A few years ago, a family friend who knew me during my childhood remarked, “You’ve always been a brave little soldier.”
At first, I thought she was commenting on the fact that I was a serious, bookish kid, but as the conversation continued, I realized that she’d noticed the fact that I was always on the alert, in a state of constant readiness to react to anything that I read as a potential threat by fleeing, freezing, or fighting back. It wasn’t bravery that prompted my adrenaline-fueled attentiveness to the world around me. Instead, I knew my hypervigilance was driven by a pervasive sense of anxiety that was as familiar to me as my own face in the mirror.
I said half-jokingly at the time, “I was born that way.”
In ways I am just beginning to understand, those words were truer than I could have imagined. Sure, we’re all born with a natural system for detection of and reaction to danger. But my hypervigilance felt disproportionate, like I’d been given an extra dose at birth.
In recent years, science and culture have become more aware of the lasting effects of trauma, especially when it is recurring or ongoing. Hypervigilance can be one of those effects. My own hypervigilance reflected my childhood trauma, but it also indicated something deeper.
“I began to suspect that my hypervigilance may have been something I was born with, passed along with the rest of my DNA.”
As I looked into it more deeply, I began to suspect that it may have been something I was born with, passed on to me along with the rest of my DNA. A newer field of scientific inquiry called epigenetics has shed light on the ways in which the trauma experienced by one generation can be passed down to the generations that follow. And this emerging field of research has profound implications for Jewish people like me.
“The emerging field of research in epigenetics has profound implications for Jewish people like me.”
The National Human Genome Research Institute defines epigenetics as a study of “...heritable changes caused by the activation and deactivation of genes without any change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism. The word epigenetics is of Greek origin and literally means over and above (epi) the genome.”
Research scientist David Allis notes, “There’s an epigenetic code, just like there’s a genetic code. There are codes to make parts of the genome more active, and codes to make them inactive.”
Every living organism turns on and off its own specific genes throughout its life span, depending on developmental stage, response to stress, and other internal coded information. Researchers have discovered that the body’s physiological experience of trauma can “hitchhike” atop our DNA and be transmitted via heredity from one generation to the next. Experiences of trauma can cause epigenetic change, meaning that it is possible to actually physically inherit the wounds of the past. Trauma itself isn’t being replicated, but a measurable and heightened sensitivity to certain triggers is passed on to future generations.
An early study documented what is believed to be epigenetic change in the children and grandchildren of those who survived the combination of war and severe famine in the Netherlands. No one was surprised that the severely malnourished children who’d survived the Hongerwinter (hunger winter) experienced chronic health issues after the war. The children born to women who’d lived through the Hongerwinter also presented significantly higher than expected rates of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and mental illness. But scientists were surprised to discover that even the grandchildren of Hongerwinter survivors also had significantly higher rates of health issues, even though the famine and war had happened two generations earlier.
“The effects of trauma were speaking not only in their lives, but in the lives of their descendants.”
In my case, all four of my grandparents were driven from their homes in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the pogroms of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Those organized, systematic attacks on villages of Jewish people included rape, murder, and displacement of entire communities. My grandparents made it out alive, but many in my extended family didn’t. And those that survived the pogroms faced Stalin’s starvation program in the 1930’s and then the Holocaust. Though my family didn’t talk about any of these things, the effects of trauma were speaking not only in their lives, but in the lives of their descendants.
A significant percentage of Holocaust survivors have reported that their family members made the decision not to talk about what had happened to them, either to try to protect their children from the horror, to attempt to avoid reliving the memories, or both. Writer Myra Goodman describes the cost she has paid for her survivor parents’ choice not to speak of their experiences: “The silence my parents kept did not protect me from inheriting a legacy of trauma. I've lived most of my life in a state of constant low-grade terror—always fearful, anxiously awaiting the next massive catastrophe. Only recently have I learned that my fear is a trauma symptom, and that in addition to trauma being passed down through behavioral patterns, catastrophic events alter the body’s chemistry, and that these changes can be epigenetically transmitted to future generations.”
“Long before science began exploring the effect of generational trauma, Bible passages described it.”
Long before science began exploring the effect of generational trauma, Bible passages like Exodus 20:5-6 and 34:6-7 described the way in which one generation’s sin will affect those who come after them in the family line. Taken in isolation, those verses have left some with the impression that there is nothing we can do to flip the script on the consequences of our forebears’ brokenness. But that is not the message Scripture offers us. Psalm 100:5 captures the truth that our unchanging, compassionate God speaks to every generation afresh: “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” Our grandparents’ trauma is not a deterministic script for our lives.
Interestingly, science supports this hopeful news. Though at first glance it may seem as though epigenetic trauma steals potential from our lives before they’ve even begun, researchers are discovering that just as epigenetic trauma is caused by an organism’s negative interaction with its environment, so can positive intervention change the biological script for subsequent generations. This intervention can include healthy lifestyle basics like good food, exercise, and rest, but can also encompass meaningful relationships, connection with a faith community, and counseling.
In my case, changing the script meant first recognizing that being a brave little soldier wasn’t always a good thing. Though my grandparents and parents are now gone, I’ve sought to translate the past by learning as much as I can about my family’s history, gathering data about their experiences and remembering family stories. I also accepted there would be much I would never know, gaps never to be filled in. Though much of my family’s past remains in the shadows, what I do know forms patterns I can see in the sunlight of the present. Today, counseling and soul-searching have helped me recognize my own unhelpful patterns and discover healthier ways of navigating life.
Instrumental in learning to translate the trauma of the past into the unfamiliar new language of spiritual and emotional health has been my faith. The God who loves each new generation has allowed me to relinquish the burden of my hypervigilance and entrust my life to One far more capable of sustaining it. Psalm 121:3–5a assures me, “He will not let you stumble; the one who watches over you will not slumber. Indeed, he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps. The Lord himself watches over you!”
I don’t always have to be a brave little soldier if I know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob fights for me. I take great comfort in knowing that despite what we may inherit or experience, we each have the opportunity to pass on something good, generative, and new.
- Belen Hurle, Ph.D., “Epigenetics,” National Human Genome Research Institute, last updated August 25, 2023, https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Epigenetics.
- Siddhartha Mukherjee, “Same but Different,” The New Yorker, April 25, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/breakthroughs-in-epigenetics.
- Myra Goodman, “My Holocaust survivor parents never talked about it—and their silence didn't protect me,” Salon, January 27, 2020, https://www.salon.com/2020/01/27/my-holocaust-survivor-parents-never-talked-about-it--and-their-silence-didnt-protect-me/.
- Andrew Curry, “Parents' emotional trauma may change their children's biology. Studies in mice show how,” Science, July 18, 2019, https://www.science.org/content/article/parents-emotional-trauma-may-change-their-children-s-biology-studies-mice-show-how.