Last time, we looked at some of the key experiences that our ancestors might have lived through, shaping them as individuals and forming the basis of what they would pass on down the generations.
This time, we’ll be exploring in more depth some of the ways those key experiences could have found their way down the family tree and how they might continue to affect you today.
The Impact on Future Generations
We have known for some time that suppressing our negative thoughts or emotions over an extended period of time compromises our immune system and leads to poor physical health.[i] But when we look at the challenges experienced by our ancestors, it may not just be they who are affected. For example, recent research has indicated that psychological trauma such as childhood abuse might impact the long-term physical health of not only the immediate victim, but also their offspring, by etching itself onto the victim’s DNA.[ii]
Developments in cellular biology, neuroscience, epigenetics and developmental psychology inform us that at least three generations of family psychology should be investigated if we are to unpick our psychological inheritance. Scientists have discovered that the DNA responsible for transmitting physical traits makes up less than 2% of our total DNA. The other 98% is believed to be responsible for many of the emotional, behavioural and personality traits we inherit.[iii] This 98% is also known to be affected by toxins (think of the widespread historical use of lead paint), inadequate nutrition, and emotional baggage.[iv]
A recent study by neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda shows that several stress-related psychiatric conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome are associated with low blood cortisol, which can be inherited from traumatised parents.[v]
Yehuda’s research also demonstrates the link between a parent suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder and a descendant’s risk of developing it, depression or anxiety-related disorders. Indeed, Yehuda was one of the first researchers to show how descendants of trauma survivors can experience the physical and emotional symptoms of trauma they have not directly experienced.[vi]
While research has suggested a genetic link to anxiety and depression, more is needed.[vii],[viii], [ix] King’s College London are currently calling for 40,000 people who have experienced anxiety and/or depression to take part in the ‘Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression’ (GLAD) Study.
While the proven effects of epigenetic inheritance and our ability to detect this phenomenon are in the early stages in humans, transgenerational transmission of culture by communication, imitation, teaching and learning have been with us for millennia.[x]
It is believed that emotional anguish – for example, caused by someone close to us taking their own life, or the experience of abuse or bereavement – that has not been integrated into our ancestors’ life story sends ‘shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next.’[xi] Often the spontaneous reaction to overwhelming anguish, suffering and emotional pain is to deny it, keep silent and submerge it with alcohol, food or drugs. I believe this is what my grandfather Walter’s Ma, Ann, did, leading to a life of misery and torment. For many, what is denied festers and we can unconsciously replay what once overwhelmed us until we find a way to deal with it and move on. As psychiatrist Naasson Munyandamutsa has said: ‘All that is not said, is transmitted.’
If we are unable to model a way to articulate and integrate what happens to us, we can limit the success of future generations. Fortunately, the reverse is also true: healing past hurts builds a valuable legacy of strength and resilience for those who come after us.
How else can our ancestors affect future generations?
It is not necessarily how bad someone’s life has been that impacts us and our descendants. What’s crucial is how we make sense of that childhood so that we can weave a new story about ourselves, rather than be imprisoned by old thinking and beliefs from the past.
The experience of unresolved abuse, neglect or trauma in one’s early life can leave a lasting residue that can blight future generations. Unresolved issues risk a parent prone to being flooded by emotions in times of stress and thereby being emotionally unavailable to their children.
This inability to be present and in tune with their offspring can be passed from generation to generation, because parents who struggle with unresolved trauma themselves often have trouble tolerating a range of emotions in their child. They may react to their children with fear or anger that surfaces quickly in moments of stress. The parent may act out destructive behaviour and may not be fully aware of how their reactive behaviour will impact their vulnerable children or those around them.
This is not only learnt behaviour. Bruce Lipton’s research proves what has been whispered for generations: that a mother’s fear, anger and love can biochemically alter the genetic expression of her offspring.[xii] So when you’re researching your family story, be alert to life-changing events for pregnant ancestors.
For example, when my grandfather Walter’s mother Ann was pregnant with his elder sister Ethel, Ann’s firstborn Lily Ann died slowly, aged only eighteen months old. The overwhelming grief that Ann may not have been able to process at the time may well have been passed down that branch of the family in the form of depression.[xiii] I can’t help wondering if what Ann’s grand-daughter Mary described as her own ‘mental breakdown’ was related to her mother’s psychological inheritance. Tragically, Mary’s only child took his own life aged just 34 years old, in 1987.
In my book A Victorian’s Inheritance, I turn towards various psychological theories in an effort to shed light on my grandfather Walter’s psychological inheritance. One of these is the concept of attachment, particularly the joint work of psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby and psychologist Mary Ainsworth.[xiv]
Attachment is a deep, enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across space and time. The more able someone is to resolve trauma and conflict in their lives, the better able they will be to form a secure attachment with their child.
