Why You Should Know About Behavioural Epigenetics
Okay, full disclosure: I am fascinated with epigenetics, and anyone that wants to geek-out with me talking about it – contact me.
So what is it?
You know how we inherit certain traits from our ancestors like eye colour, and personality characteristics? That is genetics. The term epigenetics was originally coined to explain a particular DNA phenomena that was believed to only occur during fetal development. Further research concluded that molecular changes could be added to DNA in adulthood, meaning epigenetic changes could be passed down from parent to child, though the generations. You might be getting bored about now. Hang on…..
This is the part that gets interesting:
Ongoing research in behavioural epigenetics has evidenced that traumatic experiences in our past, or our recent ancestor’s past leaves molecular scars adhering to our DNA. We literally can inherit our ancestors’ traumas (or resiliency!) by altered epigenetic expressions of genes in the brain. Psychological and behaviour tendencies are inherited.
Your anxiety, depression, specific fears and phobias, chronic pain, or obsessive thoughts might not have originated with you. I know: this sounds like new age-y mumbo jumbo. I assure you, it is not.
Terrorist acts such as 9-11, cultural genocides such as the Holocaust, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, the Tutsis in Rwanda, the colonization of Canada’s First Nations peoples did much more than harm just those who experienced those events. Later generations exhibit symptoms similar to those of their relatives who were the ones who experienced the atrocities (such as hypervigilant fear responses, or hopelessness). Such symptoms are not just reserved for those who were oppressed – those doling out heinous acts also leave inheritable DNA markers.
A child exhibiting extreme presentations of guilt or shame, may not have anything to do with any wrongdoing committed.
Someone who may have never known their biological relatives may fear something as specific being burned alive. Digging into the history of someone with that fear illuminates a history of a family member who was burned alive.
An adult who choses to never have children may do so without consciousness because a relative lost a child, and suffered debilitating grief for the rest of her days.
You may be now thinking: “Well, this sucks – later generations are essentially “cursed” from ancestors’ misfortunes”.
If that is what you are indeed thinking, be happy that you are quite wrong!
Just by knowing our family histories – yes, including the horrific pieces – helps us recognize our own psychopathologies might not be ours to bear, thus enabling us with an ability to shed those burdens.
Many families have refrained from sharing ancestral tragedies with their children thinking that it is protecting them. Wolynn (2016) suggests that it is the very sharing of these stories that can liberate us from mental anguish. Similarly, re-connecting with familial cut-offs can quieten family dis-ease. Murray Bowen, the creator of family systems psychotherapy, asserts that no one wins in emotional cut-offs within a family. Having experienced generational patterns of emotional cut-offs within my own family system, I wholeheartedly agree with this – just because it is a pattern, does not lessen the adverse effects on the entire family or make it or unchangeable.
Future generations deserve to not suffer the “sins of the father” (or mother, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, et cetera..)
We cannot change what we don’t acknowledge. Delving into historical wounds is not easy work. But it holds the power to liberate us for some of our deepest wounds. Denying pain’s existence may work for you in the here-and-now, but the suffering it causes festers within you and harms future generations. Even if family members are deceased, much healing can be done with therapy.
What we resist, persists. We may be resolute in suffering what we believe to be our own pain, but most of us would not do so if we recognized we are also choosing to pass on such pain to our children, and our children’s children.