How To Overcome Your Family Trauma, with Mark Wolynn

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

Fascinating new studies have shown that the PTSD of your parents, and even your grandparents, may be passed down from generation to generation. So what can you do to break the chain? In this episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen are again joined by author Mark Wolynn for a discussion on overcoming generational trauma.

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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. In 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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Tana Amen: So, we are still here with our friend Mark Wolynn and the book, "It Didn't Start With You." And I am just so excited about this, because it just explains so much of, and I know everyone listening is having somewhat of the [inaudible 00:01:03], I mean people listen to us because they either want to be psychologically savvy or they have experienced trauma, depression, anxiety, all of those reasons.
Dr Daniel Amen: Well, and they want a better brain.
Tana Amen: They want to be better.
Dr Daniel Amen: But your brain is influenced-
Tana Amen: Right.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... in so many ways by things that not only happen to you but happen to your parents, to your grandparents. You even talk about it in the book. It could be uncles or cousins.
Tana Amen: Well, and we were talking about how in the last episode, how it's passed down, how this trauma can be passed down, and that's just so fascinating to me. But also, we were going to end up getting to things you can do.
Tana Amen: But it's really interesting. One thing I was talking to you about off-air, if I can just bring it up really quickly, was... so I didn't notice that I was passing this down to my daughter, at one point because I had a very chaotic childhood.
Tana Amen: And my mother had a more chaotic childhood, and my grandmother had a very chaotic childhood, but I didn't know all that. I wasn't paying attention to all of that, I'm not aware of it at this point. And she was pretty young, and I put her in martial arts when she was really young. And I'm like, "Dance is optional, learning how to fight is not."
Tana Amen: And I was not kidding about it. And so she ended up being resistant to it because I was so adamant about it, and learning how to use your voice and all of those things, and I'm pretty intense. And so she came to me one day and she goes, "Mom, I love you." She was, what, 11 maybe 12? And she says, "Mom, I love you so much." And she's like, "I'm so sorry for what you went through, but I don't want to grow up being scared. I don't want to go through life being scared. I live in Newport beach." She's like, "You make me anxious."
Tana Amen: So she was aware enough to... and literally I had to step back and check myself. I've prided myself on being a good mother, and here I was passing it down to her. Not by the same things that were done to me as a child, but in another way by making her think it's not safe. She has to always look over her shoulder and fight, and it was interesting that she caught it.
Mark Wolynn: And from the story you told me about your grandmother, the way I would look at that is her stress response to having all these traumas as a little five-year-old.
Tana Amen: Yes.
Mark Wolynn: This is heritable. When we look at how trauma's passed from a parent to a child, let's say something happens, a trauma happens. Then there's this chemical change in our DNA, and this changes how our genes function, sometimes for generations. Technically a chemical tag will attach to the DNA, and tell the cell to use or ignore certain genes based on this trauma that just happened.
Tana Amen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mark Wolynn: And so we can be better equipped to deal with this trauma.
Mark Wolynn: And then the way our genes are affected, this changes how we act or feel. For example, we can become sensitive or reactive to situations that are similar to this trauma even if this trauma occurred in a past generation.
Tana Amen: Wow.
Mark Wolynn: For example, if our grandparents, like your grandmother, comes from this war torn country, so there's people being lost, people being killed, people being separated. People... you said, "You know, I still can't get over this trauma. Three days at five years old, lost in the mountains by herself."
Tana Amen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mark Wolynn: So, as a result of war trauma, our grandparents would pass forward a skillset that they would adapt to help them survive what's going on. For example, sharper reflexes-
Tana Amen: Right.
Mark Wolynn: Quicker reaction times, reactions to the violence to help us survive the trauma.
Tana Amen: Right, that makes sense.
Mark Wolynn: They're the ones that experienced, us surviving the trauma they experienced. Because the problem is they're also passing forward this stress response with the dial set to 10. And here we are waiting for this catastrophe, because we live in Newport Beach or wherever, that never arrives.
Tana Amen: Right. That's so fascinating, yes.
Dr Daniel Amen: It was interesting that people's cortisol levels... because people think of cortisol as the stress response-
Tana Amen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr Daniel Amen: ... it triggers the fight or flight response. But in survivors of trauma, the research shows that cortisol is low, not high.
Tana Amen: Is it because it's worn out or is it just adapted?
Dr Daniel Amen: Well, I'd love your thoughts on that. If you had any thoughts on why that would be.
Mark Wolynn: We're kind of out of my knowledge base. I do know that what Rachel Yehuda talks about, the thinking, as you say, prior to this had been that it would be high levels of cortisol.
Dr Daniel Amen: Right.
Mark Wolynn: And she comes out with his data saying, no, it's actually... and for the listener, that's the stress hormone that gets us back to normal again after a stressful event. And she's showing that the trauma survivors... she was working with the community of Holocaust survivors. And what she's noticing is that the children have the same trauma symptoms as their parents, specifically these low levels of cortisol.
Mark Wolynn: And she's also the one who found that there was a similar pattern in babies that were born to mothers who were at or near the World Trade Center when there was an attack during 9/11. And then when the mothers went on to develop PTSD, these babies went on to develop PTSD-
Tana Amen: Oh.
Mark Wolynn: ... but that wasn't all. They were smaller for their gestational age, they had 16 genes that express differently. In other words, these events are affecting us on multiple levels.
Tana Amen: Wild. That's wild.
Dr Daniel Amen: Well and cortisol is a steroid, and we use steroids to tamp down-
