Stress causes chemical changes in DNA – family trauma expert
Recent studies suggest that it’s not only our life experiences that help shape who we are but also those lived long before us. How is it possible? We asked Mark Wolynn, the leading expert in the field of inherited family trauma, director of the Family Constellation Institute and best-selling author.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Mark Wolynn, the leading expert in the field of inherited family drama, director of the Family Constellation Institute and best-selling author. Mark, really great to have you with us today on our show.
Mark Wolynn: Thank you, Sophie, I'm glad to be here.
SS: All right. So, Mark, you say traumas our ancestors might have gone through are passed onto following generations and impact our lives. How exactly does it work? And are these traumas passed as part of our genetic memory?
MW: Actually, they are. When a trauma happens, it changes us. Literally, it causes a chemical change in our DNA and this changes the way our genes function, sometimes through generations. Technically, a chemical tag will attach to our DNA and tell the cells, because of this terrible thing that just happens, trauma, it'll tell the cells to use or ignore these genes. So we have a better chance of dealing with or surviving what happened. But then the way our genes are affected can change how we act or how we feel. For example, we can become sensitive or reactive to situations that are similar to a trauma, even if that trauma occurred two or three generations ago, if our grandparents experienced a war trauma, famine, killing, people being lined up in the street, shot, bullets, bombs, they would epigenetically adapt, chemically change, a molecular change, they would adapt a skill set, maybe sharper reflexes, quicker reaction times, reactions to the violence that they experienced. And that would be what's passed down – their reactions, they're literally the stress response or the gene changes. Then the way our genes – We as children will receive their experience through this chemical change, this gene change. But the problem is we could inherit a stress response with the dial set to 10. And here we are waiting for this war to happen in our bodies, two generations later, but were born more in a peaceful time. So...
SS: So how exactly does it work? I always thought that, you know, genes carry hereditary information that manifests physically, like eye colour, height, I don't know, weight. But memory is something totally ethereal, tied to the subjective perception of things, consciousness, which scientists still can't really define properly. So how can genes pass on something as insensuous as memories?
MW: Yeah. I'll give some of the studies that are so interesting. So it starts with a woman named Rachel Yehuda, about 15 years ago, she's working with trauma survivors, Holocaust survivors. And she's realising that the trauma symptoms exist in the children similarly, as in the parents, but the children didn't go through the war. And it's not a taught or a learned experience, because then the scientists decide, ‘Well, let's see, let's remove some of the barriers, the factors that can influence this.’ So one of the most interesting studies comes out of Emory Medical University in Atlanta. This is probably 10 years ago, where they take mice and they make them fear a cherry blossom scent. The way they do that is the mice breathe in the scent, and then they're shocked. And every time the mice breathe this scent, they shock the mice. And in the very first generation of the shocked mice, they already see that the brains have changed, that there are enlarged areas with a greater amount of smell receptors. So the mice could detect this scent at lesser concentrations, thereby protecting themselves. Right in that first generation, their brains had epigenetically adapted to protect them. So the researchers have this idea, they say, ‘Well, wait a minute, let's see what happens in the next couple of generations.’ They take the sperm from the shocked mice, and they impregnate female mice, female mice that were not shocked. And then they separate the parent from the child. And the amazing thing is what happens in the second and third generations: the mice just by smelling the smell became jumpy and jittery, we're talking about the pups and the grand-pups, they had inherited the stress response without directly experiencing the trauma. This is just one of hundreds and hundreds of studies that I list in my book. There are numerous studies where they take the mother, the female mice away from their children, for just even for a very short time. In fact, one of the most replicated studies inall of epigenetics is taking baby mice away from the mothers and observing the effect for three generations. It's amazing how little the trauma has to be to affect the subsequent generations.
SS: How does healing the trauma through therapy actually change my genetic makeup? I mean, does therapy make the trauma genes go away?
