Trauma can transfer through generations.
By Helen T. Verongos
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can stem from experiences far less dramatic than the nearby blast of an I.E.D. or a land mine. Trauma-inducing events can be the simple separation of mother and baby because of the hospitalization of one or the other. It can also transcend generations and manifest itself in a variety of painful and even potentially fatal ways.
So says Mark Wolynn in his book “It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle.”
In his book, Wolynn discusses what he calls (and has copyrighted as) the Core Language Approach, a means of mapping trauma by unearthing a specific event or period in a patient’s history or previous generations. Through a series of quizzes, questions, and genogram representations of past and present generations, he guides the reader into self-examination in a search for what are the keywords of a phobia or trauma reaction.
In his book, he writes: “During a traumatic incident, our thought processes become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button causes us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our day-to-day lives.”
Once those disembodied words are discovered, the goal is to create a bridge to the “core trauma” so that it can be healed. The book is full of case histories of people who resolved their suffering by uncovering this trauma and connecting with it through language. Wolynn, whose academic background is in psychology and English, frequently cites the work of the neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who has conducted pioneering studies in trauma and how it is transmitted. He explains in his book that there are many ways in which trauma can travel from generation to generation, and create physiological changes along the way. Still, one example, in particular, stands out in his book: The transmission from mother to fetus to egg or sperm cell in that fetus, a process that can presumably chart a course for the next two generations and beyond.
“When your grandmother was five months pregnant with your mother, the precursor egg cell you developed from was already present in your mother’s ovaries,” he writes. In that way, three generations coexist in one body and can be affected by hormonal and other reactions passed on through the placenta.
Wolynn also spent time in the East studying with meditation masters and gurus in search of answers to his issues. Two wise teachers, he writes, told him to return home. His answers, it seemed, lay in healing his relationships in his family of origin. While no one can provide a D.I.Y. blueprint for trauma resolution, Wolynn’s step-by-step guide, complete with glossary, can be a place to start the journey of self-examination, and his notes refer the reader to several PTSD-related studies.
Many of Wolynn’s clients at The Family Constellation Institute he runs in California trace their problems back to significant events like the Holocaust, or tragic accidents. But he firmly believes individuals should know that it’s not all bad news when you are delving into trauma. “The traumas we inherit or experience first hand can create not only a legacy of distress but also forge a legacy of strength and resilience for generations to come,” he wrote about the work of Dr. Yehuda.
Are we unwittingly passing our own traumas onto our children? That is a question many would like answered because trauma is not something easy to detect. It’s not a physical injury like a broken arm.
Former California First Lady Maria Shriver asked Wolynn a similar question in a Facebook Live interview. The best route parents take, Wolynn told her, is to “talk about the things that have happened in the family.” Too often, he said, things are kept secret in families as if to “immunize” children against a tragic event in the past, rather than allowing information to flow freely among the generations.