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The Mind-Blowing Science Behind Intergenerational Trauma

Posted on August 19, 2016

Okay friends, let’s get our nerd on for a moment and look at some of the amazing, and in many ways devastating, science behind intergenerational trauma. To try to make this as simple as possible, I’m going to bullet point what I believe are the key findings, as they speak for themselves. To begin with, here is the evolving research with human subjects:

  • Let’s first get clear about two types of DNA:
    • Chromosomal DNA (or what most of us just think of as DNA): Transmits physical traits such of color of hair and skin. Chromosomal DNA makes up 2% of our total DNA.
    • Noncoding DNA: Responsible for the genetic expression that makes up our personality and emotional, behavioral, and social traits. There are many ways for the noncoding DNA can be expressed. For example, we are all born with some level of musical potential. If we are born into a family with musical parents, we would likely express our genetic musical genetic potential. If born into a home without instruments or musical parents, then this genetic potential would not be realized. Some might have a higher genetic potential than others, but the environment will be highly influential in how this is expressed. Noncoding DNA increases with the complexity of the organism (humans have the greatest amount of noncoding DNA than any other animal) and accounts for 98% of our DNA. When I say “DNA” or “genetic expression,” this is the type of DNA I’m referring to. Noncoding DNA expression can be greatly influenced by trauma, leading to changes in personality and brain functioning.
  • Trauma can alter cortisol levels, which has been demonstrated to increase likelihood for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, frightening thoughts, and being easily startled or on edge. Genetic expression tilts towards survival systems at the expense of emotional regulation and higher-level thinking processes.
  • Studies led by Rachel Yehuda have shown that those who have experienced intense and/or repeated trauma can pass this cortisol condition and genetic expression on to their children (who have not experienced trauma directly in their own lives).
  • Generational DNA Expression:
    • Maternal Influence: The egg that created you was created when your grandmother was 5 months pregnant with your mother. For a few months, three generations share the same biological environment. The genes that your grandmother needed to survive or thrive in her environment are passed to your mother and, in a lesser but still significant way, to you.
    • Paternal Influence: The precursor cells for sperm were developed similarly to the process of the egg described above. However, sperm continues to multiply and be created throughout life. Therefore, the genetic makeup of sperm is influenced by events that happen throughout the father’s life, almost to the point of conception.
  • Impact of mother’s state on developing fetus:
    • DNA expression can be impacted by our positive and negative feelings, thoughts, and beliefs about the world (i.e. Personal Narratives). A mother’s fear, anger, love, joy, and other intense emotions create a biological state in the mother’s body that corresponds to each of these emotions. This chemical reality is passed by the mother to the child through the placenta wall.
    • Bruce Lipton: “When stress hormones cross the [human] placenta . . . they cause fetal blood vessels to be more constricted in the viscera, sending more blood to the periphery, preparing the fetus for a fight/flight behavioral response.”
    • Impact of mother’s stress and trauma on the child:
      • Impaired cognitive development
      • Premature birth
      • Lower than average weight
      • Hyperactivity
      • Irritable and colicky

I want to stop here for this week and we’ll look at some animal studies next week. I hope this helps set the framework for the power of intergenerational trauma. When I started to think about how grandmother, mother, and child all inhabit the same biological environment, it really reinforced how trauma can reach out across generations, and how many struggles our clients have that are not just their own, but also the struggles of their ancestors. I want to open the comment section up this week for your reaction to their research. I have much more to say on this issue, but I’d love to hear what you are thinking after this brief introduction.

A few quick notes:

  • Just want to recognize Mark Wolynn, whose book It Didn’t Start with You provides the best scientific summary on this topic and is now on our must-read list! The scientific references in this post are from his book, and I will pull heavily from that book for this series.
  • This research is evolving quickly in both human and animal studies. Five years from now, we’ll know significantly more, but even now, there are strong findings that are starting to shed light on where we are going.

22 responses to “The Mind-Blowing Science Behind Intergenerational Trauma”

  1. Michelle says:

    Yikes! My first response is that here is another opportunity for mother blame/guilt. Of course, the more we know, the more we can begin to address issues and hopefully provide understanding and effective interventions. Nevertheless, this mother’s heart aches at how much guilt so many of us already assume for what we have passed on to our children and how our less-than-perfect parenting has negatively impacted them. Now we get to also consider that we continue the cycle with our grandchildren – Lord grant us mercy!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks Michelle! I agree…it does seem a little overwhelming. I always go back to what happened to mom or dad. In many ways I think this helps show why people struggle and why we need to treat not only the individual but family as well in many instances.

    • Juli says:

      I wonder if this research and information could help take AWAY some of the mother blame/guilt, because it’s not a mother’s fault if they were put in a concentration camp or were enslaved. I think those are the kinds of horrific intergenerational traumas that are more the result of unjust political and social systems.

    • Kate Leos says:

      Michelle, I had really similar reactions as I was editing this post with Matt. I was reminded that I learned about the effects of a mother’s biology on her fetus during pregnancy while I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. I was terrified – as a first-time parent, I was already worried about all the ways I would surely mess her up, and this just added another layer of fear. (My comment to Matt here was something like, “Being a parent is fun and totally stress-free!”)

      I hope, as Juli does, that this knowledge can work to actually alleviate some of the mother blame/guilt, and agree with Matt that this is an excellent argument for family treatment as well.

