Biology isn’t destiny: healing is possible

As our country grapples with a mental health crisis, there’s been much interest of late in intergenerational trauma—the idea that the effects of a traumatic event can be passed down through generations by both genetics and environmental factors like learned behaviors.

This field is known as “epigenetics,” or the study of how one’s environment, experiences, and behaviors—including traumatic events and trauma responses—can cause changes that affect the way their genes work. Genetic trauma can impact both physical and mental health.

A recent—and growing—body of research shows that trauma and one’s response to it can be passed down genetically.

This PsychCentral article references a handful of studies, including research on twins that suggests some aspects of trauma may be inherited and a study indicating that trauma possibly impacts DNA and gene function. Most notably, a 2015 study of Holocaust survivors for the first time showed how exposure to trauma prior to conception can have an effect on offspring.

In that study, researchers compared the blood samples of Holocaust survivors with those of Jewish people living outside of Europe during World War II. Through molecular analysis researchers discovered that mothers who were exposed to the Holocaust showed changes in the activity of a segment of DNA that is involved in regulating stress responses. The children of these survivors, who were not directly exposed to the events of the Holocaust, also showed these changes. Subjects in the control group did not experience such changes.

The researchers have since replicated their study.

But biology isn’t destiny, as the (scientifically proven) saying goes. While genetics certainly shape our lives and identities, our brains can change as we learn new skills and absorb new information, thus enabling us to heal from trauma. Environmental factors can also aid in healing and building resilience — PsychCentral recommends engaging with “positive surroundings healthy relationships where your needs can be met. There’s a good chance these efforts might impact your future children.”

Indeed, healing is possible. We see it everyday in GPS groups. That’s because the GPS model of group peer support is accessible, evidence-based, and trauma-informed. It incorporates mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, peer-to-peer support, psychosocial education, and other evidence-based modalities. GPS groups are deliberately judgment and advice-free zones where people can be listened to with respect. Our support groups provide a place for participants to address challenging situations, have courageous conversations, receive support in times of crisis and tragedy, discuss environmental stressors such as racism, and build resilience against burnout and workplace fatigue, among other benefits. Participants heal, find their strength and connect with their courage to take conscious steps to create the lives they want to live.

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