Tana Amen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr Daniel Amen: ... inflammation. Like if you're having an asthma attack or you have an infection. And so being unable to mount that response can leave people really vulnerable to both mental health and medical issues.
Dr Daniel Amen: Another thing you talked about in the book was soldiers who had PTSD from Iraq and Afghanistan. 30% of their children also had PTSD, it's called secondary PTSD, which is the first time I'd heard about that. And I'm like, "Wow." So I mean, just back to what you're saying, it didn't start with you.
Dr Daniel Amen: So what do we do about this? My grandfather who grew up with this terrible tragedy to his brother, ended up holding a grudge for the rest of his life to his sister who let his brother borrow the car, or to Tana's grandmother. And, and how do we help Chloe and our other children, how do we help them not inherit this, and then pass it on?
Tana Amen: Right.
Dr Daniel Amen: I'm just thinking about my grandson, Eli, who I adore, but struggles with ticks and anxiety and worry... what's the solution?
Mark Wolynn: Oh, so the research right now, there's a lot of good news. We're not all doomed. We're not [crosstalk 00:08:48]-
Tana Amen: So good to know.
Mark Wolynn: ... the researchers are able to reverse the trauma symptoms in mice.
Tana Amen: Wow.
Mark Wolynn: And so what's happening is that... The reason we look at mice in the first place is they share with humans 92, 93% of a similar genetic makeup. For every gene in a human, there's a counterpart in mice, and 80% of them are even identical. So, they cause adversity to little mice, they look at the effects, they can see if the event happened in this generation to this mouse, they can see the behavioral effects in the following two generations to the pops and the grandpops without them having experience the trauma directly.
Mark Wolynn: So now they're taking some of those... in other words, you know you brought up the mice who smelled the cherry blossom scent, it deserves repeating, it's such a great study. They make mice fear this cherry blossom scent by shocking them every time they smell the event. And then, they see right in that first generation of the poor little mice that are shocked, they can see there's already been physiologic adaptations.
Mark Wolynn: They had enlarged areas of their brain where there's a greater amount of smell receptors-
Tana Amen: Oh.
Mark Wolynn: ... so they could detect the scent at lesser concentrations, thereby protecting themselves. Well, it's not only there in the brain, there's changes in the blood, there's changes in the sperm. So the researchers had an idea, what do we do if we take some of the sperm and impregnate female mice that aren't shocked, and separate the mice that were shocked so there's no behavioral learning from the prior generation, and let's look at the pops and the grandpops.
Mark Wolynn: Well, when the pops and the grandpops just smelled the cherry blossom scent, they'd get jumpy and jittery and started freaking out. And they had never experienced the shock.
Tana Amen: Wow.
Mark Wolynn: So now, yes, it's amazing. That's us. That's us. Our grandparents experienced the trauma. And here we are... or our parents and here we are, and here are our children expressing the trauma in ways that can advance from a trigger.
Mark Wolynn: So we have a triggering event, an age and event, I'll get to that in a minute. But first let me answer how we heal. So, when you look at what they're doing with mice right now, it's like... So even those mice that were shocked and made to fear the scent, what Brian Dias the researcher did, is he taught them not to fear it by repeatedly exposing them to it and not shocking them. And then these mice no longer had heightened sensitivity to the scent. And their sperm lost the fearful epigenetic signature that was able to pass to future generations.
Mark Wolynn: So just looking at the mice, they benefited from positive experiences. Well that's how we heal.
Tana Amen: That's wild.
Mark Wolynn: We have got to calm the brain stress response, whether we've inherited it or the trauma happened to us.
Mark Wolynn: So, just to answer the question you asked me, what do we do? We do our own work, and we work with having positive experiences that feed the prefrontal cortex to get us out of the midbrain of course, and practice the feelings, the energies, the sensations of what's positive. So the amygdala is not sending out alarm signals to the alarm tower saying get out of your body, tighten your body.
Mark Wolynn: Instead, we have this experience of being in our body, calm, being in a state of compassion, mindfulness, gratitude, love and kindness, generosity. Some state that feeds the prefrontal cortex-
Tana Amen: Oh that's so interesting.
Mark Wolynn: ... peace, love, joy, trust.
Dr Daniel Amen: So I call it Positivity Bias Training.
Tana Amen: Yes.
Dr Daniel Amen: We actually do a study... a test on all of our patients called WebNeuro. And one of the 17 tasks is, do you tend to go more toward the positive or the negative? And we very often see these very high negative scores, which then leads us to go...
Dr Daniel Amen: And so positivity training, love and kindness, meditation, start the day with, today is going to be a great day, and then your brain finds why and when you finish the day, what went well today? So that you're beginning to retrain your brain.
Tana Amen: So, when you were talking about this cherry blossom study, it made me think of a question, because we all, when we come out of traumatic... well not all of us, some of us go down a whole different path and some people start doing drugs or whatever, but many of us want to be better. And so we think to ourselves, I'm going to do better than my parents did-
Dr Daniel Amen: The drug addicts do want to be better, they just don't know how.
Tana Amen: They just don't know how. Right. So, we think to ourselves, I'm going to be a better parent, I'm going to be a better whatever, wife, whatever, husband, whatever it is. Okay, so I'm going to do better than my parents did. But yet, without even realizing it, they're repeating the pattern that their parents did.
Tana Amen: Now is that wise? Is it because, I mean... it just brought up that question for me like, "Oh, maybe they can't even help it. Maybe it's just sort of ingrained in their DNA. They're really trying to do better, but it just keeps repeating."
Dr Daniel Amen: Because they have no idea what's going on. When we come back, Mark, we'll start with that question and more-
Tana Amen: It's just so wild.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... on, I want everybody thinking about, well, are there things you inherited from a family trauma. But my guess is, and I think you alluded to this, is people also inherit strengths. And so it's not all bad news because, if I think of your mother-
Tana Amen: Right.
Dr Daniel Amen: ... or your grandmother is really a survivor-
Tana Amen: My mom's a badass, yes.
Dr Daniel Amen: We inherit all of this. Stay with us.
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