Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the weight of your family’s struggles? If so, you are not alone. Intergenerational trauma can be like a heavy stone that is passed down through generations, featuring in our families for decades without being properly discussed. Research has now established a direct link between inherited family trauma and issues such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This kind of trauma is particularly difficult to navigate because it mainly involves memories which cannot be pinpointed due to their occurring prior to one's own life experiences. Fortunately, there are more tools than ever available to help survivors address these traumas effectively.
What is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that are not caused by changes in the genetic code itself, but instead by environmental influences such as stress and lifestyle choices. Studies have found that adaptive and maladaptive patterns of behavior can be passed down through generations, and these patterns are further influenced by the type of environment in which future generations are raised. Unfortunately those living subconsciously trapped in trauma patterns are more likely to maintain the very environments in which said genes are activated. It can be extremely overwhelming to learn that in addition to what has happened to you, you may need to peel back the layers on what has happened outside the realm of your perception. "You mean things that haven't even happened to us, affect us?" Unfortunately (and fortunately), yes. We don't necessarily get a clean slate when we are born, yet this also gives birth to the contrasting nature of life because it is surely not all misery, even in the darkest of times. We also inherit different maps for strength when the going gets tough. The problem is that often these maps are outdated and not depicting the current social or emotional climate.
Looking Back at the Past
It's not so taboo anymore to look back and see how things were, at the very least, "less than perfect" in the household growing up. In fact one of the best parts of therapy to begin with is that you can speak about all of this without judgment for being "ungrateful" or "spoiled rotten", and simply use the insight to improve your own life and those of future generations. It is first imperative, I cannot stress this enough, to know that you're not a bad person for acknowledging how your parents may have affected your development doing the best they could within their capacity. It is an objective contrast, and totally valid to say "I have loving and caring parents that I wouldn't trade for anyone, and I have inherited some of their difficulties in navigating life". You're not disrespecting them by admitting these dialectical truths. If anything, looking at their history in the right setting and frame of mind can deepen our love and appreciation for them, and make it that much easier to express it verbally or behaviorally. Let's talk about a few exercises, adopted from Mark Wolynn's It Didn't Start With You, that you can do to begin conceptualizing things through the epigenetic framework. A difficult part of the beginning of trauma therapy is not knowing where to start, or what there even is to pick at, yet you know something is off.
1. Sensing the Flow
There is a flow of energy that exists between us and our parents, and it can be beneficial to first sense this connection (or disconnection) and how it feels in the physical body. You may visualize your biological parents standing in front of you, and if you don't have that to reference just sense the presence they might have had. Do you feel welcomed by them? Is one of them perceived different from the other? Are there any uncomfortable or comfortable sensations as you visualize them? How much of this energy would be "making it through" to you if you could measure it? Half? All of it? Only a tiny bit? The purpose of this is to check the main connection to our life force energy, much like checking the circuit breaker in a house if light switches and outlets stop working.
2. Visualizing Your Mother and Her History
First just imagine your mother in front of you, at an unremarkable distance. How does the sheer presence make you feel? What are you aware of? Imagine her moving further away, and then closer again back and forth. How does it make your body feel to imagine her from these distances? Then start to imagine any of the traumas she has/may have experienced, and what she may have felt during these struggles. Imagine her trying to protect herself as a child from emotional pain. Does this strike a compassionate nerve? You may even speak to this visualization of her with words of understanding and validation. How does it feel to say these words? Again, as always, notice the feeling in your body throughout.
3. Looking for an Interrupted Bond
While continuing to notice and be present in your body, ask yourself the following: Was there a trauma experienced by your mother or near her while she was pregnant with you? Was there a baseline depression, generalized anxiety, or obsessive compulsive traits? Any issues with the actual labor and delivery of you? Were you premature? Was there any degree of postpartum depression/psychosis? These experiences can create ruptures in how connected we feel to our mothers, which can begin the subconscious mapping of how connected we will feel to the rest of the world. Drawing from interpersonal neurobiological evidence, we learn to value and care for ourselves as adults based on how we were cared for early on, and how we watched our caregivers care for themselves. Quite often in therapy, individuals become frustrated that they're doing all that they can and still not seeing improvement. A very Eastern philosophical idea that has been backed by modern psychology is that in order to change, one must accept reality as it is. It is only then that you're enacting your efforts on the reality that exists, therefore experiencing change and not living on a treadmill. Looking back and reflecting on family history is a form of searching for what we may need to accept in the process of opening other doors for exploration in therapy, in order to better guide the work we do on our own experiences, instead of being overly focused on the past. When we learn that so much of the blueprint for how our nervous systems respond to life is influenced by the past generations, we can begin the process of first letting ourselves off the hook for struggling, and move closer to acceptance and breaking familial trauma cycles.
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY and is available to take new clients!
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.