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Trauma is multigenerational — 20 Comments

  1. Joyce, this is a FASCINATING discussion! And, during the support group counseling, the therapist was discussing how some people are more sensitive to anxiety than others, and this was news to me, I must say. Of course, I was measuring everyone else by MY yardstick, and this was the beginning of the shift from surviving victim to compassionate participant. LOL

    But, what this information also does is alleviate us from feeling obligated to rewire or retool psychopathic (or, even just toxic) loved ones, family members, or friends. It’s one more affirmation that we are not responsible for the pathology, and we can only attend to ourselves.

    Now, mentioning Holocaust survivors down the genetic line, I know of a few people who were descendants of survivors, and they were some of the most anxious and skittish people I’ve ever met. Having typed that, they were also some of the most resilient and courageous people, as well. Whatever would set them off would put them into a tailspin for a bit, and then they would rally and face it down with some serious determination, particularly if they attended Temple and practiced their rituals. It gave them continuity, I imagine, but it also gave them something to reach back upon and that would be that they were descended from survivors.

    Excellent article, Joyce, and a subject that I think needs more dialogue.

  2. We (medical science) are just now discovering a lot of different things, like for example that stress does KILL BRAIN CELLS, and “change” the chemicals the brain makes and uses, and there is also the DNA component to what we had to start with. The fact that a bacteria like the plague could change the DNA in surviors that MANY GENERATIONS DOWN THE LINE would allow those offspring to be resistant to HIV—just WOW is all i can say. They are also discovering that other bacteria in the gut are partly responsible for depression as well. Research has shown that taking fiber which is a PRE-BIOTIC or actually FOOD for the good bacteria can decrease depression. Some folks take the “good bacteria” itself, but I am not sure that the highly acidic stomach acid doesn’t kill those bacteria before they can do a lot of good, but the pre-biotic goes down lower in the intestines where the bacteria live naturally.

    I used to work with some survivors of the Nazi camps (they had the tattoos on their arms) but I can’t say I really KNEW them. Research has been done though on many people who survived and their children in Germany and Israel and I think the damage is definitely multi-generational. Maybe some of i t from the fact the parents have PTSD and maybe their anxiety or lack of parental skills because of it make the children more susecptable to anxiety but it could be a combination of the two factors working together.

    Looking back I can now see that I’ve always been anxious; anxious to please, anxious not to disappoint, anxious not to be perfect, etc. Part I think is because of my family upbringing, but also I can see that my mother and grandmother were also anxious. So how much is DNA and how much is environmental I am not sure, but I am working very hard on controlling my anxiety to keep it below the level of making me unable to function.

    In reading Dr. Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s search for meaning” and many other books by people who endured prisoner of war situations, I gained great insight into some of what happens, or can happen. Dr. Frankl talked about how there were only three ways an inmate could be have. 1) turn their face to the wall, give up hope and die, 2) strive to survive, and find meaning or 3) become bitter and self centered, He observed these three types of individuals both during his captivity and afterwards. I’ve also read studies about survivors who were bitter the rest of their lives and never began to “live” again, but held on to the bitterness like a kid holds a rag doll.

    • Joyce, I believe that we all have differently structured DNA, even if the human genome is mapped and, for the most part, understood on a scientific level. I also believe that some genetics allow for stronger “anxiety,” and that it was a survival gene, at some point. The deer that’s at the water hole who seems a bit more skittish than the rest is going to bolt and run (AND, survive!) when they hear the approach of a predator. Others might stand around looking at one another saying, “Now, what made Fred take off like that?” And…..BINGO!!! One of the deer is taken down by the mountain lion.

      Anxiety, in its purest form, is supposedly a means of survival – that key that’s unlocking the fight-or-flight response to an actual physical threat. So, I believe that it’s a possible throwback for that genetic sequence that has caused a group of descendants to survive over the millennia. In modern days, the anxiety is escalated by various things, I believe, and childhood trauma is one of them.

      Holding onto bitterness is an easy thing to do – it’s like an old, tattered comfort blanket. It’s familiar, even though it’s torn, smells horrible, and is a burden to carry around. We know exactly how we’re going to feel, every day, and react, every day. There’s no risk involved in carrying bitterness around. We fear the RISK of laying down that “rag doll” as you so aptly described it because………..if we cut that bitterness out of ourselves, what will be left? Will there be ANYTHING left of us?

      How we choose to process our traumas is an absolute personal decision, not something that “just happens.” A person’s genetic information may play a part in their decision, or their childhood may have an impact, but it’s ultimately a decision based upon whatever is at a person’s core – whatever is primal within them, individually.

