Hello, darling souls and thank you for being here. I’m hoping this is a landing pad for you if you’re tired from your journey. Catch your breath, recenter, and refresh. You’re doing important work, whatever it is. It’s part of your journey. Today we are going to discuss epigenetics
Did your parents do this to you?
There’s a common misconception that therapy is all about blaming your parents for all of your dysfunctional stuff. And we do usually talk about family of origin culture (beliefs, expectations, ways of connecting and ways of coping) at some point in the therapy process because it usually is where we develop our own beliefs BUT (and this is a big but) we also talk about multi-generational issues. A large part of understanding how our beliefs, traits, and coping skills were passed down to us is often developing empathy for our parents.
We often work on the belief that they did the best they could with what they had. What did their parents give them? What did the world tell them? Where did those messages come from? And we recognize the truth that sometimes, yes, it was our parents who passed on the unhealthy belief but even if we hadn’t heard it from them, we likely would have heard it elsewhere. But there’s another influence at play when it comes to explaining why you are who you are: genetics.
We’re finding out more and more of our personality, our health, and even our happiness comes from out genetics. That’s not to say your fate is sealed once your DNA is developed, but it’s really important to acknowledge the role that genetics (and especially epigenetics) play in our development and in the way we see situations.
So we know that your eye color and sometimes even the way your brow wrinkles when you’re thinking hard comes from genetics, but how about how you respond to a perceived threat? Or even what you consider to be a threat?
One thing that we’ve learned a little more recently (the study of genetics dates back to the 1800s) is that certain events can change DNA. There’s a lot of biology involved as DNA and RNA are pretty complicated but the key thing to understand is that your parents (and grandparents) experiences affect which of your genes are active and how much it takes to activate them. It’s new science so we don’t entirely understand how it works, but new studies are popping up all the time showing us that what happens in the life of a parent or even grandparent can affect the genetic expression of their offspring.
One of the most famous studies worked with mice and the scent of cherry blossoms. Male mice were exposed to the smell of cherry blossom while getting a shock. Their offspring (even when raised by mice that never smelled cherry blossom before) were very nervous and jumpy around the smell of cherry blossom. Additionally, those offspring had more cells in the brain responsible for detecting the smell of cherry blossoms. We’re just starting to study humans and how epigenetics change with trauma.
But imagine the implications. Someone who’s mother was in an abusive relationship might have gene expressions that make them interpret acts of love (sometimes presenting in love-bombing in abusive relationships) as threatening. Someone who’s father had PTSD might have less tolerance for social situations.
The other piece of news that’s important is that we’re not doomed to live a life based on what experiences our ancestors had. Offspring of the mice who were shocked when they smelled cherry blossoms were no longer jumpy and nervous around cherry blossoms after they had been exposed to it several times; they learned it was safe.
You can help facilitate change
Another important piece that we’re learning about epigenetics is that it’s not just “big T” trauma (usually one very traumatic event like a burglary or assault) that changes the biology of the DNA, RNA, or brain. Studies have shown that children born to people in poverty have some key differences in the brain from birth. These differences create less serotonin in the brain which is linked to depression. These babies, over time, also had a more active amygdala (the fear center of the brain) and therefore felt threatened more easily. When we respond to non-threatening things as threats, we have a tendency to make poor decisions that keep us ill and/or disadvantaged. That’s because when we operate out of fear, our decision making is impaired.
I know that today’s post was rather scienc-y rather than being full of practical coping skills and advice but it’s important to understand how our genetics and the environment interact because:
- in the future, it may help us treat mental illnesses by being more specific with treatment
- it teaches us to have more empathy for people who are struggling
- it teaches us that our illness and dysfunctional patterns are NOT the sign of moral or ethical deficiencies.
You can break the cycle of trauma’s effects in your family line. It takes hard work and a lot of awareness, but it can be done. Speaking with a therapist to help you untangle patterns that you inherited and work on developing new thoughts and skills can be a key piece of recovery. Be well, friends, and I’ll see you again soon!
Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.