Geneatherapy – using psychology, epigenetics, and neuroscience to better understand our ancestors

Published on 3 September 2021 at 08:00


What is geneatherapy?

‘Geneatherapy’ combines two of my greatest passions: I’m a former counsellor by profession and a genealogist and family historian by experience. So as a geneatherapist, I explore mental health, psychology, epigenetics, and neuroscience, to deepen my understanding of our ancestors.

 

Psychology

Before our birth we are influenced by the mental, emotional, and behavioural patterns of our parents, the family around us and those who came before – even if our parents are not the ones who raised us. This phenomenon is known as psychological inheritance.

As family historians we cannot know our ancestors’ psychological inheritance; but using current theories, we can examine the records available to us and speculate in an informed way. For example, in my book, ‘Who Do I Think You Were?®’ A Victorian's Inheritance, I use my grandfather, Walter Parker, as an example of how we can explore our ancestors’ psychological inheritance. My mother described her father as a ‘Victorian fossil’, a distant parent she could never get close to. So, I set out to find what had stopped him from being an open, loving parent and grandparent. What affected him most: Victorian values, Victorian English village life or his depressed, alcoholic mother?

 

Depression

When I explored the life of Walter’s mother, Ann, and his maternal grandparents, a psychological inheritance unravelled, revealing intergenerational anxiety, trauma, loss, alcoholism, and depression common to many families. Ann’s formative years were threaded with tragedy.  Her mother died of consumptive disease and four of her nine siblings died aged five or younger. Today, we know unavoidable, inescapable, and overwhelming suffering and loss in childhood can weaken resilience and lead to depressive episodes. It is also common for depression to be passed on from generation to generation. (1)  It was sobering to learn that 59 per cent of grandchildren who had two generations of major depression preceding them had either depression or an anxiety disorder. (2)

 

The transmission of mental health issues across generations continues to be explored. Denial, avoidance, silence, procrastination, projection onto others and dissociation are ways individuals and families can cope with overwhelming experiences. (3) While pain, misery and anguish may be suppressed in those desperately clinging onto physical and emotional survival, their offspring and the generations that follow can feel stalked by a dread or fear they cannot name. Indeed, research suggests that when left unattended, the traumas suffered by one generation continue to be visited upon successive ones. (4) It is therefore possible that emotions not explained by the individual’s own experiences may stand for the intergenerational transmission of unresolved loss, conflict or trauma unwittingly passed on as psychological inheritance. (5)

 

Attachment Theory

Attachment is important in our attempt to understand our ancestors because their attachment style not only affected them; it potentially ripples down the generations.

 

First proposed by John Bowlby in 1969, attachment theory emphasises the importance of an infant’s long-lasting emotional connection with a meaningful person who soothes them in times of stress. (6) According to Bowlby, the infant discovers through their early months and years how safe, available and trustworthy people are. Psychologists still believe the early attachments we form with our earliest caregivers are crucial to the way we develop. They often shape how our future relationships unfold, our resilience and how we manage adversity.

 

Those dependent upon alcohol, like Walter’s mother Ann, rarely have securely attached children. Most addicts manifest immense distrust in their relationships, often avoiding emotional openness and intimacy with others. (7) Walter therefore likely had an insecure attachment style. As an adult Walter may therefore have felt a low sense of self-worth and self-esteem, struggled to ask for help and feared abandonment; yet pushed others away and may have been overly independent or resistant to intimacy with a partner. Other people might constantly seek reassurance in a relationship or be jealous and feel threatened by a partner’s independence.

 

Epigenetics

Epigenetics is the idea that our lived experience can affect our children and grandchildren. It is the study of  nature  (our genes) and nurture (our environment, including war, extreme weather events and disasters). Epigenetics seeks to explain how our environment and life experiences trigger on/off mechanisms in our genes, which can affect both us and our descendants, physically and psychologically. For example, a landmark study investigated the impact of famine on pregnant Dutch women during the  Hunger Winter of 1944/45. Researchers found that individuals exposed to famine early in their mother’s pregnancy had a higher risk of developing chronic conditions when compared with their unexposed, same-sex siblings. The suggestion is that ‘early life environmental conditions can cause epigenetic changes in humans that persist throughout life’ leading to an increased risk of schizophrenia, coronary heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Effects are not limited to the female line. Scientists found that the offspring of fathers exposed to famine before they were born weighed more and had a higher body-mass index than the offspring of unexposed fathers. (8)

Psychological stress can also result in epigenetic changes that have negative effects on the body. For example, Boston-based researchers found that negative mental states can lead to a switching on or off of the genes that cause the arteries to harden. The research showed that anxiety and depression affects genes involved in inflammatory processes—which again affect the arteries and heart. (9) Both Walter and Ann died from heart problems.

 

Neuroscience

Neuroscience explains how our unique experiences, our diet, and even our geographical location help construct the architecture of our brain. Scientists have linked the oxytocin receptor gene to optimism, self-esteem and ‘mastery’, the belief that one has control over one’s own life. (10) These three characteristics are seen as critical psychological resources for coping well with stress and depression. (11) However, when we see from records that our ancestors lived on the edge of crisis for many years, we can perhaps conclude that they did not have the nurturing environment they needed.

