There is no doubt trauma changes us. When I (C.R.) was beginning graduate studies, my main focus was on what I call “legacy trauma.”
Personal interviews and experience has shown me that the children of those who are not spiritually and emotionally healed from traumatic experiences seem to be likely to pass down a legacy of trauma through the generations. This legacy affects every aspect of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives, from how they respond to positive or negative “news” to how they show their love for each other.
I’ve seen this primarily with families of Holocaust survivors and this was to be my main research, but certainly other traumatic, national and personal events (my focus was on national, ethnic, etc.), from war in places like Sudan and Syria, to the Japanese earthquakes, to the Ring of Fire Tsunami, appears to leave survivors with a broad range of reactions, ranging from feelings of helplessness to developing suddenly acquired but abiding belief in God.
But are there actual physiological changes that lead to a genetic legacy?
Alcohol and drug use can damage the genetic material in DNA in sperm, and fathers can pass along this damaged DNA to their children. We know that drug use such as tobacco, heroin, pot, alcohol (especially, it seems, binge-drinking) and so on, can also change your genetic material.
There are scientists who are studying the effects on our genes of the thousands of chemicals we bombard ourselves with daily (in our deodorants, cleaners, foods, clothing, etc.)
While some genetic changes might not be passed along down the generations and may be the triggers for various bodily illnesses in the person’s lifetime, such as cancer, and liver problems, other genetic changes are believed to be passed down to the next generation.
Trauma: Changing Brains, Hormones, & Our Lives
We know that chemicals both act on and are acted upon as we interact with our world. Sure, methamphetamine use will damage the brain, but, interestingly enough, so does depression and trauma. Some theories suggest that the chemicals that flood our bodies when we are depressed or traumatized act on the brain itself, but there is evidence for a range of theories.
But most scientists agree: Trauma does change the brain. Trauma is associated with lasting changes to the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex as well as increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to post-traumatic stressors. Now, research is beginning to show that the changes associated with trauma aren’t just in the cells of the brain, they are in our genetic material, too.
If this is the case, then it is possible that all the events, interactions, and situations in our lives might work, subtly to be sure, to change our genetic material, the stuff we are made and the stuff we pass down to the generations.
Of course, the logical follow-up questions are:
If traumatic events could change us and, embedded in code in our genes, pass down the characteristics of being traumatized to future generations, might positive events such as prayer, love and meditation, perhaps also have an effect on our changes, something we’re able to pass down to the next generation?
And could learned positive attitudes and supportive, loving environments even heal our damaged genes?