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Grappling With Epigenetics, Intergenerational Trauma & the Maternal Line

Grappling With Epigenetics, Intergenerational Trauma & the Maternal Line - The Sabi

When we’re born, our genetics don’t provide us with a blank slate. Even if it’s hard to detect consciously, we carry the experiences, burdens, victories, and entire lifespans of our parents and ancestors. 

Essentially, we can inherit our parents’ and ancestors’ trauma just as we might inherit their features, resources, and lifestyles.

The study of epigenetics emerges in gene and trauma research to explore this phenomenon, investigating how gene expression can be altered by environmental factors, and recent evidence suggests that trauma can leave lasting marks that pass through generations. 

Epigenetics suggests a maternal line component, too — while children of any sex or gender can encounter the impact of epigenetics, being born into a female body can mean that epigenetics and trauma manifest in unique ways related to hormonal health and female reproductive health. Read on for a deeper dive. 

Breaking down the basics

Trauma is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as “[resulting] from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Notably, trauma can show up in many different ways, challenging many different parts of ourselves and our lives. 

Intergenerational trauma captures how, sometimes, the post-traumatic state we grapple with isn’t based on our own lived experiences — events, series of events, or set of circumstances — but on our parents’ and grandparents’ and ancestors’ experiences. According to therapist and professor Dr. Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW, intergenerational trauma can present itself as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, insomnia, and much more. 

Epigenetics further validates just how real intergenerational trauma can feel, studying how our gene activity — although not sequence — can be modified by the exposures and experiences of our parents. “The word ‘epigenetic’ literally means ‘in addition to changes in genetic sequence,’” according to Environ Health Perspect.

In essence, we can face personal battles with post-traumatic obstacles when we merely inherit trauma, and epigenetics affirms the gene-altering power of intergenerational trauma.

The maternal line & the female body 

A 2018 World Psychiatry study goes on to approach intergenerational trauma by identifying two categories of epigenetically mediated effects: 

  1. Trauma passed down to us from our experiences in utero and in the postnatal phase
  2. Trauma passed down to us from our parents’ experiences pre-conception

These two categories, where epigenetic effects may originate in the womb, showcase the heightened role a mother can play in passing down trauma. A 2019 Front Psychol study elaborates here — “Although rewarding, motherhood is also an inherently stressful period, [especially] for mothers with unresolved trauma. Past research has looked at how unresolved trauma can hamper a mother’s caregiving response toward her infant, which further affects the development of secure attachment in her own infant.” And trauma experienced as a result of a dysfunctional or abusive family system rarely occurs in a generational silo; often, there’s a generational pattern at play where parenting habits and abuse are repeated from parent or caregiver to child.

There’s also a unique impact on the female reproductive system when it comes to inheriting trauma. In terms of epigenetics, experiments show that trauma may be even more impactful on biologically female children with alterations passed uniquely through the maternal line. 

Author and psychologist Kelly McDaniel specialises in the mother-daughter attachment bond and notes the reproductive impacts in her book Mother Hunger, citing that women suffering from impaired, lost, or missing mother attachments often have more painful periods, difficulty conceiving or higher likelihood of postpartum depression.

Studies like Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry’s 2009 investigation of childhood trauma and HPA-axis reactivity and PeerJ’s 2020 investigation of maternal trauma and gene expression in newborns echo McDaniel’s research around the maternal line. Findings from these bodies of work include that trauma can alter the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and DNA methylation patterns, which means that traumatised women and their female offspring may have altered stress regulation or response and possible reproductive issues down the line as a result of their generational trauma. 

Additionally, there is a growing body of evidence around the unique impact of trauma on female hormone balance and an indication of reproductive ailments like PCOS and endometriosis being inheritable or trauma-related. According to a 2020 study by Current Opinion in Endocrine and Metabolic Research, PCOS often runs in families, and “up to 70 percent of daughters of women with PCOS also develop it.” Regarding trauma and reproductive ailments, as summarized by a Fred Hutch Cancer Center report on endometriosis and childhood abuse, a 2018 study in the Journal of Human Reproduction showed that women with childhood trauma were found to have a higher risk of developing endometriosis. 

Alternative therapies

Although more study is needed, if you experienced trauma directly as a result of a broken, dysfunctional or absent family system, especially via the maternal line, you likely don’t need science to confirm the correlation. In addition to seeking the medical attention you may need to address your symptoms and possible hormone imbalance, alternative therapies can offer relief in the sometimes long and painful process of working through (intergenerational) trauma.   

Dr. Reshawna Chapple recommends the following tips for treating intergenerational trauma with compassion:

  • Identifying and acknowledging the effects of past traumas on your life — a key first step in healing. This is an important first step in healing from generational trauma. If blocked by memory or unknown to you, unearthing and understanding the roots of trauma may be helpful, but not always necessary or possible.
  • Educating yourself about your family history and learning about the lives and traumas of your lineage can help shine light on your own experiences. 
  • Practising self-care helps us care for ourselves in all senses. Supportive nighttime rituals and journaling offer two places to start.   
  • Connecting with others who’ve shared similar experiences, whether through friendships, support groups, or other modes of community, can bring both comfort and awakening. 
  • Seeking a mental health professional if you feel like you’re struggling to cope is an important option to keep in mind, too.

In all of our work, The SABI emphasises supporting hormonal health and found these tools beneficial in the path to overcoming and integrating trauma-induced hormonal imbalance: 

  • Herbata provides a sippable path to herbal healing, and ours are developed by experts.
  • Cyclical living brings more awareness and positive connection to our cycles.
  • Dietary changes can support and regulate blood sugar for cyclical health and fertility.
  • Being extra vigilant with mental health during pregnancy and postpartum is key. We’re big proponents of the idea that preparation is worth a pound of cure! See our articles here about postpartum (mental) health.  

All in all, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed grappling with trauma, intergenerational trauma, and the negative impact of our epigenetics, but the more we know, the more we’re empowered to understand ourselves and heal.


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Use code WELCOME15 for 15% off first purchase

Use code WELCOME15 for 15% off first purchase