Inheriting Family Trauma

by | 28 Jun 22 | Mind

Have you ever found yourself mirroring your parents’ habits or repeating certain phrases of theirs without realising that you were doing so? Caught in both pleasant and slightly off-putting disbelief, you attempt to shake off the similarity and convince yourself that it was a rare coincidence. For better or for worse, it’s a natural possibility that we may mimic our parents and their personality traits as we develop into adulthood. Perhaps you unwillingly adopted your father’s love for reading and your mothers’ witty sarcasm. When these similarities unconsciously expose themselves it’s only natural to draw connections to the family members closest to us. That being said, what if someone was to suggest that we don’t only inherit habits, eye colour and sarcasm from our parents but quite possibly their emotional baggage too?

At some point in our lives, many of us wonder why we are carrying such heavy burdens, often burdens that don’t feel like our own to carry. Our emotional reactions to situations may seem unreasonable and our natural thinking patterns may bury us deeper into the dark corners of our mind. Sometimes lingering depression, recurring anxiety, body pains or irrational phobias may find their root cause in our very own family history. The trauma our parents, grandparents, and even our great-grandparents experienced may have seeped into our genetics and is causing us to relive their emotional suffering.

Generational trauma, also known as transgenerational trauma, occurs when effects of trauma are passed down between generations. Recent research has claimed that traumatic experiences can be passed on to three, even four succeeding generations. This emotional inheritance displays itself within our gene expression as well as the words that make up our everyday language.

Understandably, the concept that we can relive aspects of our family’s suffering may be a difficult idea to embrace. Nonetheless, it has been the subject of many research studies and therapy trials for the past several years. However far-fetched the notion may be, it is rather comforting to think that the anxiety residing in your chest or your disruptive lifestyle choices might not be influenced by your unsolicited fears alone. They could very well stem from ongoing behavioural cycles that have not yet been resolved within your family.

Let’s dive deeper into the science behind this radical claim…

The accredited author of ‘It Didn’t Start with You’, Mark Wolynn has stated that ‘unresolved traumas from our family history spill into successive generations, blending into our emotions, reactions, and choices in ways we never think to question.’ He also suggests that repressed or ignored pain submerges through generations until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. This resurfacing of past pain can affect any of us, even if we have not directly experienced our ancestor’s trauma ourselves.

The pioneering cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, suggests that when a mother is pregnant, “her emotions, such as fear, anger, love, hope among others can biochemically alter the genetic expression of her offspring.” He demonstrates that a child who experiences a stressful in utero environment can become reactive in similarly stressful situations, in later life.

The intrinsic connections we possess with our ancestors has a profound effect on why we are, who we are. For example, did you know that your grandmother carried part of you inside her womb? Well, scientifically a female foetus is born with all the eggs she will ever have in her lifetime, so when your grandmother was carrying your mother in her womb, you were a tiny egg in your mothers’ ovaries. From this we can explore the ways in which residue of traumas your grandmother experienced can be passed down to you and other family members, with far-reaching consequences.

Gretchen’s Case Study (‘It Didn’t Start with You’ by Mark Wolynn)

For several years, Gretchen was dependent upon anti-depressants and had been admitted several times to a psychiatric hospital; where she was diagnosed as bipolar with a severe anxiety disorder. In his book, Wolynn suggests that through dissecting our core, everyday language, we can unearth the roots that connect us to our trauma. During therapy, Gretchen had confirmed her wish to commit suicide and Wolynn asked how she was planning to commit the act. With a disturbing lack of emotion, Gretchen stated that she wished to ‘vaporise’ herself and that she would incinerate within seconds.

Wolynn stated that the words “vaporise” and “incinerate” were so specific and uncommon, it led him to dig deeper into Gretchen’s family history. It turns out that Gretchen’s grandmother had originally been born into a Jewish family, however after marriage she converted to Catholicism. Tragically, a few years earlier her entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz and she was the lone survivor. No one in Gretchen’s family spoke of the grandmother’s tragedy, as with most family trauma the topic was avoided entirely.

The feelings Gretchen had harboured in her body for years, the untriggered anxiety and lingering depression did not originate from Gretchen but from her grandmother and the family members who did not survive. Through drawing the connection to her grandmother, Gretchen understood where her sensations of overwhelming loss and grief were stemming from, as she could never identify the trigger in her own life. She had subconsciously taken on her grandmother’s survival guilt and secret longing to join her deceased family. This recognition that her trauma lay buried in her family’s unspoken history was a pivotal step in Gretchen’s journey to recovery. She finally felt some comfort in her pain, when she imagined her Grandmother and understood her grief.

In the second half of his book, Wolynn explores the ways in which wounds of previous generations can be resolved through visceral forms of healing. From the way in which we repair our relationship with our parents, to identifying our body’s reaction to pain and distress, healing can begin at any stage in our lives. Based on Lipton’s research, we can also discover how DNA can be affected by positive thoughts, beliefs and emotions.

This concept is further supported by Dr Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist who wrote the book ‘Words can Change Your Brain’ and it turns out they can, quite literally. Within his theory, he states that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress,” emphasising the importance of adopting positive mental language.

The significance of this research is unparalleled. From this we can infer that anyone can heal generational wounds and disrupt negative cycles through positive belief, affirmations and thoughts. If you decide to work on your emotional state, attend therapy and heal internally, you could be responsible for breaking the cycle and saving future generations from lingering ancestral darkness.

It’s important to note that we are not chained to the trauma we unconsciously inherit; we do not have to pass on toxic behaviour that has repeated itself throughout generations. We can educate ourselves, through reading books such as Wolynn’s and resolve familial trauma, through working on our mental and emotional health. This small effort on our part, could potentially do wonders for our future families who are yet to come and wonders for own sense of inner peace.

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