Given the times in which we live, the many changes and often-unrelenting stress that circumstances have precipitated, we know this has and likely will continue to impact the mental and physical health of our patients – and really, of so many of us on a global scale.
But we must acknowledge first that the COVID 19 events only exacerbated a problem that existed before the last few months. I believe that one of the biggest drivers of chronic health issues overall is not only stress, but unresolved trauma. These factors contribute to inflammation that is at the core of every immune disorder, from neurological conditions to systemic autoimmune diseases. And the situation now isn’t just impacting the individual, it is affecting the family unit and extended family as well.
My colleague, Dr. Ilene Rusk, has a very poignant way of explaining this, “trauma travels.” In psychological terms, this transgenerational or intergenerational trauma asserts that trauma can be transferred or travel between generations. Certainly we can see even more evidence of this now as the impacts of life upheavals can affect every single member of a family and even their circle of friends, neighbors, coworkers and more.
In our practice with our PANS and PANDAS patients, for example, we’ve observed tremendous levels of stress on the child, the family, the school and community. And that’s just from the stressors that were already in place with the effects and demands this disorder imposes on a regular basis. Now add to this the additional burden of coping with more daily life changes or limitations, economic concerns, unfamiliar routines or other factors that are hard enough for anyone to process and identify how to adjust – imagine then how hard it is for a young person and their parents who are dealing with a neuropsychiatric or any disorder. This is how “trauma travels” and why it’s so important to recognize it in order to resolve it.
Roots of psychology and biology.
Years of research suggests that changes to the epigenome, a swirl of biological factors that affect how genes are expressed, can be passed down through multiple generations. I saw this happen just within one generation with the children in Northern Uganda who were suffering with a mysterious neurological disease called Nodding Syndrome.
Epidemiological studies of people have been very telling. One of the best-known cases is the Dutch hunger winter, a famine that gripped the Netherlands in the closing months of World War II. The children of women pregnant during the food shortages died earlier than peers born just before, and had higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and schizophrenia. Studies of other groups suggested the children of parents who had starved early in life—even in the womb—had more heart disease. Researchers examining historical records found too that the sons of those Civil War soldiers who had been prisoners of war were more likely to die early than the sons of their fellow veterans.1
A rocky childhood. A violent assault. A car accident. A sudden death in the family. A contentious divorce. Caring for someone with a chronic or debilitating illness. If these are in your past, they could be affecting your present health. And now we know that trauma can trigger epigenetic changes that can be passed onto future generations.
How can we better adapt now, for ourselves and our children?
The ability to handle stress is vitally important to our health and may very well shape our children’s legacy of their own wellbeing. Of course we all know we need to manage stress – easier said than done, we understand. And worrying about your stress level or possible health implications obviously isn’t a positive thing either!
So we’ll be writing more about this subject and providing ongoing health information about emotional trauma factors so we can better adapt and help our children as well. If you have access to mental health services, whether through your physician, a community organization or a place of worship, we encourage you to take advantage of these options. Trying to recover from a past traumatic experience on your own is difficult enough and can lead to this transgenerational passage of unresolved issues that you can inadvertently hand over to future generations to carry. Coupled with the added stress now, well, that’s just setting yourself up for possible health issues too.
Some ideas that we’ve suggested before that really can be beneficial:
-Get enough sleep (7-8 hours a night, if possible)
-Try to eat a diet based on whole, not processed, foods. Become a label reader if that helps so you know what you’re putting on your dining table.
-Practice mindfulness: this is simply a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you're experiencing in the moment, without judgment, to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress. See https://www.suzannegazdamd.com/blog/mindfulness-and-meditation-in-our-busy-lives for more details.
-Fit some exercise into your day. A short walk, a quick jog, or yoga at home can help you unwind and also get that sleep you need.
-Discover nature! However you choose to get outdoors and stay active, being in nature is an ideal stress-buster. https://www.suzannegazdamd.com/blog/the-immunological-case-for-staying-active
Mark Wolynn has written about dealing with inherited emotional trauma and we’ve included links to his book and to a great podcast so please check these out. Your legacy does not have to include the hurts of the past if we address the issues today. Even if you’ve been hauling it around for years, you really can put it down and move forward. But get the support to make this possible and think of the gift you’ll be giving your children right now too!
In hope and healing,
Dr. Suzanne Gazda
“It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle.” (2017) Wolynn, M.
Listen to The goop Podcast (maybe while you take your walk!)
“Do We Inherit Trauma?
1 Costa D. L. (2012). Scarring and mortality selection among Civil War POWs: a long-term mortality, morbidity, and socioeconomic follow-up. Demography, 49(4), 1185–1206. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-012-0125-9