As Psychotherapists we are familiar with the concept of Intergenerational Trauma, we listen to our clients stories as chapters in a wider familial novel and generally accept that the traumas of parents, grand-parents and forefathers are deeply woven into the psychological fabric of the client presenting before us. But exactly how trauma passes from one generation to the next is not well understood and as with many aspects of human psychology is open to theory and debate.
Within relational schools of psychotherapy we mainly assume intergenerational trauma to be created via the attachment system. It is with this thinking that we assume that we ‘Parent as we have been Parented’, creating patterns of relating from one generation to the next that become so hardwired they are inflexible and resistant to change (Fonagy et al. 1991). From this viewpoint, when we consider attachment systems in which trauma exists, we quickly learn that ‘Traumatic Attachments’ cause profound effects on parent-child interactions over generations.
Biological schools of thought take a less relational or environmental view of personality development and place much more emphasis upon our DNA structure and gene pool to understand our vulnerability to stress and other trauma associated symptoms (Bouchard et al 1990). In essence thought remains divided by the age old nature/ nurture debate.
Now, for the first time new research has demonstrated that the transmission of pre-conception parental trauma to child does exist via epigenetic changes in both generations. Yehuda, R. et al (in press) recently announced findings after studying genetic changes in Holocaust survivors and their children. They found an effect on the FKBP5 methylation gene in not only the holocaust survivor but their offspring also. FKPB5 determines how effectively the organism can react to stress hormones, and so regulates the entire stress hormone system. Having compared with a similar pool of Jewish families who lived outside of Europe during the war who did not demonstrate these findings the epigenetic changes could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure.
This is a huge development in our understanding of intergenerational trauma and what is really being demonstrated here is that an integrative view of the importance of both experience and genetics needs to be considered to understand the phenomena of ‘passing on’ trauma. Our experiences can quite literally change us, and in doing so they adapt the line of future generations that follow.
For me this research raises further questions that are important for the psychotherapist to consider, such as, if we can be born with the legacy of our forefather’s traumas can anything be done about it? Or are the offspring of trauma survivors helplessly subject to psychological vulnerability from birth? Ultimately, our role as psychotherapists is to offer a treatment for psychological distress, but is this possible if we consider this type of ‘distress’ as hereditary? We do not commonly believe we can change blue eyes to green, instead we accept that we are simply born that way.
However, clients who carry the burden of intergenerational trauma do arrive in our offices presenting with various therapeutic needs, and in my experience they can and do heal. Furthermore, as similarly as we may pass on trauma we pass on healing. For me, one of the real beauties of therapy is that the client is rarely the only individual who benefits from the process. Relationships resemble a dance, whereby if one changes step the other must follow in order to remain fluid, hence a change in one person means a change in all who relate to them. Most significantly, a client who heals from deeply ingrained patterns of relating has the opportunity to ‘pass on’ a new internal working model of relationship for their future generations (Bowlby 1979).
The Yehuda, R. et al (in press) research demonstrates that trauma can change us at our most fundamental biological level, but what is trauma but an experience and hence we can consider the broader term of ‘experience’ to be the factor that has the potential to biologically alter us. If we engage in new positive relational experiences as is the goal of relational psychotherapy then change can occur not only in our internal and external patterns of relating but perhaps intrinsically also. Therapy could therefore not only be of benefit to the presenting client, but possibly any future generation to be born post therapeutic intervention.
For me, the research evidences not only the existence of epigenetic changes in trauma survivors and their offspring but offers an empirical basis from which we can begin further lines of enquiry. If these epigenetic changes have been documented for negative experience can the same be true for positive? I ask the question ‘Can positive relational experience be epigenetically inherited?’ if we prove this to be so, we further the evidence base for relational forms of psychotherapy and an argument to invest in such therapy as means of reducing the demand on mental health services for future generations.
Bouchard T.,Lykken D., McGlue, Segal N. & Tellegen A. (1990) Sources of Human Psychological Differences: The Study of Twins Reared Apart . Science, New Series, Vol. 250, No. 4978 223-228
Bowlby J (1979) The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London. Tavistock
Fonagy P., Steele M., Moran G., Steele M., Higgitt A (1991) The Capacity for Understanding Mental States: The Reflective Self in Parent and Child and its Significance for Security of Attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 13, 200-216
Yehuda R., Daskalakis N., Mierer L., Bader H., Klengel T., Holsboer F., & Binder E (in Press) Holocaust Exposure Induced Integenerational Effects on KFBP5 Methylation. Biological Psychiatry Sourced: The Neuropsychotherpist 18, 4