Attachment theory explains infant behaviour towards their attachment figure during times of separation and reunion. This is important because it builds a stable blueprint that shapes the relationships we have as adults.
When adults are attached to someone, they can verbalise their feelings when they are apart. To glean the emotional state of young children, we must rely on the painstaking research that has taken place world wide over many decades. For instance, Mary Ainsworth devised a technique to assess infant attachment to a caregiver called The Strange Situation.[xv] Whilst it has been shown to be indicative of attachment style, historically it only studied the type of attachment to the primary caretaker, at that moment in time, originally only the mother. However, a normally developing child will attach to any caregiver who provides regular physical and/or emotional care, regardless of the quality of that care.[xvi]
Human psychology is complex and our understanding of it changes over time. Currently, a child’s attachment type is seen as a result of a combination of factors – the child’s innate temperament, the ‘mother’s attachment experiences from her own childhood [which] may shape neural circuits which influence how she perceives and responds to her infant’s cues one generation later’, and their caregiver’s sensitivity towards their needs.[xvii] Perhaps the African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a [healthy] child’ is an acknowledgement that children need to be attached to a wider circle of adults. Adolescence is the time when teens have historically been actively transitioning from parents to peers as primary attachments. However, their success in doing this can be influenced by their already established attachment style (see below).[xviii] It can also be effected by delayed adulthood, trauma, abuse or mental health issues.
Through the attentive observations of researchers, three core styles of attachment have been identified. A fourth is a phenomenon that has been found to co-exist with the other three, (before the child reverts to a more recognisable anxious or avoidant attachment style). [xix], [xx], [xxi], [xxii]
- Secure Attachment Style: People have autonomy and can act independently
- Anxious Attachment Style: Emotional over reliance and preoccupation on others (insecure attachment)
- Avoidant Attachment Style: Dismissive and fearful of others; emotional self-reliance (insecure attachment)
- Disorganized attachment Style: Ambivalent/unresolved, resulting in serious functional impairment across work, social and romantic functioning, identity, and the ability to understand the mental state, of oneself or others (insecure attachment)[xxiii],[xxiv]
(It’s interesting to note that attachment in people with autism appears to be similar to those documented for typically developing children.[xxv] A table summarising the different styles and likely presentation in adults can be found here.)
Without ongoing concerted effort, for good or ill, we seek partners, friends and colleagues and react to new people and situations through the bias of our early attachment experiences.
When I consider my grandfather Walter – his mother’s alcohol addiction, and his behaviour, as described by people who knew him – I wonder if his attachment style was that of avoiding intimacy. As Connors explains, for some children ‘the renunciation of love is preferable to the pain and danger of relationship; instead, they seek control and mastery over the environment’.[xxvi] Consequently, such individuals tend to invest in work rather than in relationships.
When I first studied attachment theory, I discovered Bartholomew’s view that one way to tolerate the distress of rejection by attachment figures is to develop a projection of self as fully adequate and therefore invulnerable to negative feelings.[xxvii] Such ideas could illuminate Walter’s choice of homesteading on the Canadian prairie, rather than in England. Indeed, it might have even been the ideal environment for someone who instinctively felt more comfortable in isolation.
Attachment & Migration
The work done by researchers looking at attachment style and migrants is particularly fascinating. For example, Tabor et al discovered that personality traits influence international voluntary migration. The study found that migrants have a lower aggression and stress reaction, are less likely to cling to traditional beliefs or practices, and have strong persistence, patience, fortitude and perseverance characteristics alongside a greater likelihood of being more open to experience.[xxviii] As all behavioural traits are considered heritable, and the effect of family environment is now considered smaller than the effect of genes, it seems probable that a powerful, positive legacy could be passed down to the descendants of migrants.[xxix],[xxx]
However, it will come as no surprise that mental health disorders are higher in immigrant and refugee populations, including depression, suicidal thoughts, stress and post traumatic stress disorder. A loss of cultural identity can result in higher incidence of disorders that affect the mind like schizophrenia in some migrant groups. According to research, those who have migrated before the age of 11 or who were born in Britain are much more likely (2.5 times for the Caribbean and Indian group, and 1.5 times in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani samples) to receive a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Disturbingly, those who are fluent in English are especially more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.[xxxi] As we have seen, such disorders then easily pass down the generations.
Are we stuck with our childhood attachment style?
Probably not. Although research is still in its infancy, according to a longitudinal study secure attachment can not only be acquired, but individuals can and do rise above their psychological inheritance and break the intergenerational cycle. It is known as earned secure attachment, and those who achieve it can parent as effectively as do those who have always been securely attached to their caregivers. However, although earned-secure mothers were rated as highly capable caregivers, they self-report both high levels of depression in themselves and, later, in their children. This is thought to be a consequence of their early history, but more reseach is needed to validate the finding.[xxxii]
How might earned secure attachment be achieved?
