It’s easy to see the traumas of your ancestors as merely painful blips in your family history. However, more and more research suggests that you stand the chance of inheriting an echo of these traumas in your very cells—in your epigenome—which may manifest in health conditions, a lowered ability to process stress, and/or predispositions to anxiety and depression.
Though each of us has a genetic code forged in the strands of our DNA that does not change, which you can compare to a computer, genes can, essentially, turn “on” or “off” via a process known as methylation in response to environmental changes (from trauma to chemical exposure). These changes to your genes, known as epigenetics—are like the “software” of your system.
Now, groundbreaking new research done by Sarah Kimmons at McGill University, in collaboration with Swiss researcher Antoine Peters, has found that another genetic component, known as histones, appear to make it possible for men to pass on epigenetic mutations or changes. Says John McCarrey, a molecular biologist and Director of the San Antonio Cellular Therapeutics Institute, “What’s more surprising is that a single exposure can lead to a change or set of changes in the epigenome that get transmitted not just in individual who incurred disruption but their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
Rachel Yehuda, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is one of the leading researchers in the field of epigenetics and trauma, particularly in Holocaust survivors and their offspring. Despite the seemingly negative implications of epigenetic trauma changes, she feels they serve an evolutionary purpose, helping us to have a wider set of adaptations to a given situation. In an interview with On Being’s host, Krista Tippett, Yehuda says, “The purpose of epigenetic changes, I think, is simply to increase the repertoire of possible responses.”
When I wake up on a leisurely Saturday morning with the familiar, constant flutter beat of anxiety in my chest, I often think about the source of this feeling. My mind leaps to my paternal grandparents, with whom I was close until their deaths. Naphtali Rosenfeld and Tamar Weingarten were Jews coming of age in a Germany on the brink of the horror that Hitler would perpetuate. They would be the lucky ones, teenagers who left for Palestine with Zionist youth groups before Hitler’s “final solution” began to murder Jews. Their parents, however, were not lucky. Their parents died in Hitler’s concentration camps.
Not long before his death, Opa brought me papers, photocopies of ancient handwritten letters written by his father, sent in the late ‘30s from a terrorized Germany to the Palestinian kibbutz where Opa lived. “He begged me to get him out of Germany,” Opa said, rare tears filling his eyes. “And I couldn’t do it. I had no money.”
Though Opa was himself in his 90s when he showed me these letters, he couldn’t get rid of these papers because, he said, it felt akin to abandoning his father all over again. Opa suffered severe survivor’s guilt, tremendous anxiety and almost OCD need for control of everything in his life. This guilt travels down my family line like a serpent through our cells. It manifests in my father, it bubbles up in me, and in my two half-siblings. We are all prone to anxiety that, at times, can become panic.
Newer research has begun to look at the lingering effects of survivor’s guilt, as well. Reactions afterward, says Dr Josh Klapow, associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health and a clinical psychologist, “May range from a broad array of acute stress reaction symptoms—nightmares, intrusive thoughts, severe anxiety, hyper-vigilance—to complete emotional numbness as his natural and hard-wired psychological defense mechanisms kick in.”
This information need not be discouraging. Knowledge is power, and the body is wiser than we realize. Consider that if one set of circumstances, such as trauma, caused epigenetic changes in your ancestors’ and your own biology, then making strides toward healing can make yet more changes, hopefully for the better.
Yehuda believes that the first step in treating trauma, whether directly yours, or a biological echo of your elders, is first to attempt to understand it, and then to put it in a context of meaning.
Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl, famed for his book Man’s Search for Meaning, was one of the first to make the case for the pursuit of meaning as necessary to heal from trauma.
Further research suggests that learning the details of your family history, writing down your own trauma, can help. Dr Arielle Schwartz, a clinical psychologist, has these tips for healing the trauma of your ancestors:
- Reflect on the generations before you (both those living and deceased) including their hardships and accomplishments.
- Make a family tree and research your roots.
- Frame and make visible photos of your ancestors.
- Take a moment of gratitude for those who came before you
- Create your own family traditions to strengthen your family identity
Those who treat trauma agree that while you can’t change the past, you do have the power to affect the future, taking steps toward your own healing, or for the greater good.