Integrative Psychiatry

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma by Rachel Yehuda, PhD

By April 5, 2021No Comments

I think we really want to take this opportunity to make the point that one of the most controversial concepts that was ever introduced into modern psychiatry, was, in fact, the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder itself. Come join Dr. Rachel Yehuda as she talks about the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

I would like to talk to you today about how trauma and resilience cross generations. And it’s really the question of whether we are affected by things that happen in previous generations to our parents and our grandparents. And this is, of course, a topic that has received a tremendous amount of attention in the last few years. And if we are affected by things that happened in prior generations, the question is, how are we affected? Do we inherit memories of a parental trauma, do we inherit a type of fear of the environment or maybe symptoms like nightmares, or irritability, or depression that are characteristic of trauma survivors? And if we do inherit those things, do those effects prevent us from responding effectively to the environment?

Adult children of holocaust survivors studied over a generation
There are studies of adult children of Holocaust survivors. I’ll tell you the story of when this work began, how I got into it, and you’ll see that it really has evolved over the course of 30 years. But that’s not to say that these effects are specific to Holocaust offspring. I think that part of the reason they’ve gotten so much attention is because we all recognize that they’re broadly relevant to other forms of extreme traumas, genocides, war, racism, all sorts of things like that. And that really increases the impact of these events.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Science did not have a paradigm to explain long-lasting effects.

I think we really want to take this opportunity to make the point that one of the most controversial concepts that was ever introduced into modern psychiatry, was, in fact, the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder itself. It’s against that backdrop that I want to have the conversation about intergenerational effects. Now, for those of you who remember, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was first described in the DSM three, and it didn’t appear until 1980.

Main types of epigenetic marks on the DNA, histones and entire nucleosome
What epigenetics refers to in a very general way, are the chemicals that are responsible for how genes function. There are many different types of epigenetic marks on the DNA or on the DNA environment. DNA is wrapped around these little things, blue things called histones, or DNA curlers, and all of their genetic information is wound tight and packed up in the cell nucleus of every single cell, all your genetic information.

The importance of parental PTSD

Holocaust offspring were more likely to have PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders if they had a parent with PTSD

We came to learn about the importance of parental PTSD. And that is that Holocaust offspring were more likely to have PTSD, depression and anxiety if they had a parent with PTSD. And many of the mental health effects of intergenerational trauma, I think, are a consequence of parental symptoms, and not their exposure, per se.
This becomes very important because there are also going to be, if I’ll tell you in a few moments, a whole set of findings that may relate to the exposure per se, but not necessarily to the symptoms. So, we could add to our understanding of the importance of parental PTSD, the observation that different patterns of findings were observed in association with maternal and paternal PTSD.

Interpreting Intergenerational Effects

Epigenetics provides a mechanism for improving responses to environmental conditions.

An adaptation that might be very valuable in the context of the Holocaust, in the context of trauma, may be a mismatch for someone living in a different kind of environment. So, interpretation will always be based on context. Biology isn’t good or bad. It’s the current context that you’re living in that makes that so.
The fact that there is an accommodation means that we’re not prisoners of our genes, that we can make changes in response to events. And it’s that capability of transformation that promotes resilience, flexibility and plasticity. So, you know, there are kind of weapons of mass construction.