Main It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle

It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle

A groundbreaking approach to transforming traumatic legacies passed down in families over generations, by an acclaimed expert in the field

Depression. Anxiety. Chronic Pain. Phobias. Obsessive thoughts. The evidence is compelling: the roots of these difficulties may not reside in our immediate life experience or in chemical imbalances in our brains—but in the lives of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. The latest scientific research, now making headlines, supports what many have long intuited—that traumatic experience can be passed down through generations. It Didn’t Start with You builds on the work of leading experts in post-traumatic stress, including Mount Sinai School of Medicine neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died, or the story has been forgotten or silenced, memory and feelings can live on. These emotional legacies are often hidden, encoded in everything from gene expression to everyday language, and they play a far greater role in our emotional and physical health than has ever before been understood.

As a pioneer in the field of inherited family trauma, Mark Wolynn has worked with individuals and groups on a therapeutic level for over twenty years. It Didn’t Start with You offers a pragmatic and prescriptive guide to his method, the Core Language Approach. Diagnostic self-inventories provide a way to uncover the fears and anxieties conveyed through everyday words, behaviors, and physical symptoms. Techniques for developing a genogram or extended family tree create a map of experiences going back through the generations. And visualization, active imagination, and direct dialogue create pathways to reconnection, integration, and reclaiming life and health. It Didn’t Start With You is a transformative approach to resolving longstanding difficulties that in many cases, traditional therapy, drugs, or other interventions have not had the capacity to touch.
Year:
2016
Publisher:
Viking
Language:
english
Pages:
256
ISBN 10:
1101980362
ISBN 13:
9781101980361
File:
EPUB, 564 KB
Download (epub, 564 KB)

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		 			VIKING

			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			375 Hudson Street

			New York, New York 10014

			penguin.com

			Copyright © 2016 by Mark Wolynn

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			ISBN: 9781101980361 (hardcover)

			9781101980378 (ebook)

			Diagrams by Spring Hoteling

			The case studies portrayed in this book are based on the experiences of real patients, whose names and identities have been changed to protect their privacy. Any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental.



		Version_1





To my parents,

Marvin Wolynn and Sandra Lazier Wolynn Miller.

I’m so grateful for all you’ve given me.





Contents


			Title Page

			Copyright

			Dedication

			Epigraph

			Introduction: The Secret Language of Fear

			Part I

			The Web of Family Trauma

			Chapter 1. Traumas Lost and Found

			Chapter 2. Three Generations of Shared Family History: The Family Body

			Chapter 3. The Family Mind

			Chapter 4. The Core Language Approach

			Chapter 5. The Four Unconscious Themes

			Part II

			The Core Language Map

			Chapter 6. The Core Complaint

			Chapter 7. Core Descriptors

			Chapter 8. The Core Sentence

			Chapter 9. The Core Trauma

			Part III

			Pathways to Reconnection

			Chapter 10. From Insight to Integration

			Chapter 11. The Core Language of Separation

			Chapter 12. The Core Language of Relationships

			Chapter 13. The Core Language of Success

			Chapter 14. Core Language Medicine



			Acknowledgments

			Glossary

			Appendix A: List of Family History Questions

			Appendix B: List of Early Trauma Questions

			Notes

			Index





Who looks outside dreams; who looks insi; de awakes.

			—Carl Jung, Letters, Vol. 1





			Introduction:

The Secret Language of Fear

			In a dark time, the eye begins to see . . .

			—Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time”

			This book is the fruit of a mission, one that has led me around the world, back home to my roots, and into a professional career that I never could have envisioned when this journey began. For more than twenty years, I have worked with individuals who have struggled with depression, anxiety, chronic illness, phobias, obsessive thoughts, PTSD, and other debilitating conditions. Many have come to me discouraged and disheartened after years of talk therapy, medication, and other interventions failed to uncover the source of their symptoms and allay their suffering.

			What I’ve learned from my own experience, training, and clinical practice is that the answer may not lie within our own story as much as in the stories of our parents, grandparents, and even our great-grandparents. The latest scientific research, now making headlines, also tells us that the effects of trauma can pass from one generation to the next. This “bequest” is what’s known as inherited family trauma, and emerging evidence suggests that it is a very real phenomenon. Pain does not always dissolve on its own or diminish with time. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died, even if his or her story lies submerged in years of silence, fragments of life experience, memory, and body sensation can live on, as if reaching out from the past to find resolution in the minds and bodies of those living in the present.

			What you’ll read in the pages that follow is a synthesis of empirical observations from my practice as director of the Family Constellation Institute in San Francisco and the latest findings in neuroscience, epigenetics, and the science of language. It also reflects my professional training with Bert Hellinger, the renowned German psychotherapist, whose approach to family therapy demonstrates the psychological and physical effects of inherited family trauma on multiple generations.

			Much of this book focuses on identifying inherited family patterns—the fears, feelings, and behavior we’ve unknowingly adopted that keep the cycle of suffering alive from generation to generation—and also how to end this cycle, which is the core of my work. You may learn, as I did, that many of these patterns don’t belong to us; they’ve merely been borrowed from others in our family history. Why is this? I strongly believe that it is because a story that needs to be told can finally be brought to light. Let me share my own.

			I never set out to create a method for overcoming fear and anxiety. It all began the day I lost my vision. I was in the throes of my first ocular migraine. No real physical pain to speak of—just a cyclone of dark terror, within which my vision was obscured. I was thirty-four years old and stumbling around my office in the murk, fingering the desk phone for the 911 buttons. An ambulance would soon be on its way.

			An ocular migraine is generally not serious. Your vision becomes muddled, but usually returns to normal in about an hour. You just don’t always know that while it’s happening. But for me, the ocular migraine was just the beginning. Within weeks, the vision in my left eye began to disappear. Faces and road signs soon became a gray blur.

			The doctors informed me that I had central serous retinopathy, a condition without a cure, its cause unknown. Fluid builds up under the retina and then leaks, causing scarring and blurring in the visual field. Some folks, the 5 percent with the chronic form mine had turned into, become legally blind. The way things were going, I was told to expect that both eyes would be affected. It was just a matter of time.

			The doctors were unable to tell me what caused my vision loss and what would heal it. Everything I tried on my own—vitamins, juice fasts, hands-on healing—all seemed to make things worse. I was flummoxed. My greatest fear was unfolding in front of me and I was helpless to do anything about it. Blind, unable to take care of myself, and all alone, I’d fall apart. My life would be ruined. I’d lose my will to live.

			I replayed the scenario over and over in my head. The more I thought about it, the deeper the hopeless feelings embedded in my body. I was sinking into sludge. Each time I tried to dig myself out, my thoughts circled back to images of being all alone, helpless, and ruined. What I didn’t know then was that the very words alone, helpless, and ruined were part of my personal language of fear. Unbridled and unrestrained, they reeled in my head and rattled my body.

			I wondered why I gave my thoughts such power. Other people had adversity far worse than mine and they didn’t dwell in the depths like this. What was it about me that stayed so deeply entrenched in fear? It would be years before I could answer that question.

			Back then, all I could do was leave. I left my relationship, my family, my business, my city—everything I knew. I wanted answers that couldn’t be found in the world I was part of—a world where many people seemed to be confused and unhappy. I had only questions, and little desire to carry on with life as I knew it. I handed my business (a successful events company) over to someone I had literally just met, and off I went, east—as far east as I could go—until I reached Southeast Asia. I wanted to be healed. I just had no idea what that would look like.

			I read books and studied with the teachers who wrote them. Whenever I heard that there might be someone who could help me—some old woman in a hut, some laughing man in a robe—I showed up. I joined training programs and chanted with gurus. One guru said, to those of us gathered to hear him speak, that he wanted to surround himself with only “finders.” Seekers, he said, remained just that—in a constant state of seeking.

			I wanted to be a finder. I meditated for hours each day. I fasted for days at a time. I brewed herbs and battled the fierce toxins that I imagined had invaded my tissues. All the while, my eyesight continued to worsen and my depression deepened.

			What I failed to realize at the time is that when we try to resist feeling something painful, we often protract the very pain we’re trying to avoid. Doing so is a prescription for continued suffering. There’s also something about the action of searching that blocks us from what we seek. The constant looking outside of ourselves can keep us from knowing when we hit the target. Something valuable can be going on inside us, but if we’re not tuning in, we can miss it.

			“What aren’t you willing to see?” the healers prodded, provoking me to look deeper. How could I know? I was in the dark.

			One guru in Indonesia shined the light a bit brighter for me when he asked, “Who do you think you are not to have eye problems?” He went on: “Perhaps Johan’s ears don’t hear as well as Gerhard’s, and maybe Eliza’s lungs aren’t as strong as Gerta’s. And Dietrich doesn’t walk nearly as well as Sebastian.” (Everyone was either Dutch or German at this particular training program and seemed to be struggling with one chronic condition or another.) Something got through. He was right. Who was I not to have eye problems? It was arrogant for me to argue with reality. Like it or not, my retina was scarred and my vision was blurred, but I—the “me” underneath it all—was beginning to feel calm. No matter what my eye was doing, it no longer had to be the defining factor for how I was doing.

			To deepen the learning, this guru had us spend seventy-two hours—three days and nights—blindfolded and earplugged, meditating on a small cushion. Each day, we were given a small bowl of rice to eat and only water to drink. No sleep, no getting up, no lying down, no communicating. Going to the bathroom meant raising your hand and being escorted to a hole in the ground in the dark.