  3. Truthy, I totally agree with your comments above. In cattle for example, you want calm animals in your herd for many reasons, including ease of handling, and calm dispositioned cattle also gain weight better than highly anxious or “flighty” ones. Over the years I culled out the “high headed” ones systematically but even now every once in a while one will come up with a “high head” even after generations of culling for that. So yes, every person who is not an identical twin has different DNA but I do believe you are right that genes as well as environment play a big part in our tendency for anxiety. The identical twin who were raised apart in different families studies over the years have shown that those children even if raised in totally different environments have a GREAT DEAL in common with each other, and 80% of the time if one is a psychopath, so will the other one be. Which to me begs the question–of the 20% that don’t fully qualify as psychopaths, do they have many of the TRAITS as well?

    Environment, like exposure to viruses etc and surviving, has now been proven to change the DNA of a person and even their descendants. The example of the plague survivors descendants having an advantage against the HIV virus is a perfect example. I am in awe of the scientific experiments and genetic tests they can do today. Plus we have to keep in mind that “environment” also includes TIME SPENT IN THE WOMB, so a mother’s moods, anxieties, etc. release hormones that effect the baby’s brain etc.

    Just like what a cow eats effects the taste of the milk, and what a chicken eats effects the color and food value of an egg, I think all mammals pass on a multitude of things to our offspring.

    • Joyce, what I feel that this information can do is to ease the minds of those people who come from “high-strung” parents. They are given insight into the fact that they may have to work a little harder to control their anxiety and use more techniques and tools to self-calm. In fact, for a couple of the people that I know that fall into this category, their lives have become totally immersed in finding calm and balance for themselves. Of course, I know too many others who have not chosen that option, and they continue to experience levels of anxiety that are crippling, as well as suffering from chronic illnesses, infections, and auto-immune disorders.

      It is awe-inspiring to see how far we’ve come in our ability (as a species) to research and so forth. But, I think with that comes the caveat that we will simply never be able to control these facets of the Human Condition.

  4. You’re right Truthy, we can’t control our DNA but we CAN control how we react to it. Just like a person with the genetic make up for alcoholism or drug addiction CAN over come that propensity to drink or do drugs, but they have to WANT to and see a BENEFIT in doing so.

    We should also be aware that the things we think, feel and do can alter the lives of our children and grandchildren, for who knows how many generations. If I had known then what I know NOW I would never have chosen to have children, but of course that is 20:20 hindsight.

    • (((((((((((HUGS)))))))))) Hindsight is always 20/20, Joyce. I wish that I had made better and wiser choices, but I didn’t. I only have today. So……..today is where I try my darnedest to spend my time. Not saying that I don’t slip back into the past or leap into the future, on occasion! Typically, those little trips don’t make pleasant or meaningful results.

      And, controlling the anxiety is a challenge, absolutely. But, it can be done.

  5. While it is fascinating that illnesses and trauma results carry on to the next generation, at the same time it is also a bit unsurprising too. As Joyce mentioned about what cows and chickens eat affecting the taste and texture of what they produce, the same goes for an animal in distress before it is butchered for consumption.

    If the animal is in distress, their body releases hormones- adrenaline and such, which will essentially ‘taint’ the meat. It will taste ‘gamey’ as a result. Thru the work of Temple Grandin, the slaughter process was changed to help keep the cattle calm and somewhat relaxed as they go thru the process, into the slaughterhouse and essentially to their end. This is why knackers (mobile butchers in some parts) will often put a pan of grain down for the animal to eat- they never see what’s coming.

    The idea that it carries over in the womb, the chemicals and hormones released by the mothers body during pregnancy or breastfeeding, comes as no surprise either. This is one of the reasons doctors try to encourage no smoking, drinking, drug use, healthy diets and exercise during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. The child is still getting all of this from the mother…

    • I do believe that in-utero trauma can have a tremendous impact upon a developing foetus. Absolutely. And, I am beginning to feel that a genetic predisposition for increased anxiety is just as factual as various eye color and skin tone.

      I’ve taken a lot of notice, recently (last 2 years) of people who believe that they are “high strung” and that their entire family has the same problem. It’s been pretty interesting to observe.

  6. It is difficult to know for sure what tends to be more genetic and what is environmental. The studies of identical twins who were raised separately has some interesting points, in that there are remarkable similarities between the children when they become adults which the DIFFERENT environments in which they were brought up doesn’t seem to have changed.

