Your physical traits, thoughts, behaviors, and emotional tendencies are a result of both nature and nurture. This is true for humans, other animals, and to some extent, plants, and even microorganisms. All living organisms contain a genetic code that they inherit from generations that came before. Your environment and formative events in your life determine which aspects of your genetic code will be expressed or remain dormant. The field of epigenetics has revealed that trauma can be passed down from one generation to another, a phenomenon referred to as intergenerational trauma.
One of the best examples of intergenerational trauma is illuminated in the cherry blossom study from 2014. In this study, mice were unfortunately harmed by receiving an electrical shock, followed by exposure to a cherry blossom scent. This traumatic process was repeated until eventually the mice were exposed only to the cherry blossom scent, without the electrical shock. As you might have guessed, after a while, the mice responded to the cherry blossom scent as if they were still being shocked with electricity.
Eventually, these mice had offspring and this new generation of mice exhibited the same traumatic response to the cherry blossom scent, even though they had never experienced the electrical shock firsthand. They were also more sensitive and hypervigilant to the cherry blossom scent than the previous generation and could pick up on the slightest cherry blossom fragrance in their environment. This second generation of mice eventually had offspring of their own who also exhibited a traumatic response to the cherry blossom scent. Similar to these mice, humans also inherit trauma from previous generations in their DNA.
Epigenetics and Healing
Keep in mind that you have neural flexibility at any age and you can make new connections in your brain and have an impact on the expression of your genetic code.
While you might be susceptible to traumas and triggers that you’ve inherited, you also have access to helpful traits and resources from previous generations. Even though you can’t change your DNA, by making changes to your internal and external environment you can turn on and off the expression of certain genes.
Addressing intergenerational trauma changes your orientation in life. When you resolve trauma, you won’t be as intensely reactive to triggering situations because you will no longer be oriented around unresolved pain from the past. In turn, this will enable you to reorient around your ancestors' most productive genetic tendencies, such as resilience and fortitude.
How to Heal Intergenerational Trauma
If possible, investigate your family's history and make note of recurring behavioral or relationship patterns, traumas, and mental and physical health challenges.
Assess whether you are experiencing or perpetuating these patterns in your own life. Identify which patterns are within your control to change and how you will go about implementing these changes.
Reflect on the positive or helpful qualities in your family's history that you have inherited or would like to cultivate within yourself, such as strength, love, resilience, and fortitude. Make a list of ways to practice and emanate these qualities in your day-to-day life.
Get support from a therapist or coach to help you explore and work through intergenerational trauma while creating new neural pathways in your brain.
Stay open to learning new things and having unique experiences to help your brain make new connections.
Cultivate relationships that are based on trust, compassion, and mutual respect.
Practice mindfulness and meditation techniques to help reduce stress and rewire your brain.
Engage in hobbies and activities that give you energy and increase your sense of optimism while counteracting the impact of stress.
Connect to your ancestors through their songs, artwork, dances, foods, prayers, meditations, and traditions. Allow yourself to be nourished and inspired by the wisdom of generations before you.
Consume an anti-inflammatory diet containing nutrient-dense foods.
Improve your sleep hygiene so you can enjoy a high quality of sleep on a regular basis.
Exercise and practice yoga to reduce stress and increase helpful brain chemicals.
This combination of core resolution of trauma, lifestyle changes, and daily wellness practices can counteract the impact of inherited trauma. Remember that consistency is the key to a successful healing process.