Can we inherit trauma from our ancestors?

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When I was 19, I chose to spend a year studying abroad in Ontario, Canada. As an independent and outgoing teenager, moving to another country seemed like the kind of adventure for me. But my problems started as soon as I got off the plane at the Toronto airport. I was gripped by an intense feeling of anxiety.

For two miserable weeks, I felt sick and restless and wanted to go home. I received frantic calls from family and friends urging me to stay, telling me I was completely normal homesick. I cried until I was sick, ignoring the worried messages that poured in.

I returned home 14 days after my arrival, humbled and emotionally exhausted, and continued my studies in England. I still feel the shame of it: I felt like I had embarrassed myself, let my family and friends down, and spent money I didn’t have. When people ask what happened, I don’t know what to tell them. I didn’t like college, I missed my friends, I was homesick. I was sure I couldn’t stay.

A few months ago, I told this story to a therapist, who immediately asked me if I had heard of the term “inherited trauma.” She explained that the irrational and highly emotional response I exhibited in this fairly ordinary situation may not have been mine – instead, I may have experienced the trauma of my grandparents, a fear inherited from incidents that happened long before I was born.

My grandfather came to the UK from Germany on the Kindertransport when he was 14 years old. He never saw his parents again; they were killed during the Holocaust. When my grandmother was only two years old, she too experienced her own traumatic separation, having been sent to the UK from Ontario following the sudden death of her mother.

They were both orphans exiled in a foreign land, who would never see, remember, or hear from the people who were supposed to protect and love them. Almost 80 years later, their grandson crossed the Atlantic, only to be gripped by hysterical pain. It sounds incredible, but could the two facts be related?

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Rachel Yehuda is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience. She established a clinic for Holocaust survivors at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City after seeing how the Holocaust still affected her local community. Yehuda examined how traumatic events physiologically alter individuals, through epigenetics. While genetics describes DNA sequencing, epigenetics examines how genes can be turned on and off through chemical tags that attach to our genes in response to changes in our environment and behavior.

When the clinic was established in 1992, Yehuda saw a growing number of children of Holocaust survivors who sought his help – who felt guilt, pressure and separation anxiety that they linked to the history of their parents. One possible explanation was that it was environmental: perhaps frightened mothers or overprotective fathers made their children feel stressed. But Yehuda and his team began to wonder if there was an element of biological inheritance at play. They examined the Holocaust offspring’s hormone levels and made a groundbreaking discovery. It seemed they had the same hormonal abnormalities as their parents – the epigenetic tags that attached themselves to their parents’ DNA in response to their trauma were evident in the next generation. The symptoms and triggers of PTSD were passed down from generation to generation; the trauma was, it seemed, hereditary.

Other studies have also launched the theory of biologically inherited trauma, including a 2013 experiment suggesting that mice can inherit fear from their parents or grandparents: it found that mice whose father or grandfather learned to associate the smell of cherry blossom with an electric shock were more nervous around the smell. These studies seem to lend scientific validation to something that some people instinctively believe: that the impact of traumatic events can be felt, generation after generation.

However, many experts remain skeptical. After an influential study by German geneticist Bernhard Horsthemke which argued that most, if not all, epigenetic tags are erased during fertilization, a Guardian article stated that the case for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans had “collapsed”.

Yehuda herself has always acknowledged the limitations of her study, describing the attribution of any specific epigenetic mechanism in descendants of trauma survivors as “premature”, while accepting that biological transmission does not mean that “biology is the fate”.

Even in the absence of conclusive evidence regarding the biological transmission of trauma, many of us feel deeply that our family histories and ourselves are inextricably linked; that the core of our being existed in some form even before we were conceived. I think it’s impossible for anyone to understand me and my values ​​without an explanation of my grandfather’s story.

In his 2016 book, It didn’t start with you, therapist Mark Wolynn explores how our family histories mark us. Although Wolynn refers to the role of epigenetic inheritance, he acknowledges that there are other forms of inheritance – our words and the stories we tell ourselves. Wolynn writes about the importance of understanding the language people use when describing their anxieties and fears: like a “breadcrumb trail,” words can lead us back to the initial trauma.

Wolynn tells the story of Jesse, a 20-year-old man who developed insomnia and woke up “frozen, shivering and unable to get warm no matter what he tried”. Every night Jesse was also gripped by a strange fear that something terrible would happen if he fell asleep again. When Wolynn asked about Jesse’s family background, Jesse told her that his uncle had died when he was 19, freezing to death in a blizzard in Yellowstone, USA.

Wolynn explains that: “Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death – in particular, the terror of slipping into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

I wondered how any of this could apply to me. Perhaps my strong reaction to Canada was not related to a biological propensity for anxiety, but to my family history of grief and separation. In an essay for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretzJosie Glausiusz, one of Yehuda’s study participants, asked, “How do you separate the impact of horrific stories heard in childhood from the influence of epigenetics?”

In my case, I believe that sometimes our reactions to events are shaped by our memories of the grief, guilt, or sadness our loved ones have experienced; shaped by the stories of their suffering that we are told.

Perhaps there was also a clue in the shame I felt on my return. Knowing that my grandmother, whom I never met, was born in Ontario, I felt like part of my past was there. I thought it would be nice to make that connection with her and come back with the missing piece of our family history. Instead, I felt homesick and regret, I felt deep disappointment and self-loathing. How could I, with my immense privilege, not accept this opportunity, when my grandparents had endured much harder journeys with no return?

There are several explanations for what happened to me in Canada. Maybe it was a hereditary fear, maybe I was unconsciously responding to stories about the tragedy of family separation. Or maybe I was feeling homesick that would have dissipated in a few weeks.

Either way, the legacy of trauma debate illustrates how little we understand about our emotions and where they come from.

[See also: Marianne Eloise: “People dismiss your illness if you’re not bleeding on the floor”]

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