    Researchers point out now that the stress hormones produced by the mother when she is expecting DO cross the placental barrier to effect the child/ren. Research has also pointed out that ADHD, left handedness, Bi-polar and psychopathy all tend to “clump” together in people who score highly on the Psychopath check list-revised. Of course a person can have one, none or all of these problems, but I have known several psychopaths who had them all. I’ve also known ADHD children who did have consciences and were not psychopathic, and some people with bi-polar disorder who were not ADHD or psychopathic.

    For many years the fact that adopted children tended to be more “problematic” than the general population of children was “attributed to” the fact that they knew their birth parents gave them up–this was in the days when psychologists thought a baby was a “blank slate” on which ONLY environment wrote, but finally research showed that there is a high genetic component in many “problematic” things and since most children who are AVAILABLE for adoption come from a situation in which one or both parents were high in “problematic” traits and/or did drugs during the time the baby was “hatching” that maybe it was MORE than environment and knowing that they were adopted.

    Of course not all adopted children turn out “problematic” and not all naturally born and raised children turn out “great” but children born to parents who have high traits for psychopathy tend to have higher psychopathic traits and those children are more likely to be available to BE adopted.

    When Russia was allowing Americans to adopt children a high percentage of these children were problematic because the Russian culture does not allow any child to be put up for adoption if there is anyone in the blood family to care for them, and also many of these children were soaked in alcohol before they were born. That nurse who adopted the little boy that she could not control and she put him on an airplane back to Russia stopped Russia allowing americans to adopt.

    The Americans who are adopting Chinese girls usually have a successful experience adopting with these children who generally turn out smart and “good.” The reason for that is I think that the Chinese who value male children over female put up girl babies for adoption based only on their sex and with the one-child policy in China there were “extra” girl babies available simply because they were born females, rather than them being the product of a dysfunctional family.

    It is sad that children are born almost “programmed” by DNA and/or drug use while they are gestating and are almost “doomed” to have a traumatic life themselves as well as create trauma for those who love them and for society. I don’t know the answer for those children or what to do for them. I do know that if I had known what I know now about DNA I would never have had children.

  7. I kind of can’t believe this didn’t come up before now in the discussion, but when Joyce mentioned the children born of alcoholism, it reminds me of how yes, alcoholism can also ‘run in the family’.

    My mum equates drinking to alcoholism. To her, everyone who drinks? That’s an automatic “PASS” to being a full fledged, card carrying, banner waving alcoholic. I’m sure it skiffs her off that I ENJOY a nice cold beer or two on a hot day. I enjoy a cold beer on occsion, just because. I enjoy a glass of good wine with a meal now and then. Do I drink every day? No. Do I drink and drive? Absolutely not. Am I an alcoholic? I don’t belive so and plenty of people I know- friends, coworkers, etc. hardly find my drinking as detrimental or to be an issue in any way.

    Has my mum seen me drink? On a few occsions yes. But for anyone who knows her, they can hardly blame me if I were to hit the bottle hard on a daily basis in her presence. Our father drank a ber or two, now and then, one of my sisters drinks occasionally also, yet my other siblings do not.

    I’m not sure where her issue with drinking stems from, because her dad used to drink, a tall glass of whiskey,straight up, every night. Did he get drunk? Most likely. Did he ever get abusive? Not that I was ever aware of.

    My father had a fair number of alcoholics scattered in the branches of the family tree as well. So is there alcoholism ‘in the genes’? Yes. There is the propensity that my bothers, sisters and I all have a good chance of becoming alcoholics. Are we? No. But if you were to ask our mum, she might tell you otherwise….. SMH

    • Phoenix, I know that my family has a number of issues that have been handed down through the generations. My mother’s side of the family were notables in London from 1870-1910’s, and drinking was viewed as a part of their “charm.” If they were in today’s culture, they’d all be pegged as alcoholics and many would have been Bipolar, as well. My mom drank to extremes, and was finally diagnosed Bipolar in the last 2 years of her life. That diagnosis explained everything to me – everything. Her alcoholism, impulsive choices, and often-risky behaviors were all just symptoms of Bipolar Disorder.

      Luckily, I was adopted and I don’t have those issues, though I have different ones of my own that are generally environmentally-based. Still, others could be genetic, as well – I’ll never know, I imagine, unless I decide to spend the money for a genetic test to determine my medical history.

      Now, behind closed doors, the dysfunctional family was dreadful, on every level. But, the superficial presentations were very “likeable, but quirky.” And, that meant that my ancestors were delightful as long as one didn’t give them an excuse to turn mean or abusive. But, those terms were not used, back then, and people just learned how to put up with it, or disappear from the social circle.