			The goal of this madness was just that—to intimately come to know the madness of the mind by observing it. I learned how my mind continually taunted me with worst-case-scenario thinking and the lie that if I just worried hard enough, I could insulate myself from what I feared most.

			After this experience and others like it, my inner vision began to clear a bit. My eye, however, stayed the same; the leaking and scarring continued. On many levels, having a vision problem is a great metaphor. I eventually learned that it was less about what I could or couldn’t see and more about the way I saw things. But that wasn’t when I turned the corner.

			It was during the third year of what I now call my “vision quest” that I finally got what I was looking for. By this time, I was doing a lot of meditation. The depression had mostly lifted. I could spend countless hours in silence just being with my breath or body sensations. That was the easy part.

			One day, I was waiting in line to have a satsang—a meeting with a spiritual master. I had been waiting for hours in the white robe that everyone in line at the temple wore. It was now my turn. I was expecting the master to acknowledge my dedication. Instead, he looked right through me and saw what I couldn’t. “Go home,” he said. “Go home and call your mother and your father.”

			What? I was livid. My body shook with anger. Clearly, he misread me. I no longer needed my parents. I had outgrown them. I had given up on them long ago, traded them in for better parents, divine parents, spiritual parents—all the teachers, gurus, and wise men and women who were guiding me to the next level of awakening. What’s more, with several years of misguided therapy under my belt, of beating pillows and tearing cardboard effigies of my parents to smithereens, I believed I had already “healed” my relationship with them. I decided to ignore his advice.

			And yet something struck a chord inside me. I couldn’t quite let go of what he had said. I was finally beginning to understand that no experience is ever wasted. Everything that happens to us has merit, whether we recognize the surface significance of it or not. Everything in our lives ultimately leads us somewhere.

			Still, I was determined to keep the illusion about who I was intact. Being an accomplished meditator was all I had to cling to. So I sought a meeting with another spiritual master—one, I was sure, who would set the record straight. This man imbued hundreds of people a day with his heavenly love. Surely he would see me for the deeply spiritual person I imagined myself to be. Again, I waited a full day until it was my turn. I was now at the front of the line. And then it happened. Again. The same words. “Call your parents. Go home and make peace with them.”

			This time I heard what was being said.

			The great teachers know. The truly great ones don’t care whether you believe in their teachings or not. They present a truth, then leave you with yourself to discover your own truth. Adam Gopnik writes about the difference between gurus and teachers in his book Through the Children’s Gate: “A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject and then ourselves.”

			The great teachers understand that where we come from affects where we go, and that what sits unresolved in our past influences our present. They know that our parents are important, regardless of whether they are good at parenting or not. There’s no way around it: The family story is our story. Like it or not, it resides within us.

			Regardless of the story we have about them, our parents cannot be expunged or ejected from us. They are in us and we are part of them—even if we’ve never met them. Rejecting them only distances us further from ourselves and creates more suffering. Those two teachers could see it. I couldn’t. My blindness was both literal and figurative. Now I was beginning to wake up, mostly to the fact that I had left a huge mess back home.

			For years, I had judged my parents harshly. I imagined myself to be more capable, far more sensitive and human, than they. I blamed them for all the things I believed were wrong with my life. Now I had to return to them to restore what was missing in me—my vulnerability. I was now coming to realize that my ability to receive love from others was linked to my ability to receive my mother’s love.

			Still, taking in her love was not going to be easy. I had such a deep break in the bond with my mother that being held by her felt like being squeezed in a bear trap. My body would tighten in on itself as if to create a shell she couldn’t penetrate. This wound affected every aspect of my life—especially my ability to stay open in a relationship.

			My mother and I could go months without speaking. When we did speak, I’d find a way, through either my words or my armored body language, to discount the warm feelings she showed me. I appeared cold and distant. Conversely, I accused her of not being able to see me or hear me. It was an emotional dead end.

			Determined to heal our broken relationship, I booked a flight home to Pittsburgh. I had not seen my mother in several months. As I walked up the driveway, I could feel my chest tighten. I wasn’t sure our relationship could be repaired; I had so many raw feelings inside. I prepared myself for the worst, playing out the scenario in my mind: She would hold me and I, wanting only to soften in her arms, would do just the opposite. I would turn to steel.

			And that’s pretty much what happened. Embraced in a hug I could barely endure, I could hardly breathe. Yet I asked her to keep holding me. I wanted to learn, from the inside out, my body’s resistance, where I tightened, what sensations arose, how I would shut down. It wasn’t new information. I had seen this pattern mirrored in my relationships. Only this time, I wasn’t walking away. My plan was to heal this wound at the source.

			The longer she held me, the more I thought I would burst. It was physically painful. Pain would meld into numbness, and numbness into pain. Then, after many minutes, something gave. My chest and belly began to quake. I began to soften, and, in the weeks that followed, I continued to soften.

			It was in one of our many conversations during this time that she shared—almost in an offhanded way—an event that occurred when I was small. My mom had to be hospitalized for three weeks for gall bladder surgery. With this insight, I began piecing together what was going on inside me. Somewhere, before the age of two—that’s when my mother and I were separated—an unconscious tightening had taken root inside my body. When she returned home, I had stopped trusting her care. I was no longer vulnerable to her. Instead, I pushed her away, and would continue to do so for the next thirty years.

			Another early event also may have contributed to the fear I carried that my life would suddenly be ruined. My mother told me that she experienced a difficult labor while giving birth to me—one in which the doctor used forceps. As a result, I was born with extensive bruising and a partially collapsed skull, not uncommon with a forceps delivery. My mother revealed with regret that my appearance made it difficult for her even to hold me at first. Her story resonated, and helped to explain the feeling of being ruined that I knew deep inside. Specifically, traumatic memories from my birth that had submerged in my body would resurface whenever I “gave birth” to a new project or presented new work in public. Just having this understanding brought me peace. It also, in an unexpected way, brought the two of us closer.

			While repairing my bond with my mother, I also began to rebuild my relationship with my father. Living alone in a small, ramshackle apartment—the same one he’d lived in since my parents divorced when I was thirteen—my father, a former marine sergeant and construction worker, never bothered to renovate his own place. Old tools, bolts, screws, nails, and rolls of electrical and duct tape were strewn throughout the rooms and hallways—just as they had always been. As we stood together in a sea of rusty iron and steel, I told him how much I missed him. The words seemed to evaporate into empty space. He didn’t know what to do with them.

			I had always craved a close relationship with my father, yet neither he nor I knew how to make it happen. This time, however, we kept talking. I told him that I loved him and that he was a good father. I shared the memories I had of things he did for me when I was small. I could feel him listening to what I was saying, even though his actions—shrugging his shoulders, changing the subject—indicated he was not. It took many weeks of talking and sharing memories. During one of our lunches together, he looked directly into my eyes and said, “I didn’t think you ever loved me.” I could barely breathe. It was clear that great pain welled in both of us. In that moment, something broke open. It was our hearts. Sometimes, the heart must break in order to open. Eventually, we began to express our love for each other. I was now seeing the effects of trusting the words of the teachers and returning home to heal with my parents.

			For the first time I could remember, I was able to let myself receive my parents’ love and care—not in the way I had once expected it, but in the way they could give it. Something opened in me. It didn’t matter how they could or couldn’t love me. What mattered was how I could receive what they had to give. They were the same parents they’d always been. The difference was in me. I was falling back in love with them, the way I must have felt as a baby before the break in the bond with my mother occurred.

			My early separation from my mother, along with similar traumas I inherited from my family history—specifically, the fact that three of my grandparents had lost their mothers at an early age, and the fourth had lost a father as an infant—helped to forge my secret language of fear. The words alone, helpless, and ruined, and the feelings that had accompanied them, were finally losing their power to lead me astray. I was being granted a new life, and my renewed relationship with my parents was a large part of it.

			Over the next few months, I reestablished a tender connection with my mother. Her love, which once felt invasive and grating, now felt calming and restorative. I was also lucky to have sixteen close years with my father before he died. In the dementia that dominated the last four years of his life, my father taught me perhaps the most profound lesson about vulnerability and love I have ever learned. Together, we met in that place beyond thought, beyond the mind, where only the deepest love dwells.

			During my travels, I had many great teachers. When I look back, however, it was my eye—my stressed-out, beleaguered, terror-producing eye—that led me halfway around the world, back to my parents, through the morass of family trauma, and finally back to my heart. My eye was, hands down, the greatest teacher of them all.

			Somewhere along the way, I had even stopped thinking about my eye and worrying about whether it would improve or worsen. I no longer expected to be able to see clearly again. Somehow, that stopped being important. Not long afterward, my vision returned. I hadn’t expected it to. I hadn’t even needed it to. I had learned to be okay no matter what my eye was doing.

			Today my vision is 20/20, even though my ophthalmologist swears that with the amount of scarring I still have on my retina, I shouldn’t be able to see. He just shakes his head and postulates that somehow the light signals must be ricocheting and bypassing the fovea, the central area of the retina. As with many stories of healing and transformation, what started out looking like adversity was actually grace in disguise. Ironically, after scouring the distant corners of the planet for answers, I found that the greatest resources for healing were already inside me just waiting to be excavated.

			Ultimately, healing is an inside job. Thankfully, my teachers led me back to my parents, and home to myself. Along the way I uncovered the stories in my family history that ultimately brought me peace. Out of gratitude and a newfound sense of freedom, it became my mission to help others discover this freedom for themselves.

