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Recent studies show that traumatic stress disorders can be inherited genetically. Often the trauma will live in the body for a while until it eventually becomes triggered and elicits a response. In the third episode of a series with “It Didn’t Start with You” author Mark Wolynn, Mark and the Amens discuss how you can find these traumas within your body in order to begin treating it and healing from generations-long stressors.
Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. And our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We're here with Mark Wolynn. We're having this really great discussion. His book is, It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End The Cycle. So what are the signs of inherited family trauma?
Mark Wolynn: So we can be born with an anxiety or depression and never separate it from the events of the previous generation. That's true, but we can also experience a fear or a symptom that strikes suddenly or unexpectedly as soon as we reach a certain age. As we were talking, age five, age 19, age 30 when our grandmother became a widow and never stayed alone the rest of her life, and then our parents separated around 30 and all of a sudden at age 30, we look at our partner and we say, "Wow, you just don't do it for me anymore," without realizing we're caught in this web of what I like to refer to as an ancestral alarm clock that starts ringing.
Mark Wolynn: It's not just ages. It's also we hit a certain milestone or a certain event in our lives and it acts as a trigger. For example, as soon as we get married, I talk in the book about this Lebanese or Iraqi woman, I forget which, she loves her husband. She, or her fiance. He's the greatest thing in the world, but as soon as she marries him, she feels incredibly trapped and she's confused because she, the love is great. When we looked in her family history, we saw that both of our grandmothers had been given away in arranged marriages as child brides. The one was nine and one grandmother, the other, was 12, given away to much older men. And here she was experiencing the triggering of getting married and feeling the trapness, the lovelessness of her grandmother, which wasn't hers. And what was interesting is each of her siblings experienced it differently. The one sister married a man 30 years older, just like the grandmother, and the other sister would never marry at all, less she'd be trapped in a marriage like this.
Mark Wolynn: So marriage can be one event. Another triggering event is we moved to a new place. Literally, we might just move across town, but the link, the trigger, the connection is now all of a sudden we enter a depression, perhaps like our ancestors that were persecuted, forced out of their homeland or we get ... this is a common one I see all the time. We get rejected by our partner and maybe we were only with this partner a few months, but the grief is insurmountable. And it takes us back to a much earlier grief, perhaps even a break in the attachment with our mother or a break with an attachment with our mother and her mother or our father and his mother. Because remember, this is what's heritable.
Mark Wolynn: In fact, one of the most replicated studies in all of epigentics is separating baby mice from the mother and either shaking up the mother, putting her in a glass tube or taking the baby back and then bringing the baby mouse back and then seeing the baby now is functioning as what we would describe as depression in humans. The social behavior is different, the grooming behavior is different, and now we can see the effects from that baby mouse that was separated for three generations. We can see his progeny and then his progeny's progeny also with that depressive behavior. So that's another alarm.
Mark Wolynn: One more could be having a child. And I see this quite commonly and again, that ancestral alarm clock starts ringing. I once worked with this woman. She was consumed with anxiety. She had no clue what it was about. And as I started to ask the questions, when did this anxiety first take hold? I don't know, six, seven, eight months ago. What happened during that time? Well, that's when I got pregnant and she was pregnant and she was ... So I asked her, one of the questions I asked in the book when, maybe we'll focus on the trauma language that I talk about in the book, but one of my questions, "What's your worst fear that would happen as you carry this child? What's the worst thing that could happen to you?" And she said, "I could harm this child. I'll harm my child."
Mark Wolynn: And so I asked the logical question, "Did you ever harm a child?" And she said, "Of course not." And I said, "Did anyone in your family ever harm a child?" And she was about to say no. And she said, "Oh. Oh no. My grandmother, when she was a young woman, had a baby. She lit a candle, caught the curtains on fire, caught the house on fire, the baby was upstairs. She couldn't get the baby out." And then then the woman said, "But we were never allowed to talk about it." And this creates ripe, fertile ground when these traumas are hidden, when people are excluded, when people are rejected, when we don't talk about it. But then in that moment, we made the link and that she had inherited the terror of her grandmother's real life situation. And for her, it was a fear of something that could be in the future. Then we could break the pattern because now we had a story, a coherent narrative.
Tana Amen: Wow. Wow.
Dr Daniel Amen: So talk about trauma language.
Mark Wolynn: Yeah. Yeah. So I've found that not only when we have a trauma are there changes in the DNA, but there are clues left behind in the form of emotionally charged words and sentences that live inside us, that form a breadcrumb trail. And when we learn to follow this language, what I call core language, trauma language, it's like finding that missing piece of the puzzle that lets the whole picture come into view, finally gives us a context of why we feel the way we feel. And as we know from trauma theory, when a traumatic event happens, significant information bypasses the frontal lobes. So the experience of exactly what happened to us, it can't be named or ordered through words because our language centers are also compromised.
