How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who You Are

How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who You Are

Mark Wolynn, author of the book It Didn’t Start with You, How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, joined Andrea Donsky and Lisa Davis on Naturally Savvy Radio to discuss traumatic life events and how they affect our families for generations. [Note: The following transcript has been edited for print.]

Listen to the full interview here.

Lisa Davis: I’m Lisa Davis with Andrea Donsky. So many of us come from dysfunctional families, and I never thought about family trauma being inherited. I always thought, well you know, you just have your parents, and they’re acting out from what they knew, and hopefully you can change your own behavior, raise your kids differently and things like that. But I really had my eyes opened when I read Mark Wolynn’s book, It Didn’t Start with You, How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Mark, hello and welcome to Naturally Savvy.

Mark Wolynn: Hi, thank you for having me.

Lisa Davis: Well, you know, I’d like to hear more about what that means exactly. Let’s say my mother’s mother lost her mother when she was four, and how that shaped my grandmother and then how, in turn, my mother inherited some of that trauma and how, in turn, I inherited that, is that what you’re saying?

Mark Wolynn: These traumas they change us literally. They cause a chemical change in our DNA that can affect the way our gene functions, sometimes for generations. So when we go to have kids, they don’t come with a clean hard drive. There’s an operating system already in place, one that contains the fallout from our traumas, our parent’s traumas, our grandparent’s traumas. Then we’re born, or our kids are born, we’re those kids too, with fears and feelings that don’t always belong to us, we inherit them. Which is why I wrote the book so we can make these links and we can break the cycle.

Andrea Donsky: How many generations does that cycle last for?

Mark Wolynn: Well there’s interesting studies that have just come out in the last couple of years in Emory Medical in Atlanta where they talk about three generations. They traumatize mice; every time mice would have an experience of smell they electrically shock them and then what they found is these mice had large receptors in the large areas of the brain where they could detect the smell at lesser concentrations. Basically, the brains were epigenetically preparing themselves to be protected by smelling this concentration at less volumes, and there are changes in the blood and the sperm. But what they found in the next two generations was startling. They found that the mice, all they had to do was smell that Cherry Blossom scent and not receive the shock. Just the smell. And they went into the trauma response, and they found that for three generations. But the mice, interestingly enough in the third generation, did not have the physiologic changes. So the researchers determined that we’re looking at a three generational link, but possibly not beyond that.

Andrea Donsky: You know it’s interesting I was mentioning earlier that my mother is a child of survivors. Both my grandparents and my father’s parents as well were survivors of the Holocaust. My mother’s life’s work over the past 30 years has really been helping people heal from trauma and specifically from war, and basically wrote a book on it. So very similar, I think you guys would get along great because the work that both of you do is really incredible and I’m definitely going to introduce you. But talk a little bit about for survivors of 911 and survivors of other, obviously not necessarily war, but really victims of severe trauma. How do they heal?

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Mark Wolynn: Much of the research that we know is based on survivors of some sort; war veterans, Holocaust survivors, the children born of 911. The children are all having the same trauma symptoms as the parents, specifically the low levels of Cortisol. This centers around a great work done by Rachel Yehuda the neuroscientist at Mt. Sinai Medical. She says that you and I are three times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder if one of our parents had PTSD and as the result, we’re likely to suffer with depression or anxiety. Just last year, she did – well the results of a study that she did wherein biological-psychiatry. She found that Holocaust survivors and their children have the exact same gene changes in the exact same part of the same gene. How we heal? Well, we need to experience something powerful enough to override the old trauma response. This response that lives in so many of us, and then we need to practice the new feelings of this experience. The idea with the new neuroscience is to steal traction away from our highly efficient trauma cycle that keeps us in a state of suffering. So we need to do practices that engage the prefrontal cortex like mindfulness, meditation, visualization, feeling visceral connections in our body, making the link. I teach how to do this in the book, how to get new neuro pathways to be laid down in our brain so our brain can really change.

Andrea Donsky: And all the new research shows now that we can change our brains, so it’s interesting to hear you say that. I guess through therapies like cognitive behavior therapy as well. I mean, anything that’s going to help basically reshape it, is that it?

Mark Wolynn: Anything that pulls energy away from that trauma part of our brain, the Limbic System response and move those into the prefrontal cortex, yes.

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Lisa Davis: You know in the book, you talk about shaking the family tree. What does that mean and how can we do that?

Mark Wolynn: Okay, many of us have no clue, we don’t make the links and we suffer thinking that we’re the cause of the anxiety that we can’t explain or the sudden onset anxiety when we reach the same age that someone in a past generation experienced difficulty or the depression we never get to the bottom of, or the OCD, the thoughts and I tell people it’s important, we need to know what happens so we can make the links. So when I talk about shaking the family tree, what family secrets have been hidden or what stories didn’t get told or what trauma has never healed all the way. It’s important to know these things, especially if we’re unconsciously reliving elements of traumas that don’t belong to us. I find that if we ignore the past, it can come back to haunt us. But if we explore it, we don’t have to repeat it; we can break these destructive patterns.

Andrea Donsky: Would you say, Mark, would you say that a lot of the trauma is based like PTSD, anxiety, is it really around that? Like what, I guess, the side effects that people that you see within those three generations of people are experiencing having been victims of trauma?

Mark Wolynn: A lot of the research is on depression and anxiety and what they’re calling secondary PTSD. I once worked with this guy; he couldn’t go anywhere new. He would blackout whenever he’d go to a new place, literally. He couldn’t do to the neighborhood next door, and then he dropped the bomb and he told me that 74 members of his family died in the Holocaust, they were literally taken somewhere new to a concentration camp where they were murdered, and he knew about this connection, but he had never made the link that he was carrying aspects of it. And it was important to make that link; then he could heal it.

Andrea Donsky: I think, I mean this work is fascinating. I’m sure you have so many stories. We have about a minute left; can you share one other story for people to hear from you?

Mark Wolynn: I can, I talked about when we reach a certain age or hit a certain milestone, sometimes we can see this generational reliving. I once worked with a woman; she was consumed with anxiety. As soon as she became a new mother, not before that, but when she’s pregnant and becoming a new mother, asking her a few of the questions I outlined in the book, we discovered that she had a terrible fear of harming her baby. I asked if anyone in her family had ever harmed a baby. And she said, no. And then she said, oh my God my grandmother, as a young woman, accidently started a fire and couldn’t get her baby out of the house and we were never allowed to talk about it. And in that moment, she made the link that she had inherited this feeling from her grandmother, and it didn’t start until she became a new mother as well, and that’s the title of my book, It Didn’t Start With You. A lot of times it does not start with us.

Andrea Donsky: Wow. Mark, very fascinating information and for all of you, I definitely recommend It Didn’t Start With You, How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Check it out. I’m Andrea Donsky along with Lisa Davis; this is Naturally Savvy Radio. Stay well.

For more information about Mark Wolynn you can visit his website at

Listen to the full interview here.

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