			—

			It was through language that I entered the world of psychology. Both as a student and then as a clinician, I had little interest in tests and theories and models of behavior. Instead, I heard language. I developed listening techniques, and taught myself to hear what people were saying behind their complaints, beneath their old stories. I learned to help them identify the specific words that led to the origin of their pain. And though some theorists postulate that language goes missing during trauma, I’ve seen firsthand again and again that this language is never lost. It roams the unconscious realms, waiting to be rediscovered.

			It’s no accident that for me language is a potent tool of healing. For as far back as I can remember, language has been my teacher, my way of organizing and understanding the world. I’ve written poetry since I was an adolescent, and will drop everything (well, almost everything) when a surge of urgent language insists on being born. I know that on the other side of that surrender are insights that would otherwise be unavailable to me. In my own process, locating the words alone, helpless, and ruined was essential.

			In many ways, healing from trauma is akin to creating a poem. Both require the right timing, the right words, and the right image. When these elements align, something meaningful is set into motion that can be felt in the body. To heal, our pacing must be in tune. If we arrive too quickly at an image, it might not take root. If the words that comfort us arrive too early, we might not be ready to take them in. If the words aren’t precise, we might not hear them or resonate with them at all.

			Over the course of my practice as a teacher and workshop leader, I’ve combined the insights and methods gained from my training in inherited family trauma with my knowledge of the crucial role of language. I call this the core language approach. Using specific questions, I help people discover the root cause behind the physical and emotional symptoms that keep them mired. Uncovering the right language not only exposes the trauma, it also unveils the tools and images needed for healing. In using this method, I’ve witnessed deep-rooted patterns of depression, anxiety, and emptiness shift in a flash of insight.

			The vehicle for this journey is language, the buried language of our worries and fears. It’s likely that this language has lived inside us our whole lives. It may have originated with our parents, or even generations ago with our great-grandparents. Our core language insists on being heard. When we follow where it leads and hear its story, it has the power to defuse our deepest fears.

			Along the way, we’re likely to meet family members both known and unknown. Some have been dead for years. Some aren’t even related, but their suffering or cruelty may have altered the course of our family’s destiny. We might even uncover a secret or two hidden in stories that have long been laid to rest. But regardless of where this exploration takes us, my experience suggests that we’ll arrive at a new place in our lives, with a greater sense of freedom in our bodies and an ability to be more at peace with ourselves.

			Throughout this book, I have drawn on the stories of the people I’ve worked with in my workshops, trainings, and individual sessions. The case details are real, but to protect their privacy, I have changed their names and other identifying characteristics. I am deeply grateful to them for letting me share the secret language of their fears, for their trust in me, and for allowing me to hear what’s essential beneath their words.





Part I


			The Web of Family Trauma





Chapter 1

			Traumas Lost and Found

			The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

			—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

			A well-documented feature of trauma, one familiar to many, is our inability to articulate what happens to us. Not only do we lose our words, but something happens with our memory as well. During a traumatic incident, our thought processes become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button has been pressed, causing us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our day-to-day lives. Unconsciously, we could find ourselves reacting to certain people, events, or situations in old, familiar ways that echo the past.

			Sigmund Freud identified this pattern more than one hundred years ago. Traumatic reenactment, or “repetition compulsion,” as Freud called it, is an attempt of the unconscious to replay what’s unresolved, so we can “get it right.” This unconscious drive to relive past events could be one of the mechanisms at work when families repeat unresolved traumas in future generations.

			Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung also believed that what remains unconscious does not dissolve but, rather, resurfaces in our lives as fate or fortune. Whatever is not conscious, he said, will be experienced as fate. In other words, we’re likely to keep repeating our unconscious patterns until we bring them into the light of awareness. Both Jung and Freud noted that whatever is too difficult to process does not fade away on its own but, rather, is stored in our unconscious.

			Freud and Jung each observed how fragments of previously blocked, suppressed, or repressed life experience would show up in the words, gestures, and behaviors of their patients. For decades to follow, therapists would see such clues as slips of the tongue, accident patterns, or dream images as messengers shining a light into the unspeakable and unthinkable regions of their clients’ lives.

			Recent advances in imaging technology have allowed researchers to unravel the brain and bodily functions that “misfire” or break down during overwhelming episodes. Bessel van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist known for his research on posttraumatic stress. He explains that during a trauma, the speech center shuts down, as does the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for experiencing the present moment. He describes the speechless terror of trauma as the experience of being at a loss for words, a common occurrence when brain pathways of remembering are hindered during periods of threat or danger. “When people relive their traumatic experiences,” he says, “the frontal lobes become impaired and, as [a] result, they have trouble thinking and speaking. They no longer are capable of communicating to either themselves or to others precisely what’s going on.”1

			Still, all is not silent: words, images, and impulses that fragment following a traumatic event reemerge to form a secret language of our suffering we carry with us. Nothing is lost. The pieces have just been rerouted.

			Emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of the individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as a part of the whole picture. Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide, and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.

			The following story offers a vivid example. When I first met Jesse, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year. His insomnia was evident in the dark shadows around his eyes, but the blankness of his stare suggested a deeper story. Though only twenty, Jesse looked at least ten years older. He sank onto my sofa as if his legs could no longer bear his weight.

			Jesse explained that he had been a star athlete and a straight-A student, but that his persistent insomnia had initiated a downward spiral of depression and despair. As a result, he dropped out of college and had to forfeit the baseball scholarship he’d worked so hard to win. He desperately sought help to get his life back on track. Over the past year, he’d been to three doctors, two psychologists, a sleep clinic, and a naturopathic physician. Not one of them, he related in a monotone, was able to offer any real insight or help. Jesse, gazing mostly at the floor as he shared his story, told me he was at the end of his rope.

			When I asked whether he had any ideas about what might have triggered his insomnia, he shook his head. Sleep had always come easily for Jesse. Then, one night just after his nineteenth birthday, he woke suddenly at 3:30 a.m. He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried. Three hours and several blankets later, Jesse was still wide awake. Not only was he cold and tired, he was seized by a strange fear he had never experienced before, a fear that something awful could happen if he let himself fall back to sleep. If I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up. Every time he felt himself drifting off, the fear would jolt him back into wakefulness. The pattern repeated itself the next night, and the night after that. Soon insomnia became a nightly ordeal. Jesse knew his fear was irrational, yet he felt helpless to put an end to it.

			I listened closely as Jesse spoke. What stood out for me was one unusual detail—he’d been extremely cold, “freezing,” he said, just prior to the first episode. I began to explore this with Jesse, and asked him if anyone on either side of the family suffered a trauma that involved being cold, or being asleep, or being nineteen.

			Jesse revealed that his mother had only recently told him about the tragic death of his father’s older brother—an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm just north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Tracks in the snow revealed that he had been struggling to hang on. Eventually, he was found facedown in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia. His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again.

			Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death—specifically, the terror of letting go into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

			Making the connection was a turning point for Jesse. Once he grasped that his insomnia had its origin in an event that had occurred thirty years earlier, he finally had an explanation for his fear of falling asleep. The process of healing could now begin. With tools Jesse learned in our work together, which will be detailed later in this book, he was able to disentangle himself from the trauma endured by an uncle he’d never met, but whose terror he had unconsciously taken on as his own. Not only did Jesse feel freed from the heavy fog of insomnia, he gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.

			In an attempt to explain stories such as Jesse’s, scientists are now able to identify biological markers—evidence that traumas can and do pass down from one generation to the next. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is one of the world’s leading experts in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a true pioneer in this field. In numerous studies, Yehuda has examined the neurobiology of PTSD in Holocaust survivors and their children. Her research on cortisol in particular (the stress hormone that helps our body return to normal after we experience a trauma) and its effects on brain function has revolutionized the understanding and treatment of PTSD worldwide. (People with PTSD relive feelings and sensations associated with a trauma despite the fact that the trauma occurred in the past. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, nightmares, frightening thoughts, and being easily startled or “on edge.”)

			Yehuda and her team found that children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD were born with low cortisol levels similar to their parents’, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation. Her discovery of low cortisol levels in people who experience an acute traumatic event has been controversial, going against the long-held notion that stress is associated with high cortisol levels. Specifically, in cases of chronic PTSD, cortisol production can become suppressed, contributing to the low levels measured in both survivors and their children.

			Yehuda discovered similar low cortisol levels in war veterans, as well as in pregnant mothers who developed PTSD after the World Trade Center attacks, and in their children. Not only did she find that the survivors in her study produced less cortisol, a characteristic they can pass on to their children; she notes that several stress-related psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, chronic pain syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome, are associated with low blood levels of cortisol.2 Interestingly, 50 to 70 percent of PTSD patients also meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression or another mood or anxiety disorder.3

			Yehuda’s research demonstrates that you and I are three times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD if one of our parents had PTSD, and as a result, we’re likely to suffer from depression or anxiety.4 She believes that this type of generational PTSD is inherited rather than occurring from our being exposed to our parents’ stories of their ordeals.5 Yehuda was one of the first researchers to show how descendants of trauma survivors carry the physical and emotional symptoms of traumas they have not directly experienced.

			That was the case with Gretchen. After years of taking antidepressants, attending talk and group therapy sessions, and trying various cognitive approaches to mitigating the effects of stress, her symptoms of depression and anxiety remained unchanged.

			Gretchen told me she no longer wanted to live. For as long as she could remember, she had struggled with emotions so intense she could barely contain the surges in her body. Gretchen had been admitted several times to a psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed as bipolar with a severe anxiety disorder. Medication brought her slight relief, but never touched the powerful suicidal urges that lived inside her. As a teenager, she would self-injure by burning herself with the lit end of a cigarette. Now, at thirty-nine, Gretchen had had enough. Her depression and anxiety, she said, had prevented her from ever marrying and having children. In a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone of voice, she told me that she was planning to commit suicide before her next birthday.