Mark Wolynn: We either remember too much or too little, but without language, our experiences then get stored, and for other reasons gets stored as fragments of memory, fragments of body sensations, fragments of images, fragments of emotions. It's like the mind disperses and essential elements get separated. We lose the story. And what remains of these fragments of emotions or fragments of memory or sensations, we never complete the healing.
Tana Amen: Oh, that's so wild!
Mark Wolynn: And so what I've learned is it's not just our mind, it's the family mind. We inherit the ... Remember, we're inheriting the stress response. We're inheriting the brain's adaptation to these events. So the family mind can, as I like to call it in the book, can stay disorganized, lost for generations, yet the pieces aren't lost. They're just submerged. They're just been rerouted in this language. So I always ask ... In the book, I teach people how to become a detective, to listen to what they say so they can unearth some of this language that connects to some of these tragic events that have happened in our family.
Tana Amen: So wild.
Dr Daniel Amen: Gosh, I wonder if that bullshit had known is ...
Tana Amen: [crosstalk 00:08:38] See, and I totally resonate with that. I'm like, "So ... Those are good words." I'm like, "What's the problem there?"
Dr Daniel Amen: All right. So what do people do? Let's spend the rest, the next couple of minutes with this podcast and all of the next [crosstalk 00:08:53] podcast on talking about practical strategies and then how can people learn more? I mean, obviously they can get your book, It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End The Cycle. It's by Penguin which has been our publisher for the Brain Warriors Way.
Tana Amen: [crosstalk 00:09:14] Yeah. For a few times. So one question I have that leads into sort of what you can do. One, as you were talking, my minds, you're right, being blown because I was just writing a book that was a memoir. It's the hardest book I've ever written. I've written 10 books. It's the hardest book I've ever written. I just, I found myself, at points, just not wanting to do it. It just felt yucky and I got stuck and I couldn't get through it and feeling a little depressed and sad and which I mean, for obvious reasons, but it was really hard to do. And I was thinking about what you were saying with things, the fragments. I couldn't get through certain parts and I would just struggle. And then when I finally got through it, I'd feel this huge relief. So can writing be one of the things you do to help you get through it?
Mark Wolynn: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. Writing, playing music, petting a cat. But anything that can take us away enough from the trauma of feelings. We talked about the positivity bias. We also have the opposite of a negativity bias and our brain's oriented toward what's uncomfortable, what's distressing? Got to be safe. Don't do that. We have this way of constantly reliving the trauma. So what can we do? It's such an important question. I spoke earlier about the necessity, the importance of doing our own inner work. Whether we carry a trauma from past generations, our mother's trauma, our father's, our grandparents, or we're the one that's traumatized, in these fragmentations that exist, we need to come back together again.
Mark Wolynn: So one of the things we might do is find that place in our body where we have anxiety. And so maybe somebody says, "Oh yeah, I feel anxiety in my chest and my throat gets tight." So I might have somebody bring a hand here, bring a hand here, and talk to the fragmented parts of us in a way. Or we might say, "I've got you." And did even visualizing that these parts can return back and be held in the core of our body. Because often, there is no core. Often, we're living beside ourselves, outside of ourselves. So I might have somebody say to these young parts, "I've got you. You're safe. I'll breathe with you until you feel held or seen or safe." I might have somebody, even if there's a tightening in the jaw, I might have them put their tongue at their lower front teeth so the jaw doesn't tighten and maybe even breathe over the tongue down into the core. And I'd also have someone up soften behind their knees so their hamstrings release, their quadriceps release, and they can feel their feet and their pelvic floor at the same time.
Mark Wolynn: So in a sense, making an opening for the core of the body while we breathe, it's about combining, for me in the work that I do, a sensation, breath, and awareness. I talk about this in the book, what I like to call the other Holy Trinity, sensation, breath, and awareness. So touching into the sensations that are uncomfortable and even with physically with our hand, bringing breath to hold, what's uncomfortable. And even language as though there's a a visualization, "I've got you," you say it, "And I'll breathe with you until we integrate" or "I'll breathe with you and to until you and I are one, until we can feel pulsing in our body, until we can feel tingling in our chest, until our spine softens."
Mark Wolynn: And so one of the things I might have someone do, perhaps six times a day, is to focus on this energetic quality inside the body. The energy that's the opposite of "Get out of the body! Alarm bells firing!" But the opposite of, "I feel good." There's an unwinding happening here. There's an opening. It feels like there's more expansion in my chest to focus on maybe six minutes a day with that feeling of a lightness or calmness or openness in the body. That's one thing I'll do. I mean, I have a gazillion things I do, but that is one I might use.
Dr Daniel Amen: So powerful.
Tana Amen: I love that sensation.
Dr Daniel Amen: When we come back, we're going to talk about more strategies to heal inherited family trauma. Stay with us.
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