Title: Forged by Fire 

By Ena Cesar, Epione Trauma Trainer

 

Familiar or hidden, known or forgotten – the stories of those who came before you and me may still echo beneath the surface. The narrative that once drove their hopes and dreams, or fueled their fears lingers within us and binds us together for generations. It is an heirloom that may shape our identity, our choices, and our relationship with the world. It may pass on a burden that was never ours to carry, but it may also provide a path and an opportunity for healing. The clenching of your jaw, grinding of your teeth, the tremor that ripples through your body… consider that they may trace back to the stories you never lived.

Intergenerational trauma is a captivating phenomenon for researchers across various disciplines. Largely, they agree on the concept of transference of the trauma-related effects from one generation to the next, but there are many ways in which this may happen; cultural (familial or communal) narratives, learnt patterns of behaviour, or even through epigenetic changes that affect gene expression, which is an emerging topic of interest for researchers.

When a person experiences trauma, this can lead to changes in how their body and mind respond to stress, among other things. If the changes are significant, they might create what is known as epigenetic marks that can get passed down to the next generation, which then results in the possibility that a child literally inherits sensitivity to certain triggers even if they have not personally been directly exposed to the same trauma.

Borrowing the concept of a cookbook from Raz and colleagues (2018) as a metaphor to explain epigenetics, imagine your DNA as a collection of recipes (genes/gene expressions). In very oversimplified terms, epigenetic marks can be thought of as sticky notes or pen markings in that cookbook.

The chef does not change these recipes but they can put sticky notes, hide or add highlights onto the recipe page to modify it. The original chef, the parent, then passes down the cookbook to the novice chef, their child, along with those sticky notes and markings. What this means is that, even though the recipe itself has not changed, the child might follow the same guidance – the notes – the parent left. In the context of trauma and triggers, the markings or the sticky notes on the person’s genetic cookbook would be the experiences of traumatic stress which determine the degree to which certain genes should be active (or not) in response to certain stimuli.

In essence, epigenetic inheritance from an ancestor can shape how their descendants react to specific conditions. It can ultimately impact their wellbeing (both mental and physical), their social behaviours and their coping mechanisms. The effects do not always stop on the individual level, they can socially and culturally shape entire communities.

While I am not aware of research specifically analysing the effects on the descendants of those in places like Ireland, anecdotally I have learned how deeply ingrained the memories of famine and war can be in later generations and the unique sense of loss and resilience they carry. As for my own experiences with what could potentially be attributed to intergenerational trauma, I have grown up in a household that has seen the harsh realities of war and its by-products. I have become acutely aware of the silent impact that being a child of a war veteran has had on me. For example, sounds or images that others might dismiss can send a wave of unease surging through my body. I have noticed a heightened sensitivity to sudden noise but also a deep sense of connection that feels almost like familiarity when looking at the Croatian Homeland War imagery.

Understanding that we may have these “secondary” triggers may provide some context to the patterns of beliefs or behaviours we notice but that may seem somewhat disproportionate when we stop to

consider our actual personal experiences. Recognising that we may be part of a larger narrative can be a source to harness strength. It may help provide us with self-compassion and patience on our journey through life.

Research has identified the need to adjust the roles of professionals and clinicians to feel they have the power and the therapeutic framework to support with intergenerational trauma effectively. Still, it needs to start with all of us. Perhaps it’s by acknowledging the complex legacy trauma can leave and by embracing trauma-informed perspectives, we can start breaking the cycles that perpetuate trauma. We can start creating gentler patterns for ourselves and those who will come after us.

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