			Listening to Gretchen, I had the strong sense that there must be significant trauma in her family history. In such cases, I find it’s essential to pay close attention to the words being spoken for clues to the traumatic event underlying a client’s symptoms.

			When I asked her how she planned to kill herself, Gretchen said that she was going to “vaporize” herself. As incomprehensible as it might sound to most of us, her plan was literally to leap into a vat of molten steel at the mill where her brother worked. “My body will incinerate in seconds,” she said, staring directly into my eyes, “even before it reaches the bottom.”

			I was struck by her lack of emotion as she spoke. Whatever feeling lay beneath appeared to have been vaulted deep inside. At the same time, the words vaporize and incinerate rattled inside me. Having worked with many children and grandchildren whose families were affected by the Holocaust, I’ve learned to let their words lead me. I wanted Gretchen to tell me more.

			I asked if anyone in her family was Jewish or had been involved in the Holocaust. Gretchen started to say no, but then stopped herself and recalled a story about her grandmother. She had been born into a Jewish family in Poland, but converted to Catholicism when she came to the United States in 1946 and married Gretchen’s grandfather. Two years earlier, her grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz. They had literally been gassed—engulfed in poisonous vapors—and incinerated. No one in Gretchen’s immediate family ever spoke to her grandmother about the war, or about the fate of her siblings or her parents. Instead, as is often the case with such extreme trauma, they avoided the subject entirely.

			Gretchen knew the basic facts of her family history, but had never connected it to her own anxiety and depression. It was clear to me that the words she used and the feelings she described didn’t originate with her, but had in fact originated with her grandmother and the family members who lost their lives.

			As I explained the connection, Gretchen listened intently. Her eyes widened and color rose in her cheeks. I could tell that what I said was resonating. For the first time, Gretchen had an explanation for her suffering that made sense to her.

			To help her deepen her new understanding, I invited her to imagine standing in her grandmother’s shoes, represented by a pair of foam rubber footprints that I placed on the carpet in the center of my office. I asked her to imagine feeling what her grandmother might have felt after having lost all her loved ones. Taking it even a step further, I asked her if she could literally stand on the footprints as her grandmother, and feel her grandmother’s feelings in her own body. Gretchen reported sensations of overwhelming loss and grief, aloneness and isolation. She also experienced the profound sense of guilt that many survivors feel, the sense of remaining alive after loved ones have been killed.

			In order to process trauma, it’s often helpful for clients to have a direct experience of the feelings and sensations that have been submerged in the body. When Gretchen was able to access these sensations, she realized that her wish to annihilate herself was deeply entwined with her lost family members. She also realized that she had taken on some element of her grandmother’s desire to die. As Gretchen absorbed this understanding, seeing the family story in a new light, her body began to soften, as if something inside her that had long been coiled up could now relax.

			As with Jesse, Gretchen’s recognition that her trauma lay buried in her family’s unspoken history was merely the first step in her healing process. An intellectual understanding by itself is rarely enough for a lasting shift to occur. Often, the awareness needs to be accompanied by a deeply felt visceral experience. We’ll explore further the ways in which healing becomes fully integrated so that the wounds of previous generations can finally be released.





An Unexpected Family Inheritance


			A boy may have his grandpa’s long legs and a girl may have her mother’s nose, but Jesse had inherited his uncle’s fear of never waking, and Gretchen carried the family’s Holocaust history in her depression. Sleeping inside each of them were fragments of traumas too great to be resolved in one generation.

			When those in our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered with immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and can escalate beyond what they can manage or resolve. It’s human nature: when pain is too great, people tend to avoid it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the necessary healing process that can lead us to a natural release.

			Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain. For Jesse, the unrelenting cold and shivering did not appear until he reached the age that his Uncle Colin was when he froze to death. For Gretchen, her grandmother’s anxious despair and suicidal urges had been with her for as long as she could remember. These feelings became so much a part of her life that no one ever thought to consider that the feelings didn’t originate with her.

			Currently, our society does not provide many options to help people like Jesse and Gretchen who carry remnants of inherited family trauma. Typically, they might consult a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist and receive medications, therapy, or some combination of both. But although these avenues might bring some relief, generally they don’t provide a complete solution.

			Not all of us have traumas as dramatic as Gretchen’s or Jesse’s in our family history. However, events such as the death of an infant, a child given away, the loss of one’s home, or even the withdrawal of a mother’s attention can all have the effect of collapsing the walls of support and restricting the flow of love in our family. With the origin of these traumas in view, long-standing family patterns can finally be laid to rest. It’s important to note that not all effects of trauma are negative. In the next chapter, we’ll learn about epigenetic changes—the chemical modifications that occur in our cells as a result of a traumatic event.

			According to Rachel Yehuda, the purpose of an epigenetic change is to expand the range of ways we respond in stressful situations, which she says is a positive thing. “Who would you rather be in a war zone with?” she asks. “Somebody that’s had previous adversity [and] knows how to defend themselves? Or somebody that has never had to fight for anything?”6 Once we understand what biological changes from stress and trauma are meant to do, she says, “we can develop a better way of explaining to ourselves what our true capabilities and potentials are.”7

			Viewed in this way, the traumas we inherit or experience firsthand can not only create a legacy of distress, but also forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.





Chapter 2


			Three Generations of Shared Family History:

The Family Body

			I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors. It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to . . . complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished.

			—Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

			The history you share with your family begins before you are even conceived. In your earliest biological form, as an unfertilized egg, you already share a cellular environment with your mother and grandmother. When your grandmother was five months pregnant with your mother, the precursor cell of the egg you developed from was already present in your mother’s ovaries.

			This means that before your mother was even born, your mother, your grandmother, and the earliest traces of you were all in the same body—three generations sharing the same biological environment.1 This isn’t a new idea: embryology textbooks have told us as much for more than a century. Your inception can be similarly traced in your paternal line. The precursor cells of the sperm you developed from were present in your father when he was a fetus in his mother’s womb.2

			With what we’re now learning, from the Yehuda studies and others, about the ways stress can be inherited, we can begin to map out how the biological residue of traumas your grandmother experienced can be passed down, with far-reaching consequences.

			There is, however, a significant biological difference in the evolution of the egg and sperm. Your father’s sperm continued to multiply when he reached puberty, whereas your mother was born with her lifetime supply of eggs. Once her egg cells were formed in your grandmother’s womb, that cell line stopped dividing.3 So twelve to forty or so years later, one of those eggs, fertilized by your father’s sperm, eventually developed into who you are today. In either case, both precursor egg and sperm cells, science now tells us, can be imprinted by events with the potential to affect subsequent generations. Because your father’s sperm continues to develop throughout adolescence and adulthood, his sperm continues to be susceptible to traumatic imprints almost up until the point when you are conceived.4 The implications of this are startlingly vast, as we see when we look at the emerging research.





Cellular Biology


			Scientists originally believed that our parents’ genes forged the blueprint from which we were created, and that with just the right amount of guidance and nutrition we would develop seamlessly according to plan. We now know that our genetic blueprint is merely the starting point, as influences from the environment, from as early as conception, begin to shape us emotionally, psychologically, and biologically, and this shaping continues throughout our lives.

			The pioneering cell biologist Bruce Lipton demonstrates that our DNA can be affected by both negative and positive thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Dr. Lipton spent decades, as a medical school professor and research scientist, investigating the mechanisms by which cells receive and process information. As a Stanford scholar and researcher from 1987 to 1992, he demonstrated that signals from the environment could operate through the cell membrane, controlling the behavior and physiology of the cell, which in turn could activate or silence a gene. His ideas and discoveries, which were once considered controversial, have since been corroborated by many researchers. As a result of his work with both animal and human cells, we now have a window of understanding into how cellular memory is transferred in the womb from a mother to her unborn child.

			According to Lipton, “The mother’s emotions, such as fear, anger, love, hope among others, can biochemically alter the genetic expression of her offspring.”5 During pregnancy, nutrients in the mother’s blood nourish the fetus through the wall of the placenta. With the nutrients, she also releases a host of hormones and information signals generated by the emotions she experiences. These chemical signals activate specific receptor proteins in the cells, triggering a cascade of physiologic, metabolic, and behavioral changes in the mother’s body as well as in the fetus.

			Chronic or repetitive emotions like anger and fear can imprint her child, essentially preparing or “preprograming” how the child will adapt to its environment.6 Lipton explains: “When stress hormones cross the [human] placenta . . . they cause fetal blood vessels to be more constricted in the viscera, sending more blood to the periphery, preparing the fetus for a fight/flight behavioral response.”7 In that sense, a child who experienced a stressful in utero environment can become reactive in a similarly stressful situation.