A likely consequence of Ann’s addiction was an inability to react appropriately to her children. A study of mothers with unresolved trauma showed that the amygdala – the part of the brain which processes emotion, memory, and emotional dysfunction – turned off when the mother looked at her child’s distressed face. This could help explain the transgenerational transmission of trauma. We can speculate that the blunting of response is maintained because it protects the mother from re-experiencing her unresolved distress. Yet, this leaves the infant psychologically ‘alone’, with no one to share or mitigate his emotional pain. (12)

 

Given that general anxiety disorder is a heritable condition with a moderate genetic risk (heritability of approximately 30%), it looks as if we can understand why so many of Ann’s descendants suffered from anxiety, particularly as it is linked with early developmental trauma and stressful life events. (13)

 

However, before we become too despondent, we should remember that while there is a  genetic connection to psychological states, genes predict behaviour; they do not determine it. The good news is that even without psychological intervention, positive development can continue throughout our lives. Early experiences need not dictate our destiny; there is always the hope that other factors in our environment can steer us in a positive direction. Insight into our upbringing and emotions allows us to bring to light the invisible threads that were not verbalised but hidden in shame or kept as secrets. It can enable us to challenge unconscious repetitions and break the chain, passing on a healthier legacy. In short, we have the power to restructure our brains and improve our quality of life and the lives of those who come after us.

 

LEARN MORE ABOUT HELEN PARKER-DRABBLE OR GENETHERAPY BY FOLLOWING HER ONLINE:

To read more, visit https://www.helenparkerdrabble.com/

Helen Parker-Drabble is the author of ‘Who Do I Think You Were?®’ A Victorian's Inheritance. To read the first two chapters, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the button ‘Your two FREE chapters are waiting’.

 

Email: helen@helenparkerdrabble.com

Twitter: @HelenPDrabble

Facebook: @FactualTales and Writing Your Family History - Study & Support Group

LinkedIn: Helen Parker-Drabble

 

Footnotes

1. Levinson, D. (2006). “The genetics of depression: a review”. Biological Psychiatry, 60(2), pp. 84–92; Shih, R., Belmonte, P. & Zandi, P. (2004). “A review of the evidence from family, twin and adoption studies for a  genetic contribution to adult psychiatric disorders”. International Review of Psychiatry, 16(4), pp. 260–83

2. Costello, V. (2012). A Lethal Inheritance. New York: Prometheus Books, p. 149; Weissman, M. (2009). “Translating intergenerational research on depression into clinical practice”.  JAMA Psychiatry, 302(24), pp. 2695- 2696.

3.Sacchet, M., Levy, B., Hamilton, J. et al. (2016). “Cognitive and neural consequences of memory suppression in major depressive disorder”. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 17(1), pp. 77–93.

4. Second Generation”. Symbolic Interaction, 26(3), p. 376; Kirmayer, L., Brass, G. & Tait, C. (2000). “The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples: Transformations of Identity and Community”. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 45(7), pp. 607–616.

5. Gottschalk, S. (2003). “Reli(e)ving the Past: Emotion Work in the Holocaust’s Second Generation”. Symbolic Interaction, 26(3), p. 376; Kirmayer, L., Brass, G. & Tait, C. (2000). “The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples: Transformations of Identity and Community”. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 45(7), pp. 607–616.

6. Bowlby, J. (2006). Attachment and loss. 2nd ed. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, p. 345.

7. Wyrzykowska, E., Głogowska, K. & Mickiewicz, K. (2014). “Attachment relationships among alcohol dependent persons”. Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. 27(2), pp. 145–161.

8. Department of Clinical Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Bioinformatics, Academic Medical Centre, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Veenendaal, M., et.al (2013). “Transgenerational effects of prenatal exposure to the 1944–45 Dutch famine”. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 120(5), pp. 548–554.

9.  Kim, D., Kubzansky, L., Baccarelli, A., Sparrow, D., Spiro, A., Tarantini, L., Cantone, L., Vokonas, P. and Schwartz, J., 2016. Psychological factors and DNA methylation of genes related to immune/inflammatory system markers: the VA Normative Aging Study. BMJ Open, 6(1), p.e009790.

10. Saphire-Bernstein, S., Way, B., Kim, H., Sherman, D. & Taylor, S. (2011). “Oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is related to psychological resources”.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(37), pp. 15118–15122.

11. McEwen, B. and Akil, H., (2020). “Revisiting the Stress Concept: Implications for Affective Disorders”.  The Journal of Neuroscience, 40(1), pp. 12-21. https://www.jneurosci.org/content/40/1/12#T2 [Accessed February 2021].

12. Kim, S., Fonagy, P., Allen, J. & Strathearn, L. (2014). “‘Mothers’ unresolved trauma blunts amygdala response to infant distress’”.  Social Neuroscience, 9(4), pp. 352–363; Iyengar, U., Rajhans, P., Fonagy, P., Strathearn, L. & Kim, S. (2019). “Unresolved Trauma and Reorganization in Mothers: Attachment and Neuroscience Perspectives”. Frontiers in Psychology,  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00110 [Accessed February 2021].

13. Gottschalk, M. and Domschke, K., 2017. Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits. Generalized Anxiety Disorders, 19(2), pp.159-168.

 


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