TRAUMA IN OUR GENES

BY MARIA MACAYA

We inherit traumas – we inherit them from our communities and cultures, we inherit them from our parents and ancestors. We don’t only inherit the traumas, we also inherit the coping techniques and they have been with us for so long that it is difficult to identify them. They are the seeds of our habits or even what we believe to be our nature and even our identity.

A test was done a few years ago on rats where they were subjected to a treatment that entailed combining the smell of cherry blossoms with an electric shock. First the smell of cherries was released into the air of their cage, and immediately following this, the rats received an electric shock.

This was done continuously until the rats mentally and reflexively associated the smell of cherries with electric shock. Condition learning led them to go into a state of fear and high alert whenever the smell of cherries was released into the air even without the electric shock. Interestingly, a few months later, when the experiment was over, these rats bred. Their offspring were then subjected to the smell of cherry blossoms – they went immediately into alert fight or flight state. Similar exposure was done on the next generation – the grandchildren – and the results were the same: cherry blossom smell immediately led to fear, stress and anxiety. The scientific name for this is epigenetics – the alteration of gene activity and expression most of often due to environmental or external factors – trauma can be such a factor. Epigenetics is essential in the understanding of intragenerational trauma.

What gets past down is both the trauma which affects what we fear, what shapes our beliefs; and the coping techniques affecting our habits, our actions and responses to events or circumstances and triggers – real or imagined. These altered gene expressions will affect how we relate to ourselves, to others, to things, sights, smells and places. It will also affect how we, consciously or unconsciously, protect ourselves from imagined threats – threats that may have been real to our ancestors but often ones that have played no role in our own lifetime or first hand experience.

It is a difficult excercise to differentiate between the habits that are useful to us and those that our ancestors may have needed because of their circumstances but which don’t really make any sense to us at this time, in this life, under these circumstances. Habits as a general rule are difficult to identify – they are thoughtless unplanned actions that are so much part of who we are and how we operate. We believe these habits to be our nature, to make us who we are. The speed at which we walk, our first reaction when meeting a person or smelling a smell, the volume of our voice, the depth of our sleep, what we like to eat, the colors we like to wear, how we feel about cars, motorbikes, partners, commitment, children or cloudy skies – seems to us be “who we are”, what makes us “us”, as much as the color of our eyes or the curliness of our hair.

It is a difficult exercise to identify which of these traits that we believe are making us “us” are weighing us down, stopping us from moving forward or creating unnecessary blocks. It is difficult but certainly liberating and therefore necessary.

Maria Macaya

Post data – the writer of this post does not agree with animal testing.