Updated: Sep 5, 2020
Famine. Systemic oppression. The Holocaust. All are vile, traumatic experiences that have psychologically burdened and distressed people of every age. Beyond the evident harm to the individual is the daunting possibility of a more long-lasting and damaging threat— intergenerational trauma. Is it possible for children to inherit their parents’ trauma?
Scientists have recently posed this question through the emergence of behavioral epigenetics, a field suggesting the ability of various environmental factors, including personal experiences such as trauma, to alter gene expression. Rather than modifying the DNA itself, behavioral epigenetics indicates that significant emotional ordeals can alter the readability of
genes. These modifications to gene expression can be passed down to future generations, putting them at greater risk of anxiety, depression, and even premature death.
For example, one study at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai revealed that the descendants of Holocaust survivors exhibited lower levels of cortisol (a hormone that alleviates stress after trauma) and higher levels of the enzyme that breaks cortisol down. This stress hormone profile differed drastically from the average person, easily predisposing children of survivors to anxiety disorders, namely PTSD.
Especially compelling signs of inherited trauma were noted in mice experiments conducted in Zurich, which found that mice separated from parents at birth went on to have children who exhibited depressive behavior. Offspring of distressed males were more likely to take life-threatening actions. These findings are concerning for immigration policies today, with family separations at borders.
If further substantiated, the ramifications of behavioral epigenetics are alarming. The idea that one’s life experiences can mold those of future generations reshapes everything from mental health stigmas to racial discrimination. Mental health experts could prioritize and redirect their efforts towards descendants of trauma survivors. Before, individuals struggling with mental health were oftentimes wrongfully blamed for their adversities, especially when in a seemingly “ordinary” environment. Now, there is especially no excuse for victim-blaming, as no one is at fault for inherited trauma under distressing circumstances. Behavioral epigenetics is also particularly worrisome for African Americans. Centuries of oppression, from slavery to police brutality and everything in between, have scarred generations. Inherited trauma makes the situation far more severe, as PTSD from slavery and exposure to institutionalized racism has the risk of influencing generations of black people past their daily adversities. Public health discrimination will also take a toll on African American physical health in generations to come. Even in the future, after white supremacy and structural oppression are weakened, generations after will still continue to face its repercussions.
Behavioral epigenetics is still a developing field, with serious implications for the looming future. Our routine choices and their ability to harm our future generationsmay cause us to think twice about smoking, serving in the military, and pursuing certain relationships. Yet each time a new study validates epigenetics, it is a wake-up call for us to realize the vast consequences of our actions and the necessity to diminish the trauma in our world, not just for our benefit, but for the sake of our children.
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Goosby, Bridget J., and Chelsea Heidbrink. "Transgenerational Consequences of Racial Discrimination for African American Health." Sociology Compass, 7 Aug. 2013, doi:10.1111/soc4.12054. Accessed 10 July 2020.
Henriques, Martha. "Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations?" BBC Future, edited by Amanda Ruggeri, BBC, 26 Mar. 2019,
www.bbc.com/future/article/20190326-what-is-epigenetics. Accessed 10 July 2020.
Rodriguez, Tori. "Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones." Scientific American, 1 Mar. 2015, doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0315-10a. Accessed 10 July 2020.