      Whatever the issues are, it boils down to one thing: we cannot control other people, even if there is a clear medical diagnosis. Mental and behavioral health is a very, very murky body of water and many things mimic other things, particularly within the personality disordered. SO……….it’s our own choices, actions and decisions that determine a number of things. What’s “right” and what’s “wrong?” I can’t say for anyone other than myself.

      If having a glass of wine or a nice cold beer doesn’t interfere with a person’s ability to pay bills and their interactions with their friends, family, coworkers, and society (in general), then I don’t believe that there’s an issue of alcoholism. However, I am currently in a support group for women and one of our participants WILL NOT drink a drop of alcohol because she suffered dreadfully at the hands of her alcoholic father, the dynamics of the alcoholic family, and her ex-spouse is a raging alcoholic. So…..she honestly believes that she will become an alcoholic, as well, if it passes her lips. This may be the core of your mother’s beliefs, as well. There’s typically never any information on that because people keep secrets, as we know, and they often keep secrets from their own family members.

  8. Truthy and Phoenix, I think you both have some valid points, in that alcoholism is BOTH genetic and environmental. So is psychopathy and bi-polar seems to be genetic as well. Bi polar is one of the mental issues that is closely linked to psychopathy as well as ADHD.

    I’m a bit ADHD but not a psychopath or bi-polar, and my oldest biological son is both ADHD and I think Bi-polar as well though he has never been diagnosed by anyone but me, but looking at his behavior over his life time, I can definitely see the manic episodes in which he makes some terrible impulsive decisions. In fact, I think most if not all of the bad decisions he has made in the past are a result of both the ADHD and the manic episodes. He isn’t SO manic that he hears voices or sees music, but enough to cloud his judgement I think. He refuses to take medication for either the mania or the deep depressions he sinks in to after a manic episode and the consequences of poor decisions hitting him on the head.

    My other son Michael has a friend whose entire family are bi-polar and/or borderline personality disorder and though they are successful in business their lives are chaos. His friend has sought professional help and did pretty well for a while on medication, but she now refuses to take the medication and is back to a chaotic state of life.

    Many people who are bi-polar LIKE the manic highs and since medication dampens these highs they actually “feel better” when they are off the medication. The highs have been likened to a cocaine high.

    We ARE a mix of our DNA as well as our environment and a person who has a strong family history of alcoholism I think should abstain completely from Alcohol before it does take them over. It might NOT take them over, but why take a chance? In your case, Phoenix, it is obvious that by this time in your life Alcohol doesn’t control you so have your cold beer on a hot day or a glass of wine with dinner and let your mom think what she wants to think, the “problem’ is with her thinking and isn’t your monkey or your circus.

  9. Truthy & Joyce – I’m not sure what stems my mothers beliefs on alcohol and alcoholism. There’s a number of things we don’t agree on, and at this stage of the game, she can think what she wants. I’m not concerned with trying to change her mind and I just go about living my life.

    Yes there is plenty of alcoholism blowing thru the branches of the family tree, but I keep it in mind that it’s there and it could happen to me, just like it happens to a lot of other people. I still enjoy a casual drink now and then, but don’t feel the ‘need’ or ‘have to’ have one any time alcohol is available. A tall glass of ice tea, lemonade or plain water are quite refreshing on a hot day too! 🙂

  10. My mother’s brother, Uncle Monster, was a violent alcoholic, my mother’s maternal grandfather was also a violent alcoholic, and on that side of the family, I can trace a LONG LINE of alcoholic and violent men back to a man born in 1800. So I know for sure that alcoholism runs in my mother’s family. I also know that the women married to these alcoholic men were enablers of the first order. It is the “family tradition.”

    I also realize there is a big difference in a “drunk” and an “alcoholic” with the alcoholic having a genetic tendency to continue to drink to excess no matter what the consequences of his drunken behavior.

    AA calls a certain kind of person in their group who stops drinking but continues their hateful behaviors a DRY DRUNK. I have known several of these people and I believe that many times Alcoholism goes along with psychopathy and that many of these “dry drunks” are also psychopaths.

    I have finally chosen NOT to be an enabler…of any kind of bad behavior in any person and as a result of that CHOICE on my part, others are unhappy that I don’t go along with the SCRIPT of our family and play my DESIGNATED part. Be that as it may, I will no longer adhere to my assigned “family role” of enabler.

    • Joyce, my mother would be a “dry dunk,” on occasion. She would revert back into the posture, slurred speech, and antagonistic personality that she was when she had been drinking, though she was bone-dry of alcohol. Later, 2 years before she passed, she was FINALLY diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and this explained a tremendous amount of information and affirmation about her behaviors, even after she stopped drinking.