			There are now numerous studies documenting how a pregnant mother’s stress, even as early as the first trimester, can affect her child. One such study, published in 2010 in Biological Psychiatry, examined the relationship between prenatal stress and its effects on the neurodevelopment of infants. The researchers measured the stress-regulating hormone cortisol in the amniotic fluid of 125 pregnant mothers to determine stress levels. The findings demonstrated that babies exposed to increased cortisol in utero, as early as seventeen weeks after conception, exhibited impaired cognitive development when they were evaluated at seventeen months old.8

			In his book Nurturing the Unborn Child: A Nine-Month Program for Soothing, Stimulating, and Communicating with Your Baby, psychiatrist Thomas Verny tells us: “If a pregnant mother experiences acute or chronic stress, her body will manufacture stress hormones (including adrenaline and noradrenaline) that travel through her bloodstream to the womb, inducing the same stressful state in the unborn child.”9 Verny goes on to say, “Our studies show that mothers under extreme and constant stress are more likely to have babies who are premature, lower than average in weight, hyperactive, irritable, and colicky. In extreme instances, these babies may be born with thumbs sucked raw or even with ulcers.”10

			Lipton stresses the importance of what he terms conscious parenting—parenting with the awareness that, from preconception all the way through postnatal development, a child’s development and health can be profoundly influenced by the parent’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.11 “Parents that did not wish to have a child, parents that are continuously concerned about their own and consequently their offspring’s chances for survival, women who sustain physical and emotional abuse during their pregnancy all represent situations where adverse environmental cues surrounding the birth of their child can be passed on to the offspring.”12

			With the knowledge that emotions can be biologically communicated and the fact that three generations share the same biological environment of the womb, imagine this scenario: A month before your mother is born, your grandmother receives the devastating news that her husband has been killed in an accident. With a new baby to prepare for, and little space to grieve the loss, your grandmother would likely submerge her emotions into the body she now shares with her daughter and grandchild. You and your mother would know something about that grief from a place deep inside you, a place all three of you share.

			It’s within this shared environment that stress can cause changes to our DNA. In the next section, we’ll look at how our genes are affected by traumas in our family history.





Epigenetics


			Bruce Lipton’s work on cellular memory both predates and supports the emerging field of epigenetics—the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the sequence of the DNA.13 Originally, it was believed that our genetic inheritance was transmitted only through the chromosomal DNA we received from our parents. Now, with greater understanding of the human genome, scientists have discovered that chromosomal DNA—the DNA responsible for transmitting physical traits, such as the color of our hair, eyes, and skin—surprisingly makes up less than 2 percent of our total DNA.14 The other 98 percent consists of what is called noncoding DNA (ncDNA), and is responsible for many of the emotional, behavioral, and personality traits we inherit.15

			Scientists used to call it “junk DNA,” thinking it was mostly useless, but they’ve recently begun to recognize its significance. Interestingly, the percentage of noncoding DNA increases with the complexity of the organism, with humans having the highest percentage.16

			Noncoding DNA is known to be affected by environmental stressors, such as toxins and inadequate nutrition, as well as stressful emotions.17,18 The affected DNA transmits information that helps us prepare for life out of the womb by ensuring that we have the particular traits we’ll need to adapt to our environment.19 According to Rachel Yehuda, epigenetic changes biologically prepare us to cope with the traumas that our parents experienced.20 In preparation for similar stressors, we’re born with a specific set of tools to help us survive.

			On the one hand, this is good news. We’re born with an intrinsic skill set—an “environmental resilience,” as Yehuda calls it—that allows us to adapt to stressful situations.21 On the other hand, these inherited adaptations can also be detrimental. For example, the child of a parent who, early in life, lived in a war zone may inherit the impulse to recoil in response to sudden loud noises. Although this instinct would be protective in the event of a bomb threat, such a heightened startle response can keep a person in a highly reactive state even when no danger is present. In such a case, an incongruity would exist between the child’s epigenetic preparedness and the actual environment. Such a mismatch could predispose someone to stress disorders and disease later in life.22,23

			These adaptive changes are caused by chemical signals in the cells, known as epigenetic tags, which attach to the DNA and tell the cell to either activate or silence a specific gene. “There’s something in the external environment that affects the internal environment, and before you know it a gene is functioning in a different way,” says Yehuda.24 The sequence of the DNA itself doesn’t change, but because of these epigenetic tags, its expression does. Research has shown that epigenetic tags can account for differences in how we regulate stress later in life.25

			Scientists used to believe that the effects of stress were erased in the precursor sperm and egg cells (soon after fertilization occurs) before any epigenetic information could affect the next generation—like data being erased from a computer’s hard drive. Scientists have now demonstrated, however, that certain epigenetic tags escape this reprogramming process and are in fact transmitted to the precursor egg and sperm cells that will one day become us.26

			The most common epigenetic tag is DNA methylation, a process that blocks proteins from attaching to a gene, suppressing its expression.27 DNA methylation can positively or adversely affect our health by locking “helpful” or “unhelpful” genes in the “off” position. When a stressor or trauma occurs, researchers have observed irregularities in DNA methylation that can be transmitted, along with a predisposition for physical or emotional health challenges, to subsequent generations.28,29

			Another epigenetic mechanism that plays a significant role in gene regulation is the small noncoding RNA molecule called microRNA. As with DNA methylation, stress-induced irregularities in microRNA levels can affect how genes are expressed in multiple generations.30

			Among the numerous genes affected by stress are the CRF1 (corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor) and CRF2 genes. Increased levels of these genes have been observed in people who have depression and anxiety.31 The CRF1 and CRF2 genes can be inherited from stressed mothers who share similar increased amounts.32 Scientists have documented numerous other genes that can also be affected by trauma experienced early in one’s lifetime.33,34

			“Our research demonstrates [that] genes . . . retain some memory of their past experiences,” says Dr. Jamie Hackett from the University of Cambridge.35

			The historic study conducted by Yehuda in 2005 brought considerable awareness to the idea that stress patterns do, in fact, transfer from pregnant women to their children. Pregnant women (in their second or third trimester) who were either at or near the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks in New York City, and who went on to develop PTSD, delivered children who had low levels of cortisol.36 Their children also exhibited increased distress in response to new stimuli. When cortisol levels are compromised, so is our ability to regulate emotions and manage stress. These babies were also smaller for their gestational age.37 Yehuda and her team suggest that the results of the 9/11 study are most likely due to epigenetic mechanisms; they found sixteen genes that expressed differently in those who developed PTSD after 9/11 compared with those who did not.38

			In an August 2015 study published in Biological Psychiatry, Yehuda and her team at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital demonstrated that gene changes could be transmitted from parents to their children. Analyzing a particular region of a gene that’s associated with stress regulation, Yehuda and her team found that Jews who had experienced trauma during the Holocaust, and their children, shared a similar genetic pattern. Specifically, they found epigenetic tags on the very same part of the gene in both parent and child. They compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war and determined that the gene changes in the children could be attributed only to the trauma that the parents experienced.39

			There are now a significant number of studies demonstrating how the traumatic experiences of parents can influence the gene expression and stress patterns of their children. In an article entitled “Epigenetic Mechanisms of Depression,” published in JAMA Psychiatry in February 2014, Dr. Eric Nestler writes, “Indeed, stressful life events have been shown to alter stress susceptibility in subsequent generations.”40 Pregnant mothers who developed PTSD after 9/11 gave birth to children who not only had compromised cortisol levels, but also were more easily disrupted by loud noises and unfamiliar people. One study in England found that children’s emotional and behavioral problems doubled when their mothers were anxious during pregnancy.41

			“Trauma has the power to reach out from the past and claim new victims,” writes addiction psychiatrist Dr. David Sack in Psychology Today. “Children of a parent struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder can sometimes develop their own PTSD, called secondary PTSD.” He reports that about 30 percent of kids with a parent who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and developed PTSD struggle with similar symptoms. “The parent’s trauma,” he says, “becomes the child’s own and [the child’s] behavioral and emotional issues can mirror those of the parent.”42 Children with a parent who was traumatized during the Cambodian genocide, for example, tend to suffer from depression and anxiety. Similarly, children of Australian Vietnam War veterans have higher rates of suicide than the general population.43

			Native American youths on reservations have the highest suicide rate in the Western Hemisphere. In some parts of the country, the rate is ten to nineteen times higher than that of other American youth.44 Albert Bender, a Cherokee historian and attorney specializing in Native American law, suggests that the “intergenerational trauma felt by all Native people, but particularly by Indian youth, is the result of the historical policy of genocide exemplified by the endless massacres, the forced removals and military campaigns that continued to the end of the 19th century, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre.” He believes that generational grief is fueling these suicides. “All of these memories,” he says, “resonate in the minds of our young people in one form or another.” He reports that young people are hanging themselves at such a high rate that “a week without a suicide is now considered a blessing on many reservations.”45

			LeManuel “Lee” Bitsoi, a Navajo PhD research associate in genetics at Harvard University, corroborates Bender’s claim that young people are reliving the past in their symptoms. He believes that epigenetics research is finally beginning to provide substantial evidence that intergenerational trauma is a real phenomenon.46

			Native American youths, like the children of war veterans, like the children of Holocaust survivors, like the children of Cambodian genocide survivors, and like the children of the World Trade Center attack survivors, are among the modern world’s newest victims of transgenerational trauma. Alarmingly, the list keeps expanding. Violence, war, and oppression continue to sow the seeds of generational reliving, as survivors unknowingly transmit what they have experienced to successive generations.

			Case in point: many young people born after 1994 in Rwanda, too young to have witnessed the senseless killings of approximately 800,000 people, experience the same symptoms of posttraumatic stress as those who witnessed and survived the brutality. The young Rwandans report feelings of intense anxiety and obsessive visions similar to the horrors that occurred before they were even born.

