Trauma and Epigenetics: Seeing with New Eyes

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by Carmen Rumbaut

Seeing with New Eyes is the third step of the spiral in the Work That Reconnects. After feeling gratitude and honoring our pain, “…we know more genuinely our relatedness to all that is. We taste our own power to change and feel the texture of our living connections with past and future generations, as well as with our brother/sister species.” (p.68 of Coming Back to Life).

Our despair becomes mutual belonging as we understand that we are not alone.

This Seeing is a moment like the pause between breathing in and breathing out; an insight that inhaling the pain of the world also exhales the sense of separateness. Our despair becomes mutual belonging as we understand that we are not alone, that there is a powerful force made of or making the entirety of life and the universe, that feeling alone was just an error in thinking. (pp. 135-136, Id.) It is not a denial of hard-edged relative reality nor a losing of the self in an abstract ultimate reality. Rather, it is a dancing balance: caring for others becomes caring for self, caring for self is motivated by caring for others. This “we” is magically optimistic and joyous yet does not deny the dangerous time we are transversing.

DNA is a great metaphor for this magic that simultaneously connects us and makes us individuals, that is solidly, scientifically real and yet impossible to comprehend within our usual frameworks.

This essay focuses on DNA and how it is impacted and transferred through generations. Explanations of stress, trauma, and epigenetic inheritance are backed by links to sources and further reading. Finally, in the conclusion (or philosophy section!), the possibly beneficial and dangerous interpretations of this science is discussed.

First, I present a progressive list of words and their definitions that are helpful in understanding transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

Stress

Stress is the response to threats. People can usually recuperate from mild or non-chronic stress and maybe even get healthier from it. To maintain balance in the presence of real or perceived challenges requires the activation of a complex range of responses involving the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems, collectively known as the stress response. 11)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181830/

Trauma

Trauma happens when there is too much stress for the system to handle; the stress exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. The experiences can include a direct personal experience of an event that involves a threat to one’s physical integrity, the menace of death or serious injury, or witnessing an event that involves the above experience, learning about unexpected or violent death, or the serious harm, threat of death, or injury experienced by a family member or close associate. It can also be a series of such overwhelming events. 12)http://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/trauma-redefined-in-the-dsm-5-rationale-and-implications-for-counseling-practice/  13)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_trauma

Insufficient regulation of the stress response has been linked to a wide array of pathologies including autoimmune disease, hypertension, affective disorders, major depression, alterations in behavior, insulin sensitivity, bone metabolism, and acquired immune responses.14)http://europepmc.org/articles/PMC3181830 15)https://focus.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/foc.9.3.foc399?journalCode=foc

Psychological trauma

This type of trauma focuses on damage to the mind, behavior, or personality occurring as a result of a severely distressing event. Symptoms may be precipitated weeks or many years later, perhaps triggered by immediate circumstances, and can lead to serious, long-term, negative psychological consequences.16)https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Psychological%20trauma

Transgenerational passing of the trauma through social and psychological means

Trauma, especially if it is untreated, can be passed down to children and grandchildren through social and psychological means. Untreated trauma of the parents can be transmitted to the child through disruption of the attachment bond and through messaging about an insufficient self and the dangerous world. 17)http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051214p18.shtml

For example, kidnapped Africans forced into American slavery, cruelly removed repeatedly from parents, spouses and children, would certainly have been damaged psychologically and this could, in turn, affect their parenting ability and thus affect their children and grandchildren. Institutional racism in a social context could further damage the psychology of descendent family members as society maintained the inferior/superior attitudes and restriction of access to societal benefits such as education.

According to Dr.  Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, this leads to low self esteem, a marked propensity for anger and violence, and internalized racism.18)https://joydegruy.com/resources-2/post-traumatic-slave-syndrome/

Genetic changes to the victim due to trauma

Trauma may affect the expression of genes. A living being’s DNA code sequence is lined up like piano keys and trauma does not hurt that basic code. Other genetic information, however, decides which piano keys will be heard, or which genes expressed.  That other genetic information includes chromosomes in a microstructure that affects gene activity and expression. That microstructure provides instructions or a gene program that, like the musical score or the piano player, decides what gene is expressed during which circumstances. Luckily, epigenetic changes can be undone more easily than mutations to the DNA code.19)https://www.nature.com/articles/nature05913?message=remove&lang=en 20)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

Severe physical abuse or neglect of children, or abuse of the pregnant mother, can lead to epigenetic modifications that affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is a set of actions and feedback responses between the hypothalamus and the pituitary and adrenal glands that regulate temperature, digestion, immune system, mood, sexuality, and overall energy. The HPA axis plays a large role in responding to either physical or mental stress.

