Epigenetics • epi-ge-net-ics noun: the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in DNA sequence

For the past week I’ve written about ways to nurture yourself. The first point on the map consists of seeking mental wholeness

Trauma Can Change Your Genes

Did you know that trauma can change your genes? Changing your jeans—good. Changing your genes due to trauma—not so good. Scientists have discovered that changes in our gene function can happen outside of our DNA sequence.

The prefix epi means ‘above’, ‘outer’, ‘attached to’, or ‘after’. Genetics refers to the way your genes control your characteristics. Therefore, epigenetics refers to changes that take place outside, or above, your DNA sequence. Molecular biologist Nessa Carey calls your DNA sequence a “script, not a template.”

Your chromosomes determine DNA sequence, but the other actors on the stage determine (and sometimes change) your script.

In layman’s terms, epigenetics means that stimuli on the outside of your cells can cause a chemical reaction on the inside of your cells that either represses or makes manifest certain characteristics in your genome. This video explains it more clearly than I could.


Social Action and Internal Reaction

Social experiences can cause epigenetic changes within us. Let’s say that you walk into a cafeteria your first day of middle school and sit at the wrong table. The school bully berates you for your seating choice. Inside, your body has a chemical reaction to this social experience that sticks to your genome, causing a future negative physical reaction to cafeteria settings.

Processing the traumatic experience with a friend or family member will help you recover from the incident, and the programming gets erased. This allows you to enter the cafeteria the next day and every day thereafter. The traumatic event has occurred and the chemical reaction gets neutralized.

If you don’t process the traumatic event in some way, it can become a trigger that reinforces the negative reaction. Over time, this can cause a small-t trauma to turn into a big-T Trauma.

Lesson One: Learn to share your little traumas with a kind audience. Teach your children to do the same. If this feels outside your comfort zone, learn to process those events in a journal.

Big-T Trauma

Let’s say that you experience abuse of some sort—this constitutes a big-T Trauma. Once again, the body has a chemical reaction inside the cells. Your beliefs about yourself, your role in the Trauma you experienced, and how you process future trauma (or Trauma) all change at the cellular level. This means that your body might rewire itself to handle trauma in a certain (often negative) way. Sounds, sights, smells, touch, or words could trigger a negative (but involuntary) response.

“The set of tags attached to any given cell is called the epigenome,” Carlos Guerrero-Bosagna explains. “Epigenetic tags can survive cell division, thus, they can last the life of the organism and pass on to the offspring.”

This helps explain why certain situations cause us to crave dark chocolate. It also explains why some people flinch when touched or startle at loud noises.

Epigenetics and the change in our epigenome also helps explain something called generational trauma.

A Case Study

Take, for example, Native Americans. White settlers and soldiers invaded their territory and tried to reprogram them to live an agrarian lifestyle. Soldiers, police offices, or priests took young children into custody and sent them away to boarding schools (sometimes thousands of miles away). The schools took away the childrens’ identities by cutting their hair, dressing them like white kids, and punishing them for speaking their native languages.

Traumatic? You bet! Especially in a time period when no one understood the effects of trauma. Those boarding school survivors had their genetic makeup changed by their trauma. No one helped them understand the trauma or offered them counseling services.

Today, if a student dies (whether through natural or unnatural causes), the school immediately sends in extra counselors to help the students process the loss. This didn’t happen at the boarding schools for Native Americans. Carlisle Indian School, the most famous (or infamous) school, had an average of 12 students die a year during its 39-year existence. Five-hundred children died from disease, neglect and malnutrition. No one provided counseling.

Now, think of all the myriad changes possible in the genetic makeup of each of the children who attended an Indian boarding school under duress. The epigenetic changes could involve physiological changes as well as emotional changes. Sadly, Carlisle Indian School wasn’t the only forced assimilation school in the United States.

Sociologists call this generational trauma. The students I teach today have had their genetics changed by the trauma that happened to their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Lesson Two: Treat others gently. Hesitate to blame a person for her actions or state of being. An obese child may not overeat—the coding for the way they process food and store fat may have been passed down from a trauma that their grandparents experienced.

A Reversible Change

traumaFortunately, scientists have discovered that the sequence of molecular tags can be erased. This highlights the importance of taking care of past trauma (preferably before you have children). If you process (or in some cases, reprocess) the trauma, whether it’s big-T or little-t, you can erase the negative effects.

Some therapists have found EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy an effective way to erase or reprogram the mind’s (and therefore the body’s) reaction to triggers. EMDR is NOT hypnosis (for those of you who don’t want anything to do with hypnosis).

Lesson Three: Our past doesn’t have to hold us prisoner in the present and we don’t have to pass on our traumas to our children.

Our past doesn't have to hold us prisoner in the present. #trauma #epigenetics #write31days Click To Tweet

Nurture Yourself Takeaway #8: Dealing with your past in a constructive way will help you overcome the negative effects of trauma and prevent the trauma from passing on to future generations.

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  1. This is interesting, and kind of scary. I had never realised that trauma could impact your genetic makeup and be passed down the generations. It is definitely important to talk about it in order to process it and deal with it.
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  2. Psychological trauma can affect your life for many years after the event or situation that caused it. It isn’t a problem that’s easily resolved, especially if you try to do it on your own. However, talk therapy has proven valuable in helping people overcome the distress, pain, and dysfunction that come from having lived through the most overwhelmingly threatening experiences. 

  3. It was interesting to learn that big-T trauma actually alters the chemical reactions within your cells! I always knew that trauma was terrible, but I didn’t think it actually altered your body chemically too. It’s so great to know that there are caring therapists out there to help people work through their traumatic events.

  4. I like how you say that DNA sequencing serves as a script while trauma changes the template of it. It would be nice if my wife would have counseling regarding her PTSD. We would like to talk to a medical expert who knows about next-generation DNA sequencing and what steps should we make for perfect execution for this.

  5. Thank you for making me realize the importance of taking care of past trauma, and the part where you said that changes in our gene function can happen outside of our DNA sequence (and that trauma is one factor!) really bothered me. I knew a friend who had been sexually abused by her uncle as a child, and while she’s trying to live a normal life, she sometimes displays odd behavior that might be a result of her past trauma. I don’t want her to pass what she had experienced onto her offsprings, so I might suggest trauma counseling to her if possible.

  6. Thank you for sharing this insightful blog post on the importance of taking care of past trauma. It’s crucial to recognize and address the impact of past experiences on our well-being. Your words offer valuable guidance for healing and self-care. Great blog!

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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