because it is simply too overwhelming, the environmental influence of those events on the body, through immense amounts of stress hormones, signal to the genes that the environment is hostile and unsafe. This has an effect on the epigenetic quality of the genes. The epigenetic structure of the genes changes and therefore genes in this state can then be passed to subsequent generations.

The worst examples of intergenerational trauma occur when a generation is born carrying the trauma of their parents, and the parents and children are still living in circumstances that are traumatic. In some cases, this can go on for generations, particularly in cases of ongoing war, colonialization, and genocide. Prof. Judy Atkinson speaks about her work helping entire indigenous communities heal from transgenerational trauma in her book Trauma Trails, and the traditional approach she works with can be found in the following Uplift article. Techniques such as breathwork and vipassana have been successful in releasing trauma, as well as severe cases of PTSD being healed through psychedelic means, such as MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, or ceremonial use of Ayahuasca.

Alt text hereCan trauma be passed between generations?

Evolving – Not Devolving – As A Species

I like to think that the epigenetic structure of our DNA can be like either a rock or a crystal. The molecules in a rock can be identical to those found in a crystal, with the only difference being that the molecules in a rock are jumbled, whereas those in a crystal are more aligned, allowing light to pass through. In the same way, perhaps there are more jumbled, and more aligned states that those amino acid ‘on/off’ switches in our DNA can find themselves in. The good news is that if our epigenetic structure can become relatively jumbled due to challenging and painful environmental factors, they may also become more aligned as we make healthier decisions about exposing ourselves to less environmental contaminants and, if possible, less emotional contaminants, like stress and trauma.

My personal theory about life is that the reality we live in is a rigged game; that all paths lead to learning and growth. The less gentle path may be for the quality of our DNA to degrade, perhaps increasing the likelihood that a) those that can’t adapt fast enough don’t survive, as well as b) sudden mutation jumping us to a different sub-branch of the evolutionary tree. The more gentle path to evolution may be by bringing our epigenetic code into higher states of alignment by healing our past pain and trauma and perhaps even healing the trauma that was passed to us from our ancestors. The only question that remains is: what kind of species do we wish to be?

Jonathan Davis

Amplifying personal healing and growth for collective evolution.

 

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44 Comments on "Can Trauma be Passed on through our DNA?"

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GWOT Vet
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GWOT Vet
While the idea that trauma can be passed on from one generation to the next is nothing new (Alice Miller’s, “The Drama of the Gifted Child”), the idea that it’s passed-on genetically is likely off the mark a bit. Over the last couple of decades, the discoveries of fascia science have really shed light on various areas of darkness in our understanding of the human body. Fascia is involved in the flow of energy and the flow of fluids between and around our cells–each of which contains their own DNA. Studies have also identified a connection between the fascia and… Read more »
Erik Hilbrands
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Erik Hilbrands

For me, the information in this article is new and therefore i am thankfull for the writer to post it online. The lack of other effects does not disturb me here. The fact that this article confirms my own thoughts about the subject trauma, is enough for me.

Stephen John Lewis
Guest
Stephen John Lewis
i recently started playing with the idea of childfen being born with a ‘adrenalin addiction/habit’ which may have a ‘good fit’ with this particular paradigm…increasingly the role of the limbic system [and emotional memory] in determining personality traits has been receiving attention….terms such as ‘limbic imprint’ being used to explain the same in the context of triggering trauma events [such as birth]…i have included an excert from my deliberations- When we are born we bring many intra-womb experiences with us; some generational in nature. It is of some importance to acknowledge that the chemistry in our mother’s system, also will… Read more »
Debbie
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Debbie

My mom suffered two traumatic event shortly before becoming pregnant with me. She was also in an physically abusive relationship while pregnant. Of course she suffers from these events, and I believe I do as well. Sort of a sense of being haunted by something I can’t put me finger on.
Very interesting subject you are working on. I would like to read more about your research.

Krista Gallagher
Guest
Krista Gallagher

This is spot on!!!

Joel Jacobson
Guest
Joel Jacobson

I would like to direct to you an instrumental book about trauma that will help you understand it in more ways than what had been described here. Your article is well written, but lacks a good foundation for defining what trauma is, among other things. Read Peter A. Levine’s book “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma”.

Granny47
Guest
Granny47

This is an excellent book, I agree. I’ve given it to many people.

Bennie Naude
Guest

It is a fabulous book, I agree Joel – to understand trauma. However, it’s old, and does not consider the amazing trauma release & resolution that energy psychology techniques like EFT and Matrix Reimprinting facilitate (also now scientifically proven).

Joel Jacobson
Guest
Joel Jacobson

What you are saying suggests to me that you have missed the wisdom which
the book hands to people – a vastly impressive psycho-technology for
the mind. Yes, EFT is effective, and I am unsure as to Matrix
Reimprinting (never heard of it).

Granny47
Guest
Granny47

Very interesting. I would like to suggest the author do an edit: “genes you get from you parents “

Douglas Thorburn
Guest
Douglas Thorburn

Okay … nice read but I see no real science backing up this idea that the genes are physically altered.

.ara Joan Nokomis
Guest
.ara Joan Nokomis

check out Walking Between the Worlds ~ Greg Barden

Ati Petrov
Guest

“Real” science always moves forward when someone starts thinking out of the box and becomes curious about what “real” science calls myths or taboos. If it is a nice read, there is something in it that speaks to you and you may be responding with that part of your being that is not bound to current scientific dogma.

Douglas Thorburn
Guest
Douglas Thorburn

DNA research is not scientific dogma. I am interested in it but only entertained by speculation , myths and taboos. They are what we call pseudo-science.

Heather Goodman
Guest

In epigenetics genes are not physically altered, at least not the way one might think from things like this. In epigenetics the genes are tagged or marked with methylation groups that affect the expression of the genes, turning them on or off. The methylation does not actually affect the contained genetic information of the gene, just its expression.

.ara Joan Nokomis
Guest
.ara Joan Nokomis

Walking Between the Worlds ~ Gregg Braden…..very informative re being able to shift our dna, exactly as you’re saying, thru processing of trauma, etc

mythbust
Guest
mythbust

Real science has measurable predictive value. Speculation and consensus building are what myths are made of.

Ati Petrov
Guest

We can speculate on what “real” science is, though. 😉

Heather Goodman
Guest

Not really.

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