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Generational Trauma: Fact or Fiction?

The concept of "generational trauma" has garnered significant attention in recent years, suggesting that individuals can inherit the emotional burdens of their forefathers' difficult life experiences. But is there scientific evidence to support this notion?


First, let's look at what “trauma” means. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, abuse, or natural disaster.” 


When a person is traumatized, alarm and alert systems are activated in the brain, memory systems are overwhelmed with intense stimulation, and the body’s ability to return the mind to its restful state is impacted. The effects of trauma can be varied and may include symptoms like:


  • Concentration problems

  • Memory problems

  • Psychological distress

  • Physiological distress

  • Relationship problems

  • Social withdrawal

  • Fear

  • Sadness

  • Feeling nervous, jumpy, or on high alert

  • Irritability or anger

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Trouble feeling positive emotions


These are all things that many of us will experience at different times throughout our lives - but could we be predisposed to some of these symptoms/manifestations of trauma?


The data suggests yes.


In a landmark study published by Nature Neuroscience, researchers conditioned male mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms by associating the scent with mild foot shocks. The animals eventually learned to associate the scent with pain, shuddering in the presence of it, even without a shock.


Two weeks later, they bred the mice with females. The resulting offspring were raised to adulthood having never been exposed to the smell. Yet when the mice caught a whiff of it for the first time, they suddenly became anxious and fearful. 


Interestingly, the mice that were made sensitive to the smell of cherry blossoms, along with their offspring, had more smell-detecting cells in their noses and larger brain regions responsible for processing smell signals, including those related to fear.


Even the third generation of mice still showed the same sensitivity to the smell, indicating that this response was passed down through multiple generations. However, it's important to point out that the second and third generations didn't seem to be scared of the smell itself. Instead, they just seemed to be more sensitive to it than their counterparts, showing how complex generational trauma can be.


What does this look like in a real world application? Here are some examples:


You had a great grandparent who was imprisoned for their religious or political beliefs. Today, this trauma can manifest as feeling anxious or extremely nervous in social situations where you don’t feel supported. You may find yourself unable to communicate effectively and feel jittery and on edge.


Or


Your mother grew up with an alcoholic father who screamed obscenities at the family when he was intoxicated. You are now incredibly sensitive when someone raises their voice at you and find you are not able to effectively respond to someone who is speaking to you this way.


Although these examples may seem vastly different from the trauma response of the mice to the scent of cherry blossoms, these are some examples I see of manifestations of trauma with clients I work with. The consequences of passing down the effects of trauma are huge, even if they are subtly (or not so subtly) altered between generations. 


Now, just because the data shows that trauma can be passed down generationally, doesn’t mean we should feel that we have no control over the process. 


In light of findings from both human and mouse studies, there's a clear pathway for change.


Building on the mouse experiments, researchers explored desensitization techniques by repeatedly exposing mice to the scent without accompanying foot shocks. This approach led to the formation of new associations, suggesting that the trauma's effects could be mitigated or even reversed.


For humans, therapeutic interventions like somatic-based therapy provide a tangible path forward. By addressing trauma from both physical and psychological angles, individuals have the potential to break the cycle of inherited trauma. With determination and the right support, meaningful change is within reach, offering hope for a brighter future free from the burdens of the past.



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