MW: No, no, what it does, is it can change that mechanism. So when we do the healing work, which I'm happy to talk about, it can change the epigenetic signature, which passes from parent to child. I'll give you an example. One of the ways in which we heal, we've got to have a positive experience strong enough to change our brain. And then we need to practice the new sensations and the new feelings from these positive experiences. And when we do this, we not only create new neural pathways in our brain, which is one of the things I talk about – neuroplastic change, but also we stimulate the release of feel-good neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin, GABA in our brain, we stimulate the release of feel-good hormones like estrogen, oxytocin, but the very genes themselves also can begin to function in a new improved way. We can literally change the way our DNA expresses when we heal.
SS: Do we actually know what kind of gene is responsible for traumatic memories? Is it possible to identify?
MW: Yes, there's one that researchers focus on called the FKBP5 gene, there's about 100 or so genes. But this is a gene involved in stress regulation and depressive disorders. It's one that's well studied. But there are many, they begin to isolate particular genes. In fact, just a couple of years ago, going back to the work of Rachel Yehuda from Mount Sinai Medical, she found in this particular gene, the exact same gene changes in the very same region of the very same gene, generation to generation.
SS: All right, so you're saying actually that we're not born blank slates, but with a baggage of fears, prejudices from previous generations. How can one break the spell of this hereditary drawbacks? Is it even possible to heal from transgenerational wounds altogether once and for all?
MW: Absolutely. That's, you know, what I'm here to tell people that we may be born with a certain inheritance, a biological inheritance. For example, our parents or grandparents had these traumas that happened and we're born with this abundance of micro-RNAs or this change in histone or DNA modifications. And all of a sudden, we, out of the gate, are born with fears and feelings that don't always belong to us. But we can change this through experiences of compassion, receiving comfort, receiving support, experiences of having a gratitude practice would be a way to change it, experiences of even a generosity practice where we're doing something loving each day, loving kindness practice, mindfulness practice, ultimately, anything that allows us to feel strength or peace or joy inside these types of experiences, feed the prefrontal cortex, and can help us reframe that stress response that we've inherited so it has a chance to calm down, it has a chance to down-regulate. The idea is to pull traction, pull energy away from the limbic system, our overactive amygdala in a trauma, which can be twice its normal size, and to bring engagement to the forebrain, specifically, our prefrontal cortex, where we can integrate these new experiences, and our brains can change really. We know from mindfulness studies, that practicing mindfulness actually shrinks the amygdala and thickens the prefrontal cortex.
SS: Tell me this. What if, for instance, I had bad things happen to me in my country of birth, and I had to flee. But then I moved to America and I opened a little store and lived a happy life, gave birth to some kids there in a very happy state, will they still inherit the trauma?
MW: See, they could. That's exactly what you're describing right here is perfect. We have a trauma, we move from that country, it can be very traumatic, just like you said, we had to flee. And all of a sudden our children are born with this fear of not belonging or not feeling their home, or feeling terrified when they see a policeman, a man in uniform, because they've inherited aspects of the trauma you or your parents experienced. And that's just it, we don't even make the connection. We just think we're wired this way. Here we are born with a fear of men in uniform, a feeling of not belonging, a feeling of missing our home, a feeling that we’ll never fit in, all the things that you're talking about, potentially, the children could experience. And yet, they don't make the link to look back at your experience, your parents’ experience. And that's what I'm trying to teach people. When we have a fear, an anxiety or depression, some stress response, it may not, like the title of the book ‘It Didn't Start With You’, it may not have started with us. This could be, just like you said, the experience of the parents or the grandparents, and here we are not born as a blank slate. In fact, there's already this operating system that's, to use a computer analogy, already running in the background. So the idea is, again, basically, to put it in the nutshell, we need to practice being with these uncomfortable sensations in our body. So first thing I have people do in the book is to become a detective of what I call their trauma language. So I ask people certain questions so we can get these fears and feelings out. One of the questions I ask in the book is, ‘So, Sophie, what's your worst fear, the worst thing happened to you? If things went terribly wrong if things suddenly fell apart, what's the worst thing that could happen to you?’ And the answer to that could be one of two directions. It could be attachment language - ‘I'll be all alone, there'll be no one there, I'll have no support, I'll be left, I'll be rejected, I'll be abandoned…’ That goes in one direction, which talks about breaks in the attachment with our mother, which are heritable, or another generational direction is ‘I’ll hurt somebody, I'll harm a child, I'll go to jail, I'll do something terrible, I'll be hated, I'll be locked up, I'll do something terrible, I won't deserve to live.’ And you can hear the different quality of the language, that is generational language. And those events – who did something terrible, who felt they didn't deserve to live, who harmed a child accidentally or through war, or purposely. Because it's this type of trauma language that I found when a trauma happens, not only does our DNA change the way it expresses, but literally, it leaves clues in the form of fears and feelings and language in our psyche. For example, we will have emotionally charged words and sentences that form a breadcrumb trail. So I teach the reader when they read the book, how to listen for this trauma language, because as we know, from trauma theory, when a traumatic event happens to us significant information bypasses the frontal lobes so we can't really process the experience of what happened, we can't process this trauma. Because exactly what happened can't be named or ordered through words, because our language centres have been compromised in a trauma. So without language, our experiences get stored as fragments, fragments of memory, fragments of body sensation, fragments of emotions, fragments of images, language, which I'll get to in a minute. And we either remember too much or too little from the trauma, it's like the mind disperses, and essential elements get separated. To say it briefly, you know, we lose the story, and never complete the healing. That's the problem. But these pieces aren't lost, they've simply been rerouted in our verbal or nonverbal trauma language. When it's verbal, it's like the sentences I told you, ‘I'll be alone, I'll hurt somebody.’ When it's nonverbal, we have to look at our symptoms, our physical and emotional symptoms, particularly the symptoms that show up after something unsettling happens to us. So for example, we look for the fears, the anxieties, maybe that strike suddenly, when we reach a certain age, age 25 is when our grandmother became a widow, she lost our grandfather, and she never marries again. And here we are 25 and we pull away from our partner without realising we're connected to our grandmother's experience. Or, you know, we have a depression that begins after this event and this event is similar to an event in the previous generation. Nonverbal trauma language, it's also in our relationship struggles, who we choose, the type of person that we choose, the way we're treated. It's also in the way we deal with money or success.
SS: So you’ve mentioned some of the means that could combat these genetic traumas – mindfulness and positive experience that replaces the negative memory, a hereditary memory. Could something like, I mean, I don't know if you could mesh it all together with a scientific approach, something like hypnosis or past-life transgression work to heal something like this?
MW: So any modality, really, that has us focusing on what's positive because the brain is designed to focus on what's negative, we have a negativity bias in the brain, two-thirds of our amygdala scanning for threats. So it's very easy to remember and focus on the negative things to happen, that happened to us. It's not so easy to focus on the positive things. And that's again where healing lives, practicing what's positive. So again, you know, when I was talking about healing earlier, first we uncover or focus on what feels frightening in our body. First, we focus on what may feel uncomfortable until we –
SS: Sorry, I just wanted to say, it's really more about the sensations that we need to focus on in our body and sort of like unbundling them rather than getting to the bottom of the genetic memory of what happened, because you know how they say, once you get to the bottom of the story, it sort of loses its magic, it has no more power over you. So you are saying that's not the important part. The important part is to really work through the bodily sensations of where these fears are?
MW: Kind of thing. Two things – yes, absolutely, and it is important to know that it's not our story. That is key. So for example, through our trauma language, through our looking inside ourselves, we discover, ‘Oh, my God, these aren't my feelings. This is what happened to my grandmother; this is what happened with my mom, when, you know, my mom gave away her first baby, I aborted my first baby; my dad failed at age 40, I start to shoot myself in the foot at age 40, and I fail too; my grandmother and grandfather lost everything after they had children, and I've lost everything after I had lost children.’ So it's important also to be able to look at these experiences to get some freedom from the traumas that come before us. But as you put it, absolutely, it's extremely important to focus on the life-giving sensations in our body, like, for example, pulsing, tingling, softening, expanding, our blood flowing, our heart beating, waves of energy or warmth, holding what's positive in our body, not just what's frightening in our body, but going beneath that until we reach life-giving sensations and then being able to hold the experience of what's positive for at least a minute and then do that six times a day. That can be enough to change our brain to calm down our stress response, it's essential that we take time to have these positive experiences and then to let the sensations of these positive experiences affect us physically, affect us viscerally, and then trust the feelings of it in our body.
