Intergenerational Trauma: Four Unconscious Themes
Updated: Oct 3
Neuroscientists, researchers, scientists, psychologists, therapists, and other professionals in the research field have know for a while that trauma is passed down in families, but it was hard to pinpoint how that occurs epigenetically. What does it look like on a molecular level for trauma to be inherited? What are some risk and resiliency factors? But most importantly, how do we heal from inherited trauma?
Mark Wolynn, the founder and director of The Family Constellation Institute and the author of It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle (2016), created the first of its kind roadmap to help individuals learn how to heal from inherited trauma. His work will be referenced frequently in this post.
On A Molecular Level...
Recently, scientists have started to learn more about the biological processes that occur when trauma is inherited. Through the study of mice (since 99% of genes in humans have counterparts in mice), researchers discovered that mice who were traumatized through prolonged periods of separation from their mothers exhibited depression symptoms. When the researchers had those mice reproduce, the pups in the second and third generation exhibited the same depression symptoms of the trauma, even though they didn't directly experience it. MicroRNA, the genetic material that helps regulate the expression of genes, was found to be high in the sperm, blood, and hippocampi of the mice who had been traumatized. After 3 generations, elevated microRNA were not detected in the mice, indicating to researchers that the expression of traumatic events can occur for three generations, but potentially not beyond that.
In a later study, it was shown that when these same mice lived in a positive, low-stress environment as adults, their behaviors improved AND they experienced changes in their DNA methylation, preventing those same depression symptoms from moving on to their next generation (Wolynn, 2016).
This is groundbreaking information. We have proof that trauma most literally changes our DNA, and not only that, but we also pass that trauma along for three generations, unless we intentionally heal. This also means that some of the mental health issues, behaviors, irrational fears, and negative thoughts that we might experience are actually part of what's passed down to us three generations prior.
Take a minute to let that sink in. It's a big deal.
Four Unconscious Themes
These themes are pretty common to the majority of us, but all of their affects lay below the subconscious, so we don't realize how it's affecting us. These themes play a role in the trauma we inherited, and they can negatively affect our ability to flourish in life. These themes show up in our words, behaviors, health, relationships, and success. The four unconscious themes are:
We have merged with a parent - Did one of your parents struggle physically, psychologically, or emotionally? Did you try to take their pain from them? Did it hurt you to see them in agony? Did you feel like you had to side with the feelings of one of your parents over the other? Were you afraid to show one of your parents more love than the other because you didn't want to hurt them? In what ways do you see yourself struggling the same way your parents did? Are you able to recognize the pain of your parents inside of you? When we merge with a parent, we unconsciously take on a negative aspect of their life. We repeat their same circumstances and situations.
We have rejected a parent - Do you judge, reject, or blame a parent for something they've done to you? Have you cut yourself off from either of them? Setting boundaries towards parents with toxic behaviors is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves, however it's also important to remember that compassion and understanding are what truly sets us free. Both of these things can exist at the same time. We can hold our parents accountable for bad behavior, and we can also have compassion for the trauma they endured when they were children, understanding that it affected their ability to be the parent we needed them to be when we were children. We can't expect our parents to be any different than they are now; it's our understanding of their trauma and our compassion that will change. The relationship dynamics might not change either, and they don't have to, but it's your perspective that will.
We have experienced a break in the early bond with our mother - Did your mom have a difficult birth? Were there relationship difficulties between your parents during pregnancy? Were you adopted? Were you born premature? Did your mother lose a child before you were born? Were you or you mom sick when you were a child, and the sickness involved being separated from each other for a period of time? Did something traumatic occur to you mom that affected her ability to be present? Was she preoccupied with something else? Was there a disconnection in how she spoke, the way she looked at you, how she touched you, or the tone of her voice? Do you struggle to form a bond in your relationships today? When you experience closeness, do you shut down, push away, or pull away? As infants, our mother is our entire world. When we experience any form of separation from her, it feels like a separation from life itself.
We have identified with a member of our family system other than our parents - Was there a trauma in the family (early death of parent, sibling, child, murder, abandonment, suicide, etc), an event that no one talks about because it's too shameful or painful? Do you have feelings, symptoms, or behaviors that are difficult to explain based on your current life experience? Could you be feeling like, behaving life, atoning for, suffering like, or carrying the grief for someone who came before you? Could you be connected to the life event no one ever talks about? Could you be reliving that family member's trauma as if it were your own? It's common for people to struggle explaining the difficult feelings and behaviors they've been carrying, even after identifying that they've had a loving, strong relationship with their parents.
In the next blog post, we're going to explore how to start healing from these traumas through an approach called the Core Language Map. We'll move step by step through this map to give you tangible tools to start healing your intergenerational trauma.
It might not have started with you, but it can end with you.
Wolynn, M. (2016). It didn't start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle.
At Root Counseling, we help clients explore intergenerational trauma in a safe space, creating opportunities for them to bring to light what's been lost and heal what's been broken. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.