Epigenetics & Inherited Trauma– How Past Stresses Can Affect Our Future

In our previous article, we learned about recent studies of epigenetics – the science of how our environment shapes us. We looked at the effect external factors can have on our bodies, and in this post we’re going to consider how our environment can influence our minds, as well as those of future generations.

Mind & Body Connection

To understand how this is possible, it’s important to appreciate the inextricable link between mind and body. Every time we think a thought, it’s transformed via an electrical impulse into solid, physical outcomes.

So, what does this look like in real life? Let’s take mental stress as an example.

Mental or psychological stresses are expressed by our body though a number of different physical reactions. Things like increased heart rate, widening of the blood vessels and the release of hormones such as cortisol all help us to cope in stressful situations by making us feel more alert and ready for action.

However, when exposed to extreme stress, such as during a traumatic event, our response can have the opposite effect and actually harm the body.

Inherited Trauma

War, slavery and oppression.

These and other types of trauma can result in the abnormal regulation of systems that control hormone levels in our bodies, leading to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hypertension and obesity. In essence, genes controlling stress responses are expressed differently in those who have experienced traumas to those who haven’t.

And there is evidence to suggest that hormonal dysregulation and susceptibility to related conditions can be inherited. For instance, children of pregnant mothers who survived the atrocities of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda have been found to be predisposed to show symptoms of PTSD and depression.1

What Does This Mean Today?

Epigenetics demonstrates that the way we react to stressful situations is heavily influenced by our environment. A traumatic event can change how we respond to psychological stressors, as well as leaving a genetic imprint on future generations.2 This means historical traumas can be as visceral now as when they were first experienced.

I think it’s important we bear this in mind today, when we consider modern social movements like Me Too, Climate Change and Black Lives Matter. These crucial uprisings may be triggered by current day stresses – however, how we react to them can be deeply rooted in our history.3

Understanding and knowledge of the reversibility of epigenetic programming may help us as we try to change the world for the better, ensuring we are able to heal past traumas, reach progressive outcomes and promote healthier social cohesion.

Find Out More

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  1. Stenz L, Schechter DS, Serpa SR, Paoloni-Giacobino A. Intergenerational transmission of DNA methylation signatures associated with early life stress. Curr Genomics (2018) 19(8):665–75.
  2. Kellermann NP. Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: can nightmares be inherited?. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 2013;50(1):33-39.
  3. https://atlantablackstar.com/2016/06/05/post-traumatic-slave-syndrome-and-intergenerational-trauma-slavery-is-like-a-curse-passing-through-the-dna-of-black-people/