October 15, 2020
Heal Thyself, Heal Thy Children
In August 2020, I became one of 10,000 Canadians to survive a bilateral pulmonary embolism and part of the 1.3% population to be diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valve heart disease (BAV). BAV is an inherited condition found on the branch of my family who were survivors of Canada’s Residential Schools. BAV was not present in my family biology before the trauma of the Canadian Residential School Systems. Although my great-grandmother survived, her experience was written in her body and carried through to mine. Epigenetics studies how trauma is recorded in our DNA and how we can heal ourselves to protect the future generations. Epigenetics has provided new opportunities for understanding the impact of trauma on future generations that moves beyond learned parenting, social expectations, and the inherent historical bias and prejudices of those studies. Epigenetics investigates how a traumatic life event can alter the expression of DNA through the addition or removal of chemical tags without a permanent change in the genomes. These tags respond to changes in the environment and provide historical evidence of traumatic events. Functioning from a theory proposed by Gabor Mate, MD (2012), physical disease and illness are rooted in emotional distress. Mate proposed the immune and nervous systems were also affected by emotional trauma. Regardless of the source of stress or the type of trauma, the repeated exposure and the biological cost of the increased hormone levels created a substantial risk to health. Energy stores are depleted, emotional resistance lowered, and the immune systems are at-risk.
The body is designed to physiologically respond to external stress provided through a wave of epinephrine, allowing quick decisions to be made with extra-muscular strength.
The hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (HPA) are responsible for releasing the hormones necessary for the body to quickly react. When exposed to stress, the HPA releases cortisol into the body, leaving the body in a state of alertness until the threat has passed. Exposure to prolonged stress can lead to swings between feeling energetic or hyper, and exhausted. These health issues are often ignored or downplayed by parents or professionals busy with trying to balance the many demands of modern life. Biologically, these symptoms stem from the rise and fall of cortisol levels. While cortisol has a physiological purpose, increased levels can lead to: adrenal exhaustion, digestive issues, mood dysregulation, decreased immunity, depression and changes in mood, hormone imbalances, insomnia, thyroid imbalances, low sex drive, weight gain (around the belly), and loss of muscle or bone (Women’s Health Network). Understanding how the body responds to stress is necessary to understand how the body becomes ill, how to approach becoming better, and how to avoid becoming ill. Recent studies are showing the effects of ongoing stress and trauma are not limited to the individual who is enduring them at the time.
Comparing the children of the Prisoner’s of War (PoW) from the American Civil War with the children from Veterans of the same war, illustrate the significance of stress on the body. Studying 16,000 children of survivors, it was revealed male children were affected where females were not. PoW children had an 11% higher mortality rate, routinely reported from cerebral hemorrhage or cancer, Veteran children (Costa, 2019). These changes occurred to offspring only after the war. Gender and mortality differences could not be explained through paternal socio-economic status, education, or access to health care. Further support for epigenetics is found in survivors of the Holocaust who displayed heightened levels of cortisol (Yehuda, et al., 2015).
Canadian epigenetic studies have begun to address the intergenerational trauma caused by Residential Schools to our First Nation, Inuit, and Metis peoples. Studies reveal marked changes in how descendants manage stress at a physiological level (Bombay, 2018; Thomas, 2018). With an increased stress response involving the HPV system, cortisol levels would be higher which would lead to a greater risk of disease and illness. While the physiological composition is set, individuals can learn to manage stress, reduce their exposure to toxic relationships and work environments, practice self-care, and live healthier lifestyles. An individual may be ill from trauma or stress they have not directly experienced; however, have they the choice to heal for themselves and the wellbeing of their descendants.
Intergenerational trauma healing begins with individual self-care and the recognition of toxic stress. It is the prioritization of self before over-committing to work, social scheduling, or the competition with a social media expectation of parenting. Increasing personal time dedicated to reducing the heart rate will also be beneficial to protecting cells from stress. Keeping a gratitude journal, spending time in nature, practicing Yoga or Qi Yong, all have shown to have positive effects on reducing stress (@lifebutterflyeffect). Therapy helps teach stress management skills and how to recognize unhealthy relationships. Both of these areas would benefit those who have had the tag for these switched off due to ancestorial trauma.
For First Nations, Inuit, and Metis descendants our healing will involve reclaiming that which was taken from us. In our healing, we must find Elders to teach our languages, our religious customs, and our cultural ways of being to heal the shame and trauma inflicted by the Residential School systems. The emotional and spiritual healing properties of Smudging, Drumming, Pow Wows, and Sweats has yet to be quantitatively determined. However, their qualitative significance to healing trauma, community building, and increasing individual identity is evident throughout youth programs, recovery initiatives, and other programs. Reclaiming our cultural ways of being and knowing will help us lead healthier lives now and protect our future generations. Epigenetics is literally learning history so it is not repeated in our children. Heal thyself, heal thy children.