Epigenetic Inheritance: Passing on Trauma

by Reya Kost, Psy.D.

image of 3 generations of women to symbolize epigenetic inheritance of traumaBeginning with an article published in Biological Psychiatry (2015), epigenetic inheritance of trauma has become a much-discussed concept.  Rachel Yehuda and colleagues claimed that they had found a genetic explanation for children of Holocaust survivors being likely to experience symptoms of trauma. Their work explained that the experience of trauma causes changes to DNA and those changes are then passed on to biological offspring – or are epigenetically inherited.  In the two-plus years since the publication of the article, the concept has exploded in popularity and is even included in the work of the famed Deepak Chopra.  Unfortunately, the research has also come under much scrutiny due to small sample size, possible confounding factors like social influence, and difficulty interpreting epigenetic research.  While we are quite sure that trauma is passed on intergenerationally, it is far too soon to conclude that epigenetic inheritance is a contributing factor.

We do know that trauma, and many other family dynamics, are passed on through the behaviors, beliefs, morals, and values of our families of origin.  In a piece published by Psychology Today, Molly S. Castelloe, PhD shares an excerpt from Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, edited by M. Gerard Fromm, that provides a perfect example:

Maurice De Witt, a sidewalk Santa on Fifth Avenue noticed a marked change in behavior the holiday season following 9/11 when parents would not “let the hands of their children go. The kids sense that. It’s like water seeping down, and the kids can feel it… There is an anxiety, but the kids can’t make the connections.”

“This astute man was noticing a powerful double message in the parent’s action,” Fromm says. “Consciously and verbally, the message was ‘Here’s Santa. Love him.’ Unconsciously and physically, it was ‘Here’s Santa. Fear him.’ The unnamed trauma of 9/11 was communicated to the next generation by the squeeze of a hand.”

In this example, a seemingly joyful part of childhood was mixed with an emotional experience of anxiety and fear that very well could lead to confusion about the experience for the child.  We very successfully, and often not purposefully, pass on our fears and hesitations to our children.  This idea can be very scary for parents to hear and it is important that we also discuss that it does not have to happen.

When we as adults are courageous enough to talk about our traumatic experiences, to allow them to be real and present in our own lives, we are able to hold awareness about how those experiences continue to affect us in the present.  We can then explain our responses to our children and let them know that they can have a different response.  Take for example a woman who was involved in several nearly fatal car accidents…she naturally had a heightened response to having to brake quickly or to being cut off in traffic.  She was able to recognize that her responses in the car were exaggerated and she explained her experience to her children.  She let them know that her fear was based on something she had been through before, not the current car ride and that they did not need to hold the same fears that she did.  This act of sharing in an authentic and vulnerable way opened up the conversation and allowed her children to ask questions and explore.

What we all need in order to work through our own experiences is that safe space where we can access our courage and vulnerably explore our formative experiences – both traumatic and joyful.  While research continues to search for causes and then cures, we can work to educate and create safety for survivors to share their experiences.  Silence and inaction only guarantee that trauma will be passed down and generations will continue to suffer the experiences of their ancestors.

If you are suffering from the effects of trauma, please reach out to our professionals at Haven Hills Recovery. We hold safe space for women who have been impacted by traumatic experiences and the symptoms that often occur as a result.

Haven Hills Recovery – Trauma Informed Care for Women