Generational Trauma: Is It In Your Genes?

The phenomenon of “generational trauma” was explored in the powerful documentary “I’m Good Bro: Unmasking Black Male Depression,” screened during Mental Filmness 2020 (inaugural virtual festival—guess why?). Generational trauma refers to trauma that has been passed down through generations of families that stems from a devastating historical experience like surviving slavery or genocide. Some of the most recent research on generational trauma demonstrates that not only is it very much a real phenomenon, it may run even deeper than we think. Newer studies on epigenetics suggest trauma may actually be able to work its way into your very genes.

How does this work? This BBC article explains the science in a (sort of) accessible way. “Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes.”

There are also some much more technically complex studies published in medical journals you can find on the Internet on this phenomenon if you’re good at decoding that kind of thing. The bottom line is, there seems to be some legit science supporting it.

This is still a fairly new science, which means, as the article says, it is generating a lot of heated debate. The implications of these early findings are pretty profound. We may pass down trauma on a completely biological level, which means our heirs may physically react in ways that are beyond their control and very consciousness. The descendants of Holocaust survivors, slaves, and PoWs may all be prone to heightened psychological distress—including symptoms like panic, mistrust, insomnia and nightmares, and hypervigilance—without even having experienced the original source of trauma.

So not only are you likely to inherit generational trauma through your home environment and your parents’ behaviors, whether conscious or not, but you might possibly be born with it already latent in your very genetic makeup. I guess an optimistic way to look at it is the more we recognize generational trauma as a valid and perhaps even ingrained genetic problem the more we are prepared to acknowledge it and treat it. I know people with generational trauma would most likely want their experience and their trauma validated and acknowledged.

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