Family trauma and epigenetics

Can kids inherit their parent’s trauma? How exactly is family trauma and epigenetics linked together? Can family trauma be passed on through generations? How is that possible? Welcome to the world of epigenetics.

What is trauma?

Firstly, trauma is generally defined as an event that induces intense fear, helplessness, or horror. For instance the trauma of war, famine or natural disaster. However, this does not complete the trauma list. Secondly, trauma is rooted in our daily life. Take the birth of a child. When a mother gives birth in a hospital, she should get her newly born into her arms. Quite often it is not the case. Nurses take the child away and put it in the incubator. If the newly born child did not experience mother’s warmth, caresses and presence, it might develop a family trauma. This happens as a result of a disconnection from his caregiver and protector – the mother. In conclusion, the genes don’t induce the trauma but the environment. This is what we call an epigenetic change. In other words, this is how family trauma and epigenetics link together.

Traumatic experiences can cause behavioral disorders that are passed down from one generation to the next. If your grandfather participated in a war in Vietnam he might have suffered from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). You, as his grandchild, are more susceptible to trauma and you can develop similar emotions to your grandfathers’, which will ‘switch on’ in similar circumstances.

Family trauma studies

The Dutch Hunger Winter provided a good opportunity for the study of family trauma. Firstly, this was a tough time after the World War II. Secondly, the Netherlands were cut off of food. Researchers wanted to try and study the effects of hunger on development. The study proved that the children of women pregnant during the food shortages died earlier than peers born just before. Moreover, they had higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and schizophrenia.

Similarly, the children of survivors find it difficult to metabolize stress. They come to this world more susceptible to PTSD, because of vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons and cells. Inheriting family trauma has less to do with genes and more with their expression, which means with epigenetics.

There are diseases such as bipolar disorder that run in families but can’t be traced back to a particular gene. Gene mutations are not responsible for a bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. So what is? And why schizophrenia is more common in the families in which someone already had it?

Family trauma and second world war
Epigenetics as the key to change

Epigenetics is about how the way we act and react can change the way our bodies use DNA. Imagine our DNA is a book and epigenetics is they way in which someone reads it. You can read a book loudly, put comas in a different place and play with intonation. Everybody has their own way of reading a book. That’s how epigenetics works. The DNA can change by ways it expresses itself. In short, genes can be ‘switched on and off’ depending on the environment and the internal attitude of a person.

In conclusion, this shows us that different environmental factors, like diet, growing up in a dysfunctional family can change our epigenetic markers. The good things is that epigenetics gives us the key to change it. Dr. Bruce Lipton and dr. Isabelle Mansuy have established that meditation can change the genetic expression. Family trauma and epigenetics are partners in providing better solutions in trauma recovery.

I truly hope that the psychotherapists will use the discoveries of epigenetics on a broader scale in healing family trauma.

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