How Trauma is Passed from Generation to Generation

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In an attempt to foil the Nazis, Dutch railway workers went on strike to halt Nazi troops from advancing through Europe.

Unfortunately, this plan backfired massively as the Nazis blocked food supplies from entering the Netherlands, resulting in the Dutch Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter) that lasted from September 1944 to March 1945.

As one would expect, many people died due to this atrocity but there were also soon-to-be mothers amongst the hungry. And as it turned out, the trauma the mothers suffered impacted the children they carried inside them.

A study was published by Dr. L.H. Lumey et al. (2014) where they compared the children born to mothers who suffered during the Dutch Hunger Winter and children who were born before and after the famine.

What they found was that those who were in utero during the famine had higher rates of obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia. They also died at a higher rate.

What is the scientific explanation behind this?

In a later study by Lumley et al. (2018), it was revealed that certain genes were silent in those who were in utero during the Dutch Hunger Winter, suggesting a predisposition to disease in comparison to their peers who were not born to parents who were with child during the famine.

It appears that stress plays an epigenetic role as one’s genes may or may not express themselves if one’s parent was exposed to certain environments.

If their parents had an idyllic life, certain genes would not need to express themselves. However, if one’s parents had a stressful life, that person would be “prepared” for a stressful environment.

As upsetting as it may seem when you consider that a child will grow up to be more predisposed to health issues and potentially a different way of interacting with the world, nature and nurture are just doing their job by ensuring the offspring has what is necessary to survive.

More research has been conducted to further confirm Lumley’s findings. Dr. Bianca Jones Marlin and her team at Columbia University studied rats who were paired the scent of almonds with an electric shock.

Eventually, the rats would avoid the scent altogether in order to avoid the shock. What was once pleasurable became painful.

Brain and nose scans of these rats were then obtained and they found an increase in cells that responded to the scent of almonds.

When these rats had offspring, their offspring also had more cells that responded to the scent of almonds in comparison to rat pups whose parent was not exposed to the pairing of almond scent and shock.

Is there a solution to this, or are children whose parents were exposed to trauma destined to inherit their stress and develop health problems earlier in life?

Therapy seems like the obvious answer but Jones Marlin’s research has yielded more useful information.

She noted that when a female rat that has never given birth sees a rat pup isolated and alone, she may either ignore the pup or cannibalize it.

When a female rat that has given birth sees an isolated pup, she will pick it up in her mouth and carry it to a nest with other pups, even if the pup isn’t her offspring.

Moreover, when a non-mom rat is injected with oxytocin, she behaves just like a mother rat would. If she sees a stray pup, she will take it to the nest, despite the fact that that pup isn’t her offspring.

If oxytocin (the love hormone) is introduced and it changes how the neurons operate in a rat, and rats share approximately one quarter of the human genome, perhaps love is the answer in reversing the stressors learnt in utero.

After all, if a stressful environment caused stress in the parent and their unborn child. Perhaps a loving environment can displace the stress.

It seems like the logical conclusion, doesn’t it? But we will impatiently await more research and results.

Former Edu. Psychologist | Current Writer | Constant Learner | “By your stumbling the world is perfected.”

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