A teenage boy who has never had trouble sleeping wakes up shivering early one morning and can’t fall back to sleep. Instead he feels strangely, intensely cold and fears that falling to sleep will be his death. For years afterwards, he suffers from debilitating insomnia that affects his schooling, career, and personal life. After years of medical help that fails to fully resolve the issue, he is led to explore a family story about an uncle who died years before he was born. The uncle had died of hypothermia while working up north, being caught out in a snowstorm. Exploring the link to his current fear of falling asleep and his uncle’s death, the young man works through the feelings that he finds in common with this ancestor, learns to separate his own reality from the past, and never suffers from insomnia again.
A young woman has intense, fluctuating emotions that lead to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Medical interventions not only fail, but make the woman ever more despondent and fearful for her future well-being. At her lowest depths, she admits to a new psychologist her darkest, yet liberating dream. A dream where she jumps into a steel forging furnace where she is instantly vaporized and incinerated, ending her horribly painful existence. After exploring her family history with her psychologist, she recalls that her grandmother’s family were Jewish and had died in the holocaust, being gassed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and “incinerated” in the crematoria. In exercises putting herself in her grandmother’s shoes, imagining what her feelings of grief and loss must have been like with the guilt and despondency of surviving, the woman realizes her depression has its roots with her grandmother’s experiences. She soon overcomes her own fears, her depression and desire to die.
Do these examples seem farfetched? At first glance they seemed a bit out-there to me too, but I have indeed wondered about my own feelings of depression and anxiety in light of my own family history that I have uncovered. I have often felt that many of my negative emotions are irrational and have no connection with my actual life experiences, but that perhaps they are inherited…That somehow our ancestors lives become stained with some trauma, something that they cannot clear up themselves, and that stain is subtly passed down to the future generations, who are—somehow—faced with resolving it themselves. It turns out that science is starting to look at family trauma in just this way. The cases above are taken from Mark Wolynn’s book, It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Wolynn has done much pioneering work in the psychology of family trauma, and his book outlines a new and apparently successful approach to handling long-standing, puzzling issues that other medical strategies and interventions cannot seem to handle.
Wolynn devotes a large part of his book to the rapidly evolving (no pun intended) field of epigenetics. This is an area of genetics that studies the barely understood role of “junk DNA”, the part of our genetic coding that scientists had previously assumed was not directly responsible for anything too exciting. It is not really involved with the basic, more tangible stuff such as eye-color and predisposition to inherited diseases like Multiple Sclerosis. However, it may have a role in the expression and coordination of the other genetic material. Science is now finding that this part of our DNA can indeed be influenced by stressful, traumatic events in our lives, and the mutations expressed there actually passed down through generations to crop up as confusing and seeming acausal symptoms in descendants who never experienced the original traumas. Intense periods of stress can induce chemical changes in our body, changes that can affect bodily organs and even our cells, right down to ova and sperm, the carriers of our DNA to the next generations.
It is important to note, as some critics of Wolynn fail to do, that Wolynn is not saying that all inherited family trauma is passed through epigenetic mechanisms. For example, the young man whose uncle froze to death cannot possibly have received any affected DNA from his uncle, but perhaps the trauma was transported otherwise. We need to fully recognize that family trauma can also be inherited subtly, through behaviors and language that creep their way into the everyday lives of our grandparents and parents, influencing our core beliefs and value systems that obviously affect our emotions and how we ourselves deal with our day to day issues.
In hindsight, I now realize how loaded many of my parents’—especially my mom’s—words and actions were. When she talked about the past, she often seemed carried back to it, reliving the anxieties and traumas of long ago. Although she so much wanted to protect her children from those scary feelings and especially terrible experiences of the war, the faintest smudges or stains came through to me and my sister regardless. And, although it seems odd to think of oneself as a single-celled ovum, affected within your mother’s young ovaries during the stresses and terrors of Nazi occupation, these epigenetic theories certainly would explain a lot about my irrational fears and anxieties…
In any case, it seems that the scientific community is now seriously investigating these patterns of family trauma that repeat to manifest themselves over and over through generations. Developing better techniques and strategies to help people cope with mental afflictions, wherever and whenever they may have originated, can never be a bad thing. We may just need to look back at our ancestors’ experiences and the unexpected consequences of these carrying forward through time to find us.