Eminent psychologist Mary Main has stressed that attachment styles are not fixed and unalterable.[xxxiii] According to her research, the primary characteristics of earned secure attachment are awareness and the ability to think or analyse one’s own learning or thinking processes.
We know that secure attachment in therapy can allow us to feel safe analysing childhood events, our thoughts and reactions, and help us reconsider conclusions, from the past and in the present. We can also change our attachment status if we make sense of our lives through our relationship with a partner, teacher, coach, mentor or friend who is securely attached.[xxxiv],[xxxv],[xxxvi] By approaching ourselves whole-heartedly with curiosity and compassion, mindfulness practise has also been shown to heal insecure attachment by providing an internalised secure base.[xxxvii],[xxxviii],[xxxix]
I hope this article has given you another way of looking at your ancestors’ experiences. Exploring what shaped them and how the emotional and behavioural patterns in their lives might have found their way down the generations and into the lives of living family can help you tell your families story to the next generation – breaking negative cycles once and for all.
If you’re interested in learning about your attachment style, there are many tests, scales and questionnaires you can take. More can be found here: The Attachment Theory Test.
A video Neurobiology of Secure Attachment, including the attachment process by Allan Schore, (3.08 seconds in) can also be found here.
Future blogs will look at how estrangement, dissociation and personality traits can ricochet down the generations. Why not subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss them?
And if you would like to know more about what I discovered in my own family tree and how this could help you understand how to piece together your own ancestral history, please register an interest.
is a life-long explorer of social history and weaver of factual family tales, with a Diploma in counselling. Fascinated by psychological theory and the stories we develop to make sense of ourselves and our family, Helen’s original quest was to understand her Victorian grandfather, Walter Parker, born in 1885 in Upwell on the Norfolk/Cambridgeshire border.
Family history doesn‘t survive unless it‘s in print, which is why Helen set out to write an engaging and accessible biography that would not only explore working-class Victorian life in an English village but could motivate and encourage other family historians struggling to pass on what they have painstakingly discovered. The result, in part, is an exploration of transgenerational legacy of loss, trauma, anxiety and depression. Helen is now not simply a genealogist, but a geneatherapist, investigating the roots of inherited traits, bringing them into the light and seeking to heal (and help others learn to heal) future generations.
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[xii] Bruce H. Lipton (1995) Maternal Emotions and Human Development Birth Psychology, https://birthpsychology.com/free-article/maternal-emotions-and-human-development.
[xiii] Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. World Health Organization. (2018). Depression. [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].
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[xxi] Duschinsky, R. (2015). The emergence of the disorganized/disoriented (D) attachment classification, 1979–1982. History of Psychology, [online] 18(1), pp.32-46. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4321742/ [Accessed 3 Nov. 2018].
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[xxiii] “Behavior can be called disorganized when it vacillates between opposites without reference to changes in the environment, or when it appears repeatedly in an environment that does not call for it.’ Main M. (1981). Avoidance in the service of attachment In Immelman K., Barlow G., Petrinovitch L., & Main M. (Eds.), Behavioral development (pp. 651–693). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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[xxvi] Connors, M. (1997). The renunciation of love: Dismissive attachment and its treatment. Psychoanalytic Psychology, [online] 14(4), pp.475-493. Available at: http://integrativehealthpartners.org/downloads/pdf/articles/Connors_1997b.pdf [Accessed 28 Oct. 2018].
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[xxx] Bratko, D., Butković, A. and Vukasović Hlupić, T. (2017). Heritability of Personality. Psychological Topics, [online] 26(1), pp.1-24. Available at: https://bib.irb.hr/datoteka/876456.Bratko_Butkovic_Vukasovic_Hlupic_2017.PDF [Accessed 10 Nov. 2018].
[xxxi] Bhugra, D., Gupta, S., Bhui, K., Craig, T., Dogra, N., Ingleby, J., Kirkbride, J., Moussaoui, D., Nazroo, J., Qureshi, A., Stompe, T. and Tribe, R. (2015). WPA Guidance on Mental Health and Mental Health Care in Migrants. FOCUS, 13(4), pp.469-477.
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[xxxiii] Colley, D. and Cooper, P. ed., (2017). Attachment and Emotional Development in the Classroom: Theory and Practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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[xxxvi] Feinberg, Abby E., “Relationships that appear to contribute to the development of an earned- secure attachment” (2015). Theses, Dissertations, and Projects. 707. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/707
[xxxvii] Siegel, D. (2010). The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). [Place of publication not identified]: W.W. Norton & Company.
[xxxviii] Siegel, D. (2010). The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). [Place of publication not identified]: W.W. Norton & Company.
[xxxix] Siegel, D. (2007). Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(4), pp.259-263.