Fun in the Trees ... May 1936

Who’s hanging out in your family tree, and what have they done to you??

As grown adults on a family therapy kick, my sister and I asked our dad about our family lineage.  He first tried to pass the buck on to my grandma, laughing it off and telling us to ask her because she loves that stuff.  When we kept prodding, he finally said, ‘What if I told you that your great great grandfather was the mayor of their town and ran for president?’ Jules and I both responded with excited grins and an instant barrage of follow up questions. My dad, surprised, laughed with confusion and answered, ‘No, not really, but what does it matter?  You could say anything and it doesn’t make a difference. You are who you are.’

We did not see it the same way. My grandma has long reported that among other things our great great great uncle by marriage was the real Uncle Sam and that we had a distant relative who lived in a cave in Oklahoma during the dust bowl.  Along with those rather intriguing bits of history, we loved hearing about our ancestors and their farms and charms. It was easy to see the origin of some of our family traits, the good obviously highlighted more than the bad.

It turns out my sister and I were right and Dad was wrong (so, ha ha ha)!  Neuroscientists and psychologists are finding more and more support for the theory that family trauma is passed down from generation to generation. Everything from hormone levels, to language, to phobias can be and commonly are inherited.  The amount of stress a mother is experiencing while she is pregnant imprints itself on her baby’s DNA, and as a result via the reproductive cells already in that child’s body, she also creates a ripple effect that will last for three generations to come.

Check out some of the research:

  • Neurobiology research on PTSD in Holocaust survivors and their descendants shows effects of PTSD in survivors’ children, including similar predispositions to depression and anxiety.
  • Similar findings were found in 9-11 survivors’ and war veterans’ children with an increase in their number of activated genes that were related to PTSD.
  • One mice study found that when mothers were shocked in the presence of a cherry blossom scent, they increased the number of receptor cells in the brain dedicated to detecting cherry blossom scent.  When they later became pregnant and gave birth, their babies were born with the same high number of receptors for cherry blossom and without the mother’s influence jumped when introduced to the scent.  The first mother’s effects continued for 3 generations.

In his book, It Didn’t Start With You, Mark Wolynn methodically presents the research showing how families pass down trauma from one generation to the next both biologically and behaviorally.  He says, “Unresolved traumas from our family history spill into successive generations, blending into our emotions, reactions, and choices in ways we never think to question.”  Uncovering the mysteries that live in our family history reveal answers to the world we live in today. He talks about the opportunity that this understanding holds for us. “The traumas we inherit or experience firsthand can not only create a legacy of distress, but also forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.”

Wolynn’s prompts incited me to recall a proud history of my family overcoming adversity and showing strong character.  From a bounce back from the dust bowl and the depression to bringing or keeping orphaned siblings together, my family heritage has plenty to imply that tenacity and character are a part of my backbone.

But I know there is so much more. I want to know the how, when and why behind the branches on the family tree.  I want to know how I’m continuing the family tradition and why I am doing it.  This book is a pure treasure chest of family introspection, and I suspect it may be an instrument of torture for some of my less enthused relatives when I get to my deeper digging.

The powerful takeaway with this relatively new-to-psychology and brand new-to-me knowledge is that our world is way bigger than it seems.  There is an energy that connects us and continues beyond us in every direction, and we are all a part of it.