			“It is a phenomenon that was expected . . . all that is not said, is transmitted,” says psychiatrist Naasson Munyandamutsa. Even children whose families were unscathed by the violence are similarly affected by what psychiatrist Rutakayile Bizoza refers to as a “contagion in the collective subconscious.”47

			Yehuda claims that children of PTSD-stricken mothers are three times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than children in her control groups. She also finds that children of survivors are three to four times more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, or engage more in substance abuse, when either parent suffered from PTSD.48 Yehuda and her team have also been able to distinguish differences in a child’s symptoms based on whether the mother or the father passed on the PTSD.49 Paternal PTSD, she discovered, increases the likelihood that the child will feel “dissociated from [his or] her memories,” whereas maternal PTSD increases the likelihood that a child will have difficulty “calming down.”50

			Specifically, Yehuda reports that children of fathers who had PTSD are “probably more prone to depression or chronic stress responses.” The opposite seems to be true for children whose mothers had PTSD.51 Yehuda points out that mothers who survived the Holocaust feared being separated from their children, and that Holocaust offspring often complained that their mothers were overattached to them.52

			Yehuda believes that the stress-induced epigenetic modifications we inherit from our fathers occur before conception and are transmitted in our fathers’ sperm. She also believes that these changes can occur in our mothers either before conception or during gestation.53 Yehuda also notes that a mother’s age when a trauma occurs is significant for what she transmits to her children. Children of Holocaust survivors, for example, inherited variances in the enzyme that converts active cortisol to inactive cortisol based on whether their mothers were younger or were adults during the Holocaust.54

			PTSD experienced by a grandparent can also affect succeeding generations. As we saw with Gretchen, war-related trauma can continue to spiral, affecting the grandchildren of those who suffered the original trauma.

			Traumas, not only from war but from any event significant enough to disrupt the emotional equilibrium in our family—a crime, a suicide, an early death, a sudden or unexpected loss—can lead to our reliving trauma symptoms from the past. Sack writes, “Trauma travels throughout society, as well as generationally.”55





Epigenetic Inheritance


			It’s only recently that scientists have begun to understand the biological processes that occur when trauma is inherited. To learn more, researchers have turned to animal studies. Because humans and mice share a strikingly similar genetic blueprint—99 percent of the genes in humans have counterparts in mice—these studies provide us with a lens through which to view the effects of inherited stress in our own lives. This research is valuable for another reason: As a generation in mice is approximately twelve weeks, multigenerational studies can produce results in a relatively short time. A similar study conducted with humans could take as long as sixty years.

			Chemical changes in the blood, brain, ova, and sperm of mice are now being linked to behavioral patterns, such as anxiety and depression, in later generations. Studies performed on offspring, for example, have shown that the stress of maternal separation caused gene expression changes that can be traced for three generations.

			In one such study, researchers prevented females from nurturing their pups for up to three hours a day during their first two weeks of life. Later in life, their offspring exhibited behaviors similar to what we call depression in humans. The symptoms seemed to worsen as the mice aged. Surprisingly, some of the males did not express the behaviors themselves, but appeared to epigenetically transmit the behavioral changes to their female offspring. The researchers also discovered altered methylation and gene expression changes in the stressed mice. Among the genes involved was the CRF2 gene, which regulates anxiety in both mice and humans. The researchers also found that the germ cells—the precursor egg and sperm cells—as well as the brains of the offspring were affected by the stress of being separated from their mothers.56 In another experiment with rats, offspring that received low levels of maternal care were more anxious and more reactive to stress in adulthood than were the rats that received high levels of maternal care. This stress pattern was observed in multiple generations.57

			It’s common knowledge that infants who’ve been separated from their mothers can experience challenges as a result. In studies involving male mice, pups that were separated from their mothers exhibited lifelong increases in stress susceptibility and generated offspring that exhibited similar stress patterns over several generations.58,59 In one of those studies, conducted at the Brain Research Institute of the University of Zurich in 2014, researchers subjected male mice to repeated and prolonged periods of intense stress by separating them from their mothers. Afterward, the traumatized mice exhibited a number of depressionlike symptoms. The researchers then had the mice reproduce, and discovered that the pups in both the second and third generation showed the same symptoms of trauma despite never having experienced it themselves.60

			The researchers also discovered abnormally high numbers of microRNA—genetic material that regulates gene expression—present in the sperm, blood, and hippocampi of the traumatized mice. (The hippocampus is a brain region involved in stress responses.) Abnormal levels of microRNA were also discovered in the blood and hippocampi of mice from the second generation. Although mice in the third generation expressed the same symptoms of trauma as did their fathers and grandfathers, elevated numbers of microRNA were not detected, leading researchers to speculate that the behavioral effects of a traumatic event can express for three generations, but perhaps not beyond that.61

			“With the imbalance in microRNAs in sperm, we have discovered a key factor through which trauma can be passed on,” explains Isabelle Mansuy, a coauthor of the study.62 She and her team are currently studying the role of microRNAs in trauma inheritance in humans.

			What makes the mouse research so intriguing is that science can now substantiate how the challenges experienced in one generation can become the legacy transmitted to the next. Looking at the possible implications of all this, we have to ask ourselves: what’s really being handed down to our kids?

			In a study involving the offspring of stressed male mice conducted at Emory University School of Medicine in 2013, researchers discovered that traumatic memories could be passed down to subsequent generations through epigenetic changes that occur in DNA. Mice in one generation were trained to fear a cherry blossom–like scent called acetophenone. Each time they were exposed to the smell, they simultaneously received an electric shock. After a while, the shocked mice had a greater amount of smell receptors associated with that particular scent, enabling them to detect it at lower concentrations. They also had enlarged brain areas devoted to those receptors. Researchers were also able to identify changes in the mice’s sperm.

			The most intriguing aspect of the study is what occurred in the next two generations. Both the pups and grandpups, when exposed to the blossom odor, became jumpy and avoided it, despite never having experienced it before. They also exhibited the same brain changes. The mice appeared to inherit not only the sensitivity to the scent, but also the fear response associated with it.63

			Brian Dias, one of the researchers of the study, suggests that “there’s something in the sperm that is informing or allowing that information to be inherited.”64 He and his team noted abnormally low DNA methylation in both the sperm of the father mice and the sperm of the offspring.65 Although the exact mechanism for how a parent’s traumatic experience gets stored in the DNA is still under investigation, Dias says, “it behooves ancestors to inform their offspring that a particular environment was a negative environment for them.”66

			This particular study provides compelling evidence for what the researchers term “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance,” the notion that behaviors can pass from one generation to another. When I work with families in my practice, I often see recurring patterns of illness, depression, anxiety, relationship struggles, and financial hardship, and always feel compelled to look deeper. What unexplored event in a previous generation drives the behavior of the man who loses all his money at the racetrack, or the woman who chooses to be intimate only with married men? How have their genetic inheritances been influenced?

			Dias and his group are hoping to carry out further work to determine whether similar effects can be seen in the genes of humans. Until the data is examined in human studies spanning multiple generations, the current research with animals certainly asks us to pause and consider how we’re born sharing the stress of our parents and grandparents.

			In a 2013 study involving female rats, published in Biological Psychiatry, University of Haifa researchers Hiba Zaidan, Micah Leshem, and Inna Gaisler-Salomon discovered that even relatively mild stress before conception and pregnancy was significant enough to affect offspring. Several of the rats were exposed to minor stress, such as changes in temperature, as early as forty-five days after they were born, which is equivalent to adolescence in humans. Remarkably, the effects were measurable in the next generation.67

			Focusing on the CRF1 gene, which encodes a molecule involved in the body’s response to stress, the researchers detected increased amounts of the molecular product of this gene in the brains of the stressed female rats. They also discovered significantly increased concentrations of this same molecular product in the eggs of the stressed females and also in the brains of their offspring, demonstrating that information about the stress experience was being transferred in the eggs. The researchers insist that the altered behavior in the newborn rats is unrelated to the type of parenting the pups received from their mothers.68 This particular study suggests that even if humans receive supportive parenting as infants, we are still the recipients of the stress our parents experienced before we were conceived. In the next chapter, we’ll explore how siblings born of the same parents may inherit different traumas and lead contrasting lives despite sharing a similar upbringing.

			In a 2014 study with rats at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, researchers examined the effects of stress on pregnant mothers and its influence on preterm births. The findings revealed that stressed mothers delivered preterm babies and bore daughters who also had shortened pregnancies. The granddaughters experienced even shorter pregnancies than their mothers. What surprised the researchers most occurred in the third generation. Granddaughters of stressed grandmothers had shorter pregnancies, even when their mothers had not been stressed.69 Gerlinde Metz, senior author of the article, says: “A surprising finding was that mild to moderate stress during pregnancy had a compounding effect across generations. Thus, the effects of stress grew larger with each generation.”70 Metz believes that the epigenetic changes are due to noncoding microRNA molecules.71 These findings could have implications for humans who are at risk for pregnancy or childbirth complications due to stress.

			Given that a generation in humans is approximately twenty years, the results from human studies spanning multiple generations are still pending. However, with the research demonstrating that stress can be transmitted through at least three generations of mice, the researchers surmise that children born to human parents who experienced a traumatic or stressful event would also likely pass the pattern down not only to their children, but to their grandchildren as well. Uncannily, the Bible, in Numbers 14:18, appears to corroborate the claims of modern science—or vice versa—that the sins, iniquities, or consequences (depending on which translation you read) of the parents can affect the children up to the third and fourth generations. Specifically, the New Living Translation states: “The LORD is slow to anger and filled with unfailing love, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. But he does not excuse the guilty. He lays the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations.”

			As new discoveries in epigenetics are revealed, new information about how to mitigate the transgenerational effects of trauma could become standard practice. Researchers are now finding that our thoughts, inner images, and daily practices, such as visualization and meditation, can change the way our genes express, an idea we will examine in more detail in the next chapter.