SS: Also, I want to look at this whole thing on a larger scale, right? And if we count not just our parents, but a few generations back, which would be World War, Great Depression, and we say that we get traumatic inheritance from them as well, then, if you think about it, everyone in this world, almost without exception has trauma, it turns out. Are you saying we're all damaged in one way or another? Because like, if that's the logic that we inherit, you know, trauma not only from our parents but maybe grandparents or great grandparents, and show me one person who hasn't had trauma in his genealogical tree...
MW: So yeah, I think trauma is the doorway to greatness. So when we look at what's uncomfortable and we heal what's uncomfortable, something in us arises to a more calm, peaceful, connected state where a lot of good can happen in the world, because we've looked at what's uncomfortable, we've dealt with it, we've used our traumas productively. But to the first part of your point, absolutely. All of us, going back far enough – I mean, you know, they show a three-generation link in the trauma research. So our great grandparents, our grandparents, and our parents, we can be affected by their traumas. But then because the traumas often don't heal, you might as well go back three more, and three more. So all of us, yes, can be affected with fears and feelings and depressions and anxieties and stressors that do not belong to us. But again, that other thing that I was saying, that's the gateway, that's the gateway to surmounting what's difficult, surmounting what feels impossible. We all know that when we reach a good plateau in our lives, a good place in our lives, we thank what was difficult, we say, ‘If it wasn't for that cancer I wouldn't have my heart open,’ or ‘If it wasn't for that difficult experience I wouldn't be the person I am today.’ So the way I look at trauma, these are our opportunities, our doorways.
SS: But then it makes me think, what will the collective trauma of living through this pandemic do for us all? I mean, are we doomed for three to five generations of people with PTSD? Because I mean, most of us have probably been traumatised by Covid in some way or another...
MW: It depends on exactly what personally we experienced during the pandemic. You know, yeah, we're all disconnected from other people. That's true. But also there are parents losing children, children losing parents, did we lose our income and our ability to provide for our family during this pandemic? How successfully are we navigating through the feelings of this pandemic, because it's stirring up a lot of helplessness, isolation? That for sure is true. But then again, it's an opportunity to go inside, because the pandemic, what it's doing to us, it's making us feel, as I said, helpless, isolated, scared, lonely, and that's bringing up a deeper well of personal trauma. Again, for me – more doorways, that we can walk through, a doorway of looking– For me, you know, I say, this pandemic is a place where we can focus on personal trauma and that's where we can heal, you know, because our children, our grandchildren, as we talked about, they're inheriting molecular changes, gene expressions from the experiences, our experiences, our parents’ experiences, our grandparents’ experience. And one of the ways we heal collective trauma that we're all experiencing is to heal our own personal trauma. We've got to do our own work, Sophie, we've got to heal what's in shadow. We've got to integrate what has been fragmented in us, how we numbed out, how we shut down, how we split off, how we tightened not to feel something. Then from a place of more clarity, once we've done this work, once we've learned to self-regulate our limbic brain, we can take action, we can do meaningful things in the world, we can create a meaningful impact in the world. When we're clear we can focus on what we're meant to do in life and do what we enjoy, you know, what energises us. Again, the pandemic is another doorway through which we can look at our isolation, our loneliness, our pain, and start healing.
SS: Well, on that positive note, I’m going to thank you for this wonderful interview. It's been such a pleasure talking to you, I could go on for hours.
MW: That's it's a big meaty topic, we can certainly go on a long time.
SS: Yeah. But I hope we get to do this again so we can elaborate a little more on this amazing subject that could actually be the magic pill to solving a lot of our problems. So thanks a lot for this insight and good luck with everything, Mark.
MW: Thank you for having me, Sophie. I enjoyed our talk.
SS: Thanks for being with us today.