-Written by Dagless Kangero
Cambridge dictionary defines legacy as "something that is part of your history or that remains from an earlier time". Common examples are wills, inheritance, music, movies, and novels. The legacy of inter-generational trauma, if left unnoticed, neglected, or unhealed can be a painful one. Not so much as celebratory as an old Michael Jackson album your parents played on Sunday afternoons, inter-generational trauma is not the sound of music.
I wouldn't do this series justice if I didn't break down exactly how trauma is passed on from generation to generation. Hopefully, by understanding the inter-generational chain of trauma, everyone will reflect on the importance of the healing journey.
A study revealed that the parents' emotional trauma of the survivor's in the prison camps of the US Civil War altered the children's biological make-up. The research also observed that the changes in the prisoner's children were significant enough to pass on to their children. This is referred to as "epigenetic inheritance", also observed in survivors of the Holocaust. Epigenetic is a process whereby the expression of DNA is modified without changing DNA coding or material. Chemical tags are either added or removed from the DNA to reflect any changes in our environment. These chemical tags activate or deactivate our genes in order to adapt to different environments without permanently changing our genes.
If that's not convincing enough, trauma is also passed on through parenting. It's as simple as this: traumatised parents, raise traumatised children. A child of a parent who was a Holocaust survivor has a psychological footprint whether biologically, or through parenting. That is a powerful sequence of events. For the prisoners who survived the camps, the epigenetic changes were triggered by poor living conditions and sanitation, and prolonged periods of extreme starvation. The health records of the survivor's sons revealed that they had an 11% higher mortality rate than other children whose parents didn't endure the same experience. These veteran sons were most likely to experience and die from lethal health conditions such as cancer. Interestingly, the same effects were not passed on to daughters. Therefore, malnutrition and poor sanitation at the camp had a generational impact on the males of the family and not the females. Scientists are still unsure how this happens, but links have been observed.
Some events may not be as well documented or researched. The Cambridge definition suggests that "legacy" is recognised as part of your history. In CALD communities where history did not make it into school textbooks, nor did ancestors leave journals and diaries as clues- this may be tricky. However, our triggers and immediate family history is the perfect start to undoing genetic trauma. In a study on the inter-generational trauma associated with scent, it was found that our sensitivity to certain scents is inter-generational. If your ancestor's associated cherry blossoms with pain, then your sensitivity to cherry blossom is increased. The pain in the previous generations leads to sensitivity in the next.
As homework for yourself: observe your triggers, sensitivities, and window of tolerance. This does not have to be a thesis paper on how your anxiety must mean your great grandfather fought in the 2nd world war. It could be as simple as "I have anxiety because my mother was kicked out of her parents' house when she fell pregnant with me. I am responsible for coping with my anxiety, but I recognise that my mother's experience made me vulnerable to environments of pressure".
Remember, trauma begins in the womb. Learn the past, take responsibility, and work with yourself.
Epigenetic inheritance is still being researched and developed as scientists debate the link between nature and nurture. This still remains: the effects of inter-generational trauma change our perception, sensitivities, physiology, and mental health in one way or another. Our quality of life is somewhat experienced through our parents or caretakers. It is very important to recognise generational traumatic events and treat them the same way you would a person with PTSD. I have laid the groundwork, and I hope you have a better understanding of the role your genetic inheritance plays in your current experiences in life. If you can, talk to your parents and grandparents- learn your legacy. If you can't, for whatever reason, take your emotions for what they are and do your part for your children and children's children. Create a fresh legacy, that much is possible.