Chapter 3


			The Family Mind

			The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

			—Ezekiel 18:2 (New International Version)

			To put it simply, we receive aspects of our grandmother’s mothering through our own mother. The traumas our grandmother endured, her pains and sorrows, her difficulties in her childhood or with our grandfather, the losses of those she loved who died early—these filter, to some degree, into the mothering she gave to our mother. If we look back another generation, the same would likely be true about the mothering our grandmother received.

			The particulars of the events that shaped their lives may be obscured from our vision, but nevertheless, the impact of those particulars can be deeply felt. It’s not only what we inherit from our parents but also how they were parented that influences how we relate to a partner, how we relate to ourselves, and how we nurture our children. For better or worse, parents tend to pass on the parenting that they themselves received.

			These patterns appear to be hardwired into the brain, and begin to be formed before we’re even born. How our mother bonds with us in the womb is instrumental in the development of our neural circuitry. Thomas Verny says, “From the moment of conception, the experience in the womb shapes the brain and lays the groundwork for personality, emotional temperament, and the power of higher thought.”1 Like a blueprint, these patterns are transmitted more than learned.

			The first nine months outside the womb function as a continuation of the neural development that occurs within the womb. Which neural circuits remain, which are discarded, and how the remaining circuits will be organized depend on how an infant experiences and interacts with the mother or caregiver. It’s through these early interactions that a child continues to establish a blueprint for managing emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

			When a mother carries inherited trauma, or has experienced a break in the bond with her mother, it can affect the tender bond that’s forming with her infant, and that bond is more likely to be interrupted. The impact of an early break in the mother-child bond—an extended hospital stay, an ill-timed vacation, a long-term separation—can be devastating for the infant. The deep, embodied familiarity of the mother’s smell, feel, touch, sound, and taste—everything the child has come to know and depend on—is suddenly gone.

			“Mother and offspring live in a biological state that has much in common with addiction,” says behavior science writer Winifred Gallagher. “When they are parted, the infant does not just miss its mother. It experiences a physical and psychological withdrawal . . . not unlike the plight of a heroin addict who goes cold turkey.”2 This analogy helps to explain why all newborn mammals, including humans, protest with such vigor when they’re separated from their mothers. From an infant’s perspective, a separation from the mother can be felt as “life threatening,” says Dr. Raylene Phillips, a neonatologist at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital. “If separation continues for a prolonged period,” she says, “the . . . response is despair. . . . The baby gives up.”3 Dr. Phillips shares this understanding with Dr. Nils Bergman and other experts in the neuroscience of mother-infant bonding.

			—

			In my early life, I knew that feeling of giving up. It came from my family. What my mother didn’t get from her mother affected what she was able to give to me and to my siblings. Although I could always feel her love shine through, much of her mothering was infused with the traumas in our family history—specifically the fact that her mother, Ida, lost both of her parents when she was two.

			The family lore goes like this: When my great-grandmother Sora died of pneumonia in 1904, her parents blamed her husband, Andrew, whom they described as a ne’er-do-well and a gambler. According to the story, Sora contracted pneumonia from leaning out the window in the middle of winter, begging for her husband to come home. My grandmother Ida was told that her father had “gambled away the rent money,” a phrase that has echoed in our family for generations. After Sora’s death, my great-grandfather Andrew was banished from the family and never heard from again. Even as a child, I sensed my grandmother’s bitterness when she told the story—which she did repeatedly—and I felt sad that she never got to know her father.

			Orphaned at two, my grandmother was raised by her elderly grandparents, who earned a living peddling rags from a pushcart in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. My grandmother adored her grandparents, and often lit up when she shared memories about how much they loved her. But that was only part of the story—the part she could consciously remember. A deeper story lay beneath her reach.

			Before Ida was a toddler, perhaps even in the womb, she would have absorbed the sensations of her mother’s distress caused by the constant arguing, the tears and disappointments. All this would have had a profound effect on the crucial neural development taking place in Ida’s brain. Then, losing her mother at age two would leave her emotionally shattered.

			It’s not only that my mother was raised by an orphan who couldn’t give her the nurturing she never got from her own mother; my mother also inherited the visceral trauma of Ida’s separation from her mother at an early age. Although Ida was present physically in my mother’s life, she was unable to express the depth of emotion that would support my mother’s development. That missing emotional connection also became part of my mother’s inheritance.

			My mother’s father’s story was equally fraught. His mother, Rachel, died in childbirth when my grandfather Harry was only five. Harry’s father, Samuel, believing he was responsible for her death by making her pregnant, carried a heavy burden of guilt. Samuel quickly remarried a woman who, as the story goes, cared more for her biological child than for Harry, whom she treated with an indifference bordering on cruelty. My grandfather rarely talked about his childhood. What I know about it came from my mother, who recounted stories about how Harry nearly starved to death when he was young. He’d pick scraps out of garbage cans and eat dandelion leaves just to survive. As a boy, I imagined my grandfather also as a boy, sitting on a curb alone, biting into a chunk of stale bread or ripping spoiled meat from a chicken bone.

			Having both lost their mothers as young children, my grandparents unknowingly passed the legacy of trauma forward. In our family, the mother-child bond had been severed for at least three generations. Had these disruptions not occurred before my mother was born, my siblings and I might have received a different type of mothering. But as it was, my mother’s need for the love her parents couldn’t provide often left her feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

			In order to end the cycle of inherited trauma in my family, and ultimately for my own healing, I realized that I needed to heal my relationship with my mother. I knew I couldn’t change what had happened in the past, but I certainly could change the relationship we had now.

			My mother had inherited her mother’s stress patterns, and so did I. She would often clutch her chest and complain about feelings of agitation in her body. I realize now that she was unconsciously reliving the fear and loneliness that rippled through our family, the terror of being separated from the one she needed most—her mother. I remember as a small child, maybe five or six, feeling so terrified when my mother left the house that I’d enter her bedroom, open her drawer of scarves and nightgowns, and bury my face into them so that I could breathe in her scent. I remember the feeling vividly—that I would never see her again, that her smell would be all I would have left. As an adult, I shared those memories with my mother, only to learn that she had done the same thing—she had buried her face in her mother’s clothes when her mother would leave the house.

			As my story illustrates, early interruptions to the mother-child bond can originate long before we’re ever conceived. The effects can remain in our unconscious and live in our body as somatic memories that can be triggered by events reminiscent of rejection or abandonment.

			When this happens, we can feel entirely out of sync with ourselves. Our thoughts can become overpowering, and we can feel overwhelmed—even frightened—by the sensations that flood our body. Because the trauma existed so early, it often remains hidden beyond our awareness. We know there’s a problem, but we can’t quite put our finger on the “what happened” part of it. Instead, we surmise that we’re the problem, that something inside us is “off.” In our fear and anxiety, we often try to control our environment to feel safe. That’s because we had so little control when we were small, and there was likely not a safe place for the intense emotions we experienced. Without our consciously changing the pattern, bonding injuries can echo for generations.





The Family Consciousness


			The notion that we inherit and “relive” aspects of family trauma has been the subject of many books by the renowned German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger. Having studied families for more than fifty years, first as a Catholic priest and later as a family therapist and philosopher, Hellinger teaches that we share a family consciousness with our biological family members who come before us. He has observed that traumatic events, such as the premature death of a parent, sibling, or child or an abandonment, crime, or suicide, can exert a powerful influence over us, leaving an imprint on our entire family system for generations. These imprints then become the family blueprint as family members unconsciously repeat the sufferings of the past.

			The repetition of a trauma is not always an exact replica of the original event. In a family in which someone has committed a crime, for example, someone born in a later generation could atone for that crime without realizing that he or she is doing so. A man named John once came to see me shortly after being released from prison. He had served three years for embezzlement—a crime he claimed he did not commit. At trial, John had pleaded not guilty, but because of the weight of the evidence against him—a false accusation made by his former business associate—he was advised by his attorney to accept a plea bargain. The moment he entered my office, John appeared agitated. His jaw was clenched, and he flung his coat against the back of the chair. He revealed that he’d been framed, and was now obsessed with thoughts of revenge. As we discussed his family situation, it came to light that a generation back, in the 1960s, his father had been accused of murdering his business partner, but had been acquitted at trial on a technicality. Everyone in the family knew that the father was guilty, but they never spoke about it. Given my experience with inherited family trauma, it wasn’t surprising to learn that John was the same age his father was when he went to trial. Justice was finally served, but the wrong person paid the price.

			Hellinger believes that the mechanism behind these repetitions is unconscious loyalty, and views unconscious loyalty as the cause of much suffering in families. Unable to identify the source of their symptoms as belonging to an earlier generation, people often assume that the source of their problem is their own life experience, and are left helpless to find a solution. Hellinger teaches that everyone has the same right to belong in a family system, and that no one can be excluded for any reason whatsoever. This includes the alcoholic grandfather who left our grandmother impoverished, the stillborn brother whose death broke our mother’s heart, and even the neighbor child our father accidently killed as he backed out of the driveway. The criminal uncle, our mother’s older half-sister, the baby we aborted—they all belong in our family. The list goes on.

			Even people we wouldn’t normally include in our family system must be included. If someone harmed or murdered or took advantage of a member of our family, that person must be included. Likewise, somebody in our family harmed or murdered or took advantage of someone, that victim would also need to be included in our family system.

			Earlier partners of our parents and grandparents also belong. By their dying or leaving or having been left, an opening is created that allows for our mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather to enter the system, and ultimately allows for us to be born.

			Hellinger has observed that when someone is rejected or left out of the family system, that person can be represented by a later member of the system. The later person might share or repeat the earlier person’s fate by behaving similarly or by repeating some aspect of the excluded person’s suffering. If, for example, your grandfather is rejected in the family because of his drinking, gambling, and philandering, it is possible that one or more of these behaviors will be adopted by one of his descendants. In this way, family suffering continues into subsequent generations.

