The terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka claimed the lives of over three hundred people and injured hundreds more. When I read about the suicide bombings, it’s not just the hundreds of dead and injured and their grieving families and communities whom I hold in my thoughts, but also the future generations of family members, who were exposed to the trauma. The devastating Sri Lanka explosions, terrorist attacks, horrific school shootings, deadly wars, they all have the tragic potential to affect the health of generations of lives through the transgenerational transmission of trauma.
Soul Wounds and Epigenetic Changes
The consequences of high levels of stress and trauma lodge themselves in your body molecularly, affecting your DNA, like a soul wound. Traumatic stress has lasting effects on your body and on the bodies of your kids and grandkids via epigenetic change. Your level of stress and how you perceive it may not change your hardware (genes), but it can change your software (epigenetics). Epigenetic experts believe that environmental factors (such as diet, lifestyle choices, behaviors, stress and trauma) can flip genes on and off. Switching certain genes to the on or off position can change the genetic code not only of the individual but also their offspring and descendants. How does this happen? Exposure to certain environmental factors leads to the tagging of genes, like putting a sticky note on the gene in different locations. This changes how this gene is expressed or fulfills its function.
Science and the Study of Trauma
Researchers have investigated and pinpointed the epigenetic changes in survivors of trauma. In my book, Younger, I highlight one of the leaders in this field, Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and the Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She knows about soul wounds because she’s studied epigenetic changes in the survivors of the Holocaust and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Yehuda looked at the genes of thirty-two Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Then she looked at the genes of their children. She compared their results with Jewish families living outside of Europe during the war. Her focus was FKBP5, the gene that regulates your stress command center.
Before anyone found evidence of transgenerational fear in humans, researchers found it in mice. In the original studies of the epigenetics of trauma, mice received electric shocks while they were smelling cherry blossoms. The juxtaposition caused the mice to fear cherry blossoms.
Researchers found that their babies and grandbabies were afraid of cherry blossoms too. Trauma was inherited, not in the genome itself, but in the epigenome, or collective marks (like sticky notes), that can tell genes what to do.
The Fallout of Transgenerational Trauma
In her research, Rachel Yehuda found epigenetic inheritance of survivor trauma; the survivors’ DNA did not change, but the epigenetic marks did, and those changes (the sticky notes attached to FKBP5 and an increased risk of PTSD) were passed on to the survivors’ offspring. Yehuda found further evidence of inherited problems with FKBP5 in women who were pregnant and at or near the World Trade Center in New York City during the 2001 terrorist attacks. In a group of thirty- five pregnant women, alterations to FKBP5 increased a woman’s risk of developing PTSD and passing it on to her baby.
Another recent investigation into epigenetic changes looked at the health records of nearly 4,600 children whose fathers had been Prisoners of War (PoWs), comparing them to just over 15,300 children of veterans of the war who had not been captured. The sons of PoWs had an eleven percent higher mortality rate than the sons of non-PoW veterans.
Additional reviews have found an “accumulating amount of evidence of an enduring effect of trauma exposure to be passed to offspring transgenerationally via the epigenetic inheritance mechanism of DNA methylation alterations and has the capacity to change the expression of genes and the metabolome.”
Healing from Trauma
The effects of transgenerational trauma are real as the comments on my recent Instagram post about the tragic bombings attest. However, in the same way in which trauma has the power to change our DNA, we also have the power to control how those changes affect future generations. For trauma survivors, awareness and understanding of the epigenetic changes can help them come to terms with their grief and provide gentle motivation to start on their journey to healing. For the children of trauma survivors, learning about transgenerational trauma can assist them in connecting the dots to their own health issues that they have been struggling with without really understanding the reason why. Powerful healing, indeed.
May we work together in the service of creating safety and security of all, and learn more about the art and science of how to heal from trauma, including transgenerational soul wounds.