Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma by Rachel Yehuda, PhD


I think we really want to take this opportunity to make the point that one of the most controversial concepts that was ever introduced into modern psychiatry, was, in fact, the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder itself. Come join Dr. Rachel Yehuda as she talks about the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma.

FULL TRANSCRIPT
I would like to talk to you today about how trauma and resilience cross generations. And it’s really the question of whether we are affected by things that happen in previous generations to our parents and our grandparents. And this is, of course, a topic that has received a tremendous amount of attention in the last few years. And if we are affected by things that happened in prior generations, the question is, how are we affected? Do we inherit memories of a parental trauma, do we inherit a type of fear of the environment or maybe symptoms like nightmares, or irritability, or depression that are characteristic of trauma survivors? And if we do inherit those things, do those effects prevent us from responding effectively to the environment?

Post-traumatic stress disorder
I think we really want to take this opportunity to make the point that one of the most controversial concepts that was ever introduced into modern psychiatry, was, in fact, the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder itself. It’s against that backdrop that I want to have the conversation about intergenerational effects. Now, for those of you who remember, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was first described in the DSM three, and it didn’t appear until 1980.

Maternal vs. Paternal PTSD vs. Age of Exposure
Maternal exposure of PTSD provides a special window of opportunity for epigenetic effects that might reflect accommodation or resilience. And the resilience part here is to show that adult children of Holocaust mothers who are exposed early on actually have less anxiety disorders. So some of these epigenetic changes that are not related to parental PTSD, but rather exposure, may be positive.

Importance of Parental PTSD
We came to learn about the importance of parental PTSD. Holocaust offspring were more likely to have PTSD, depression and anxiety if they had a parent with PTSD. And many of the mental health effects of intergenerational trauma, I think, are a consequence of parental symptoms, and not their exposure, per se.
This becomes very important because there are also going to be, if I’ll tell you in a few moments, a whole set of findings that may relate to the exposure per se, but not necessarily to the symptoms. So, we could add to our understanding of the importance of parental PTSD, the observation that different patterns of findings were observed in association with maternal and paternal PTSD.

Interpreting Intergenerational Effects
An adaptation that might be very valuable in the context of the Holocaust, in the context of trauma, may be a mismatch for someone living in a different kind of environment. So, interpretation will always be based on context. Biology isn’t good or bad. It’s the current context that you’re living in that makes that so.
The fact that there is an accommodation means that we’re not prisoners of our genes, that we can make changes in response to events. And it’s that capability of transformation that promotes resilience, flexibility and plasticity. So, you know, there are kind of weapons of mass construction.