      And, there is absolutely a difference between a drunk and a full-blown alcoholic. But, either way, one doesn’t nullify the other. It’s a bad business any way one goes, particularly for children who are raised in that environment into adults with ongoing issues.

      The choice to no longer enable is a courageous one, Joyce. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to step out of the role of enabler and into a role of our own choosing. And, luckily, you were able to understand this, accept it, and take action ON it. Many people never come to that point – they just keep on as they’ve been going, and they cannot (WILL not) understand that it’s a CHOICE to be miserable.

  11. Truthy, I just did an article on enabling and the musical chairs we play in the dysfunctional TRIAD of victim, rescuer, and persecutor, and we all play ALL the roles not just the one. And as you know, psychopathic abusers frequently play the PITY PLOY role of the poor victim. LOL

    Keep in mind too, Truthy that while your adoptive mother might have been bi-polar and self medicating with alcohol, psychopaths also are frequently bi polar as well.

    • Joyce, yes………psychopaths OFTEN display Bipolar behaviors. I am absolutely no expert on mental health, but my belief is that the bipolar behaviors are a response to either “wins” or “losses” in the Universe of Psychopaths. When they are unable to “win,” they fall down into the doldrums, for lack of a better term. When they “win,” they’re on top of the world and immortal.

      My adoptive mother was, indeed, Bipolar and narcissistic. I don’t believe that she was psychopathic. Now, her mother? That’s quite possible since that branch of the family tree was fraught with all manners of mental illness. Her grandfather (my great-grandfather) was elected Mayor of a very wealthy city in England, and had a number of well-known cohorts in his drunken binges and very poor behaviors. He was often described as, “an angel in the home, and a devil on the street.”

      My adoptive brother, for instance, is 100% unavailable, emotionally. He is also alcoholic and still practicing. He finally lost his license to drive, forever, after another blackout that resulted in a terrible accident that he cannot recollect. He isn’t cruel OR manipulative. He’s just “not there,” emotionally. He is incapable of saying OR accepting the words, “I love you,” even when it comes to his own children.

      So………..these things absolutely have genetic origins, IMHO. The more that I read and recollect, the more that the genetic origins seem more likely than environmental influences. Having typed that, environmental events can absolutely CONTRIBUTE to a person’s spiral down the psychopathic slope, but my personal belief is that there has to be something missing, to begin with, for a person to go full-on sociopath/psychopath due to environmental factors.

      For instance, there are pockets of disharmony throughout the world – tons of violence and too much anxiety to even contemplate. Not all of the people who are living under that kind of pressure “turn into” psychopaths.

      So, I don’t really see where an “argument FOR” genetic predisposition of psychopathology can even exist. What’s to “argue?” LMAO!!! It’s very, very easily documented if there is a FOO to consult.

      Same goes with anxiety and the fact that some people are more prone to experience anxiety than others. It’s genetic. Period. And, it CAN be managed, but it has to be identified, FIRST, in order to go into management.

  12. Truthy, I agree with the anxiety being both genetic and environmental. There was a professor doing research at Ft. Roots Army hospital (which is now closed) in Little Rock, AR in the 1980s. He started out with one litter of puppies. He bred the most aggressive two and the most timid two, and then repeated that in the next litter for 20 years. At the end of the 20 years of this inbreeding of aggressive to aggressive and timid to timid dogs he had two entirely DIFFERENT RACES OF DOGS. One group was extremely aggressive and unpredictable, and the other group were so timid and anxious that they literally “belly crawled” under all circumstances. That study has not been well publicized but it should have been. I knew about it because it was talked about in the Medical School in Little Rock, AR where I trained as an advance practice nurse in the 80s.

    Many farmers recognize that anxiety and aggression in livestock, horses, cows, etc. tends to be genetic as well. My grandfather knew it back in the 1940s, and I put it into practice in my own herd of cattle by keeping only the non aggressive mothers and bulls. Yet even now, there will be a crazy one or wild one born and be that way from birth.

    Putting the genetics AND the environment together and you can create a monster of aggression and entitlement.

    As far as narcissism is concerned, it used to be thought of as a separate disorder, but now the DSM V has put it as a SYMPTOM of psychopathy. I agree with that thinking, I think that narcissists have at least VERY HIGH LEVELS OF P-TRAITS even if they are not on the HIGH END of psychopathy. And psychopathy itself runs from bad to worse to horrible.

    The old saying about “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is played out on the political stage every day when we look at high level politicians in any country who have absolute power in their sphere. Mao, Hitler, Stalin, etc.

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