Abused children have a change in their genes that turns on their system to be alert and on the look out for danger.

This means that abused children may have a change in their genes that turns on their system to be alert and on the look out for danger. The effect on their cortisol levels can lead to chronic psychological problems (anxiety and depression) and chronic physical problems (heart disease and type II diabetes) that can surface many years later. The long-term consequences are also linked to chronic inflammation, obesity, and schizophrenia.

Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance

Beyond the social and psychological generational transference of the damage of trauma, past trauma can also be passed on genetically. Epigenetic changes to the expression of genes:

  1. a) can be passed down to another generation, and
  2. b) are a result of environmental factors rather than internal to the DNA code.

These epigenetic changes have been shown to contribute to disease to the children and grandchildren, especially cancer and diabetes. Patterns in gene promotors (transcribers) have been shown to correlate positively with a family history of cancer.

Such trauma could be mainly physical, like the children born during of the Dutch famine of 1944-45 who were smaller than those born the year before the famine. The studies showed the effect lasted for two generations. Interestingly, these offspring had an increased risk of glucose intolerance in adulthood.

The impact of psychological trauma can also make genetic changes that are passed down through the generations.

Genocide, War, and Slavery

The impact of psychological trauma can also make genetic changes that are passed down through the generations.

Three of the groups studied are the Native Indigenous Americans whose tribes were practically extinguished, African American Blacks descended from slavery, and Jewish victims of the Holocaust and their progeny. Below are some of the results.

Addiction, suicide, mental illness, sexual violence and other ills among Native peoples might be influenced by historical trauma, according to Bonnie Duran, associate professor in the Department of HealthServices at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Director for Indigenous HealthResearch at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute: “Many present-day health disparities can be traced back through epigenetics to a ‘colonial health deficit,’ the result of colonization and its aftermath.”

A research team at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana, led by Yaa Ama Yancey found evidence of transgenerational epigenetic changes in a genetic study of 156 African American men and women. The team compared their DNA to that of their great-great grandparents who had either been enslaved, witnessed, or experienced torture under slavery. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to the trauma of slavery in their great-great grandparents,” said Yancey.

The trauma of Holocaust survivors are likely passed on to the genes of their offspring. One region of a gene associated with stress hormone regulation had epigenetic tags on the same part of the gene in both survivors and their offspring (a correlation that was not present with the control group), and through further investigation “ruled out the possibility that the epigenetic changes were a result of trauma that the children had experienced themselves.”

Treatment

Epigenetic changes can be undone much easier than mutations to the DNA code. Historical and intergenerational trauma can be relieved through psychotherapy and other therapies that teach means to cope with an over-active alarm-system. Education and empowerment can be equally effective.                                                            

The genetic changes may be also reversible through better nurture. When abused rat pups are  returned to nurturing mothers, the extra methylation disappeared. Whether human children are as easily treatable has not been researched.                                

Treatment that examines the genetic information of an individual to customize medication is called pharmacogenomics. This is not medication that changes the genetic microstructure or the code but tailors medication to the challenges of the specific patient.

Some research is being done on modifications to the DNA. Remember, since the epigentic changes do not affect the DNA sequence, e.g. not affecting the order of the piano keys in our earlier metaphor,  epidrugs do not involve a change in the nucleotide sequence. Rather, changes are sought in the microstructure that plays the keys resulting in such diseases as diabetes, obesity, and cancer. This is challenging some previous ideas in medicine, such as the idea that cancer is created by genetic mutation only. In fact, loss of expression of cancer genes occurs about 10 times more frequently by transcription silencing (caused by epigenetic promoter hypermethylation) than by mutations.

Environmental pollution, vitamins and diet have all been shown to modify epigenetic tags in significant ways.

Pros and Cons

There are both opportunities for further understanding and healing but also dangers in this science.

The helpful uses of this information:

  1. To understand the present generation’s pain and damage, to determine what help or treatment is needed, and to recognize recovery;
  2. To provide comfort for the present generation so they do not blame themselves and understand more fully the need for taking care of their bodies and minds;
  3. To use as a consideration when discussing apologies, reconciliation, and reparations, to recognize the damage done, to acknowledge participation in (and escape from) the harm;
  4. To further understand the privilege afforded by healthy and non-oppressed parents and grandparents;
  5. To serve as a warning of future harm caused by present damage, for example, what generational trauma is begun by the tearing away of immigrant children from their parents at the USA border;
  6. To help develop an awareness that loving nurture also impacts the expression of genes, so the gene expression itself can be modulated by present good parenting, for example, or an elimination of institutional racism;
  7. To appreciate the resilience of those who have lived with historical trauma;
  8. To encourage all people to seek treatment so as to not pass down the grief as a burden to the next generation; and
  9. To remember the interconnectedness of everything: events in time, us to our ancestors, the present to the future. Also we see that we have the possibility to heal and improve, and are not forever bound by trauma.