  2. Michelle says:

    Yikes! My first response is that here is another opportunity for mother blame/guilt. Of course, the more we know, the more we can begin to address issues and hopefully provide understanding and effective interventions. Nevertheless, this mother’s heart aches at how much guilt so many of us already assume for what we have passed on to our children and how our less-than-perfect parenting has negatively impacted them. Now we get to also consider that we continue the cycle with our grandchildren – Lord grant us mercy!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks Michelle! I agree…it does seem a little overwhelming. I always go back to what happened to mom or dad. In many ways I think this helps show why people struggle and why we need to treat not only the individual but family as well in many instances.

    • Juli says:

      I wonder if this research and information could help take AWAY some of the mother blame/guilt, because it’s not a mother’s fault if they were put in a concentration camp or were enslaved. I think those are the kinds of horrific intergenerational traumas that are more the result of unjust political and social systems.

    • Kate Leos says:

      Michelle, I had really similar reactions as I was editing this post with Matt. I was reminded that I learned about the effects of a mother’s biology on her fetus during pregnancy while I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. I was terrified – as a first-time parent, I was already worried about all the ways I would surely mess her up, and this just added another layer of fear. (My comment to Matt here was something like, “Being a parent is fun and totally stress-free!”)

      I hope, as Juli does, that this knowledge can work to actually alleviate some of the mother blame/guilt, and agree with Matt that this is an excellent argument for family treatment as well.

  3. Meghan says:

    I find this article very insightful and it leaves me asking many questions. Such as, how does that effect the way we look at treatment for generations? Should we be treating the child for the mother’s stressors?

    • Matt Bennett says:

      So the easy answer to your questions is yes for treatment for generations and I would say we should assess for similar stressors shared by mother and child. I’ll develop these answers more in future post, but your questions are right on and even in themselves challenges us in new ways.

  4. Meghan says:

    I find this article very insightful and it leaves me asking many questions. Such as, how does that effect the way we look at treatment for generations? Should we be treating the child for the mother’s stressors?

    • Matt Bennett says:

      So the easy answer to your questions is yes for treatment for generations and I would say we should assess for similar stressors shared by mother and child. I’ll develop these answers more in future post, but your questions are right on and even in themselves challenges us in new ways.

  5. Lisa says:

    I’m really interested in where resilience comes into play. I would like to learn more about how 2 people exposed to the same environmental stressors may have different responses and if this gets passed along as well. I imagine there is less cortisol secreted and this having an obvious impact, but is there more to resilience that we could tap into to help our clients?

  6. Lisa says:

    I’m really interested in where resilience comes into play. I would like to learn more about how 2 people exposed to the same environmental stressors may have different responses and if this gets passed along as well. I imagine there is less cortisol secreted and this having an obvious impact, but is there more to resilience that we could tap into to help our clients?

  7. Matt Bennett says:

    We’ll examine this as we move forward. But I want to introduce the thinking here. We can view intergenerational struggle as resiliency. If mom and dad have created a biology to survive a traumatic environment a child being born with that biology has a great opportunity for survival (resiliency). The issues come up when we try to place that biology in a very different environment and it struggles. If we can see the resiliency within the struggles we have a strength based foundation to deliver care.

  8. Matt Bennett says:

    We’ll examine this as we move forward. But I want to introduce the thinking here. We can view intergenerational struggle as resiliency. If mom and dad have created a biology to survive a traumatic environment a child being born with that biology has a great opportunity for survival (resiliency). The issues come up when we try to place that biology in a very different environment and it struggles. If we can see the resiliency within the struggles we have a strength based foundation to deliver care.

  9. Randy Hylton says:

    This is an utterly fascinating topic, and connects so many dots to what we see in intergenerational behavior and conditions. As always, the resources you provide are priceless. Now I’ll add Wolynn’s book to the famous Matt Bennett reading list.

  10. Randy Hylton says:

    This is an utterly fascinating topic, and connects so many dots to what we see in intergenerational behavior and conditions. As always, the resources you provide are priceless. Now I’ll add Wolynn’s book to the famous Matt Bennett reading list.

  11. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    My personal narrative includes two metaphorical rivers that interact: family history and Biblical history. The family stretches back centuries, I’ve learned, and influences from ancient times may be subtle, or unknown; but having learned of the bloodlines may fuel me with added force, of some kind. As for the second influence, knowledge of the persecution of a Biblical character, like the apostle Paul, helps me in my situation. He was many times imprisoned. His reaction to incarceration and trials is part of my history–my noncoding DNA, should I say? There would be other examples from modern times: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Nazi-era German theologian, who was detained in a concentration camp, then hanged just before it was freed by U.S. soldiers. I view myself in the line of Bonhoeffer–and Mark Hatfield, as a matter of fact.

  12. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    My personal narrative includes two metaphorical rivers that interact: family history and Biblical history. The family stretches back centuries, I’ve learned, and influences from ancient times may be subtle, or unknown; but having learned of the bloodlines may fuel me with added force, of some kind. As for the second influence, knowledge of the persecution of a Biblical character, like the apostle Paul, helps me in my situation. He was many times imprisoned. His reaction to incarceration and trials is part of my history–my noncoding DNA, should I say? There would be other examples from modern times: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Nazi-era German theologian, who was detained in a concentration camp, then hanged just before it was freed by U.S. soldiers. I view myself in the line of Bonhoeffer–and Mark Hatfield, as a matter of fact.

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