Epigenetic means changes to the expression of a gene that do not alter the gene’s DNA sequence. Epigenetic changes modify how a gene is read or expressed, but do not change the gene itself. Epigenetic changes can happen before conception, in utero, and all the way into adulthood.
This means that epigenetics examines how experiences of parents manifest as changes in their children’s cells. For example, animal studies show that rats who have been exposed to pain that accompanies the smell of cherry blossoms produce offspring who are very uncomfortable around the smell of cherry blossoms. The offspring don’t have a genetic change in their DNA, just a change in how their gene is expressed.
Epigenetic changes can affect both behavior and mental health.
Epigenetic trauma refers to the process of passing down trauma responses through changes in gene expression. Epigenetic trauma is also referred to as generational trauma or ancestral trauma. The idea is that trauma endured by previous generations can result in changes to gene expression for generations.
A study of American Civil War POWs suggested that soldiers who survived the near starvation and overcrowded conditions of Confederate POW camps fathered sons who similarly had a higher mortality rate than their peers. This is what scientists believe may be an example of epigenetic trauma.
Healing Epigenetic Trauma
The good news is that epigenetic changes aren’t permanent, and research suggests that these changes can be reversed. With therapy and time, you can change your gene expressions.
Remember the rats who were taught to fear pain in response to smelling cherry blossoms? When they were desensitized to the scent, their sperm lost the epigenetic signature associated with fear of the smell. Which means there’s hope for re-writing our stories.