One clear example of taking intergenerational responsibility is the model of the healing forest taught by the Wellbriety Movement of White Bison, Inc. The metaphor is that, in a healing forest, the soil levels include healing, spirituality, ceremonies, and, most profoundly, interconnectedness. The vision of principles, values, and laws help form this vital soil. On the forest ground grow beautiful trees, representing healthy institutions. In the Native world, this was made of traditional men and traditional women, the clan mothers and the chiefs, the elders, the healers and the youth. These strong trees sheltered and taught the new society members as they grew, inculcating in them skills and wisdom, the principles, values and laws, our interconnectedness, and (in my interpretation) the meaning of love.  The sick forest, damaged by historical trauma, polluted the ground to create soil levels of anger, guilt, shame and fear. From this sprouted the trees of addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, homicide, and co-dependence, and more. Wellbriety healing steps follow those of the Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps though they are perceived as a circle or spiral.

The misguided, harmful uses of this scientific data:

  1. To further blame the victims as genetically inferior. This was the position of the eugenics movement that aimed to improve human populations through selective breeding.

For example, there were forced or imposed sterilization in the USA: 30 states passed laws that allowed it. A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican residents found that about one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers, ages 20-49, were sterilized. In North Carolina, noted for its discriminatory sterilization practices in the 20th century, 65 percent of sterilization procedures were performed on Black women, even though only 25 percent of the state’s female population was Black. The Indian Health Service began providing family planning services to Native American families in 1965 and up to 25% of Native American women between 15-44 years old were sterilized by the 1970s. Incarcerated women in California have suffered the same fate more recently.                                                    

Even today, the myth that Natives have a genetic propensity to alcoholism is present. Despite being disproven by studies that show an absence of genetic or other biological anomalies that make Native peoples as a whole particularly vulnerable to alcoholism, the belief continues to be expressed and, more subtly, used as false compassion. Quoting from an addiction website: “The genes that have been identified in Native Americans are associated with a protective effect and do not explain the high rates of alcoholism in the tribes investigated.”                                                                               

  1. To allow victims to succumb to hopelessness, “It’s in my genes and there is nothing I can do about it.”
  2. To forget the interconnectedness of everything.

Conclusion

The research on epigenetics has started. More discoveries are anticipated that would further clarify the mechanisms and possible treatments. We need to proceed cautiously in the interpretation of this data in setting policy, however, and not allow its use to further the damage already done.

Will science will clarify our ideology or will our ideology misinterpret the science? Shea Robinson, author of Epigenetics And Public Policy: The Tangled Web Of Science And Politics, summarizes the positive potential of this development, “…the science and narratives of epigenetics promise potentially transformative possibilities for politics and policies which transcend the conventional ideological dichotomizations.”

Seeing with New Eyes, we are eager to see what new epigenetic research will teach us. We taste our power to heal past trauma and avoid future trauma. We breathe in our personal responsibility, pause in our current spot where we belong in this swirl of change, and exhale to find deep peace within. We will dance with our eyes open, caring for self and other, seeing the double helix and its piano player,  blooming new possibilities.


Carmen Rumbaut: Born María del Carmen Rumbaut Riera in Havana, Cuba in the chaotic transition between capitalism and socialism, Carmen spent her childhood in Miami, Albuquerque, Topeka, and Houston. She received BA and MSSW at UT Austin and worked as a therapist for abused children and families. After returning to the same university for law school, Carmen practiced in Texas, Wisconsin, and Washington in the areas of civil rights and family law. She studied, practiced and taught Buddhism for 22 years. Now retired from law, Carmen mediates in special education settings, writes poetry, and volunteers in climate activism. She has been involved in the Work That Reconnects for two years.

References

↑ 1, 11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181830/
↑ 2, 12. http://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/trauma-redefined-in-the-dsm-5-rationale-and-implications-for-counseling-practice/
↑ 3, 13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_trauma
↑ 4, 14. http://europepmc.org/articles/PMC3181830
↑ 5, 15. https://focus.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/foc.9.3.foc399?journalCode=foc
↑ 6, 16. https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Psychological%20trauma
↑ 7, 17. http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051214p18.shtml
↑ 8, 18. https://joydegruy.com/resources-2/post-traumatic-slave-syndrome/
↑ 9, 19. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature05913?message=remove&lang=en
↑ 10, 20. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

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