			In John’s family, the man his father murdered was now part of John’s family system. When John was framed by his business partner, served time in jail, and carried murderous thoughts of revenge, he was unconsciously reliving aspects of his father’s experience that had occurred forty years earlier. When John made the link between his father’s experience and his own, he could finally release the obsessive thoughts and move on. Two fates had been intricately linked as though both men shared a single fate. As long as this connection remained obscured, John’s emotional freedom remained limited.

			Hellinger stresses that we must each carry our own fate regardless of its severity. No one can attempt to take on the fate of a parent, grandparent, sibling, uncle, or aunt without some type of suffering ensuing. Hellinger uses the word “entanglement” to describe this kind of suffering. When entangled, you unconsciously carry the feelings, symptoms, behaviors, or hardships of an earlier member of your family system as if these were your own.

			Even children born of the same parents, in the same family home, who share a similar upbringing, are likely to inherit different traumas and experience different fates. For example, the firstborn son is likely to carry what remains unresolved with the father, and the firstborn daughter is likely to carry what remains unresolved with the mother, though this is not always the case. The reverse can also be true. Later children in the family are likely to carry different aspects of their parents’ traumas, or elements of the grandparents’ traumas.

			For example, the first daughter might marry a man who is emotionally unavailable and controlling—similar to how she perceives her father—and, by doing so, share this dynamic with her mother. By marrying a shut-down, controlling man, she repeats her mother’s experiences and joins her in her discontent. The second daughter might carry the unexpressed anger of her mother. In this way, she is affected by the same trauma, but carries a different aspect of it. She might reject her father, whereas the first daughter does not.

			Later children in a family can often carry the unresolved traumas of the grandparents. In the same family, either the third or fourth daughter might never marry, fearing that she will be controlled by a man she does not love.

			I once worked with a Lebanese family that shared a similar dynamic. When we looked back another generation, we learned that both of the Lebanese grandmothers were given away by their parents to become child brides—the one grandmother at age nine and the other at age twelve. Connected with their grandmothers’ experience of being forced to marry while still children, two of the Lebanese sisters repeated aspects of this fate in their relationships. Like her grandmothers, one married a much older man. The other never married at all, complaining that men were disgusting and controlling—similar to how her unhappy paternal grandmother must have felt being trapped in a loveless marriage.

			With a break in the mother-child bond among siblings, each child might express his or her disconnection with the mother differently. One child might become a people pleaser, fearing that if he’s not good, or he makes waves, he’ll lose connection with people. Another child, believing that connection is never hers to have in the first place, might become argumentative and create conflict to push away the people close to her. Another child might isolate and have little contact with people at all.

			I’ve noticed that if several siblings have breaks in the mother-child bond, they’ll often express anger or jealousy, or feel disconnected from one another. For example, an older child might resent the child born later, perceiving that the younger child received the love that he or she did not get. Because the hippocampus—that part of the brain involved in creating memories—isn’t fully operational until after the age of two, the older child may not consciously remember being held, fed, or cuddled by the mother, but remembers the younger child receiving their mother’s love. In response, the older child, feeling slighted, can unconsciously blame the younger child for getting what he or she did not.

			And then, of course, there are some children who don’t seem to carry any family trauma at all. For these children, it’s quite possible that a successful bond was established with the mother and/or father, and this connection helped to immunize the child from carrying entanglements from the past. Perhaps a window of time opened in which the mother was able to give more to one particular child and not the others. Perhaps the parents’ relationship improved. Perhaps the mother experienced a special connection with one child, but couldn’t connect deeply with the others. Younger children often, though not always, seem to do a bit better than first children, or only children, who seem to carry a bigger portion of unfinished business from the family history.

			When it comes to siblings and inherited family trauma, there are no hard and fast rules governing how each child is affected. Many variables, in addition to birth order and gender, can influence the choices siblings make and the lives they lead. Even though it may appear from the outside that one sibling is unscathed by trauma, while another is encumbered, my clinical experience gives me a different perspective: Most of us carry at least some residue from our family history. However, many intangibles also enter into the equation and can influence how deeply entrenched family traumas remain. These intangibles include self-awareness, the ability to self-soothe, and having a powerful internal healing experience.





Healing Images and Our Brain


			The idea that we relive family traumas may well be at the core of what psychiatrist Norman Doidge alludes to in his breakthrough book The Brain That Changes Itself when he writes: “Psychotherapy is often about turning our ghosts into ancestors.” By identifying the source of our generational traumas, Dr. Doidge suggests that our ghosts can “go from haunting us to becoming simply part of our history.”4

			One key way we do this is by allowing ourselves to be moved by an experience or image strong enough to overshadow the old trauma emotions and sensations that live inside us. Our minds have a vast capacity for healing through images. Whether we’re imagining a scene of forgiveness, comfort, or letting go, or simply visualizing a loved one, images can profoundly settle into our bodies and sink into our minds. In my work, I’ve found that helping people to unearth the image that most resonates with them is the cornerstone of healing.

			The notion of the healing power of images was valid long before brain scans could prove it. In 1913, Carl Jung coined the term active imagination, a technique that uses images (often from a dream) to enter into a dialogue with the unconscious mind, bringing to light what has been shrouded in darkness. Recently, the idea of visualization for healing has gained widespread traction, with guided imagery programs readily available to lower stress, reduce anxiety, boost athletic performance, and help with specific fears and phobias.

			Science supports this idea. Doidge revolutionized our understanding of how human brains operate by identifying a paradigm shift away from viewing the brain as fixed and unchanging to seeing it as flexible and capable of change. His work demonstrates how new experiences can create new neural pathways. These new neural pathways become strengthened through repetition and deepened through focused attention. Essentially, the more we practice something, the more we train our brain to change.

			This fundamental principle is reflected in a phrase coined in 1949 by the Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In essence, when brain cells activate together, the connection between them strengthens. Simply put, each time we repeat a particular experience, it becomes more ingrained in us. With enough repetition, it can become automatic.

			According to Doidge, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, a leader in the field of neuroplasticity, says that “practicing a new skill, under the right conditions, can change hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the connections between the nerve cells in our brain maps.”5 Once a new brain map is established, new thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can emerge organically, expanding our repertoire when old fears arise.

			When we make the link to what sits behind our fears and symptoms, we are already opening up new possibilities for resolution. Sometimes the new understanding alone is enough to shift the old painful images we hold and initiate a visceral release that can be felt in the core of our body. In other cases, making the link merely increases understanding, but more is needed to fully integrate what we’ve learned. We will need sentences, rituals, practices, or exercises to help us forge a new inner image. The new image can fill us with a reservoir of calm, becoming an internal reference point of peace that we can return to again and again. With new thoughts, new feelings, new sensations, and a new brain map ingrained, we begin to establish an inner experience of well-being that starts to compete with our old trauma reactions and their power to lead us astray.

			The more we travel the neural and visceral pathways of our new brain map, the more we identify with the good feelings that accompany that map. Over time, the good feelings start to become familiar and we begin to trust our ability to return to solid ground even when our foundation has been temporarily shaken.

			Doidge tells us that we can change our brains simply by imagining. Just by closing our eyes and visualizing an activity, our primary visual cortex lights up, just as it would if we were actually performing the action. Brain scans demonstrate that many of the same neurons and regions of the brain become activated whether we’re imagining an event or actually living it.6 Doidge describes visualization as a process that uses both imagination and memory. He says that “visualizing, remembering, or imagining pleasant experiences activates many of the same sensory, motor, emotional, and cognitive circuits that fired during the ‘real’ pleasant experience.”7

			“Imagination is the beginning of creation,” wrote the playwright George Bernard Shaw in 1921. Long before neuroplasticity was even considered a possibility, Shaw expounded the principle: What we imagine, we make possible.





Healing Images and Our Genes


			“Plastic change, caused by our experience,” says Doidge, “travels deep into the brain, and even into our genes, molding them as well.8 In his best-selling book The Genie in Your Genes, which reviews the research linking emotions and gene expression, Dr. Dawson Church describes how visualization, meditation, and focusing on positive thoughts, emotions, and prayers—what he calls internal epigenetic interventions—can activate genes and positively affect our health. “Filling our minds with positive images of wellbeing,” he says, “can produce an epigenetic environment that reinforces the healing process.”9

			A considerable amount of research has been dedicated to showing how meditation positively affects gene expression. One study conducted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2013, revealed that meditators, after only eight hours of meditation, experienced clear genetic and molecular changes, including decreased levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which would enable them to physically recover from stressful situations more quickly.10 Church says that when we meditate, we are “bulking up the portions of our brains that produce happiness.”11

			Throughout our lives, we continuously generate new brain cells. Much of this new growth takes place in the hippocampus. “When we learn, we alter which genes in our neurons are expressed,” says Doidge. “When a gene is turned on, it makes a new protein that alters the structure and function of the cell.” This process, Doidge explains, is influenced by what we do and what we think. “We can shape our genes, which in turn shapes our brain’s microscopic anatomy.”12

			“You can’t change your DNA,” says Rachel Yehuda, “but if you can change the way your DNA functions, that’s sort of the same thing.”13

			A life completely devoid of trauma, as we’re learning, is highly unlikely. Traumas do not sleep, even with death, but, rather, continue to look for the fertile ground of resolution in the children of the following generations. Fortunately, human beings are resilient and are capable of healing most types of trauma. This can happen at any time during our lives. We just need the right insights and tools. Later, I’ll share the practices that have been