‘We can deny our experience but our body remembers,’ Jeanne McElvaney wrote in her book, ‘Spirit Unbroken: Abby’s Story’
I have been reading Bethel Van der Kolk’s book on trauma; The body keeps the score. And
this new lens of insight acquired by his beautifully written learnings, naturally finds itself
into my daily GP practice. Suddenly I want to ask every patient, what happened to you in
childhood, tell me about that first marriage, what of those surgical scars? I’ve been thinking
about loss and the intrinsic nature of grief in the human experience. Always this cycle of
demise and reimagining, emerging from darkness, birthing through pain. No life is exempt
from this. But, there is something distinct between trauma and loss. Loss is inevitable.
There is a reoccurring theme in the physiology of pathology, where systems kick in
appropriately, but then don’t switch off. We are designed for certain responses to activate
when necessary and then to switch off for us to return to homeostasis. Examples are the
inflammatory response, the stress response, periods of wakefulness and action followed by
periods of rest and restoration. I had the privilege of interviewing Dr Ela Manga recently and
she described so beautifully, the necessary conversation between action and rest. The very
quality of this life is seasonal, the tides, the sun, our breath. Even our birds know which part
of the day is theirs to fill with song.
Trauma changes the brain. It also changes the brain of the progeny of it’s victims. Multiple
animal studies have proven that exposure of one generation of worms, rodents or insects to
a specific influence, can change the genetic expression of that generation’s progeny.
Experiments on mice have shown that specific diets fed to the maternal mice led to changes
in phenotypic expression in the mice’s babies. The sequence of their genetic codes
remained the same, but certain genes manifested and others were switched off based on
the diet of their mothers. This is called Epigenetics. Your environment or the choices that
you make, can influence how your genes express themselves.
In another fascinating experiment rats were exposed to a cherry blossom smell and a shock
at the same time. They learned to associate fear and apprehension with the smell even after
the shock was removed. The offspring that they produced were born with an inherent fear
of cherry blossom. This manifested beyond one generation. Isn’t that remarkable?
Everything from the weather, to the scarcity or abundance of food, to the violence or the
nurturing, can have an immediate effect on how we pass on our genetic code. So much of
our current world is changing and at such a fast pace, it’s a challenge to know the baby from
What about trauma as an epigenetic influence? How does exposure to trauma in utero or
during the developmental stages of life influence future generations. We know that the
abused become the abuser. A cross sectional study looking at South African men found that
88% of them had experienced either emotional, physical or sexual abuse. A third of these
men had engaged in intimate partner violence. More than 40% of South Africa women will
be raped in their lifetime and only 1 in 9 rapes are thought to be reported. This is chilling. It
tells a harrowing story that doesn’t make headlines. One of the features of war veterans
who leave the battle field and re-enter normal society, is that they engage in violent and
reprehensible behaviours that their pre-war selves could never have inflicted. Trauma
changes our brain chemistry and it changes our children.
We have the power to reshape our world by protecting the vulnerable.
Research confirms that childhood abuse significantly increases a person’s life time risk for
psychiatric disease, alcohol abuse and now also medical conditions like hypertension,
diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Infants born to mothers who endured stress or
psychopathology during their pregnancies have a higher incidence of behavioural
As time quickens, the loss of what was infuses all of our lives. This brings us to an era where
reimagining is more possible than even before. Bessel challenges the brain disease model in
his book with the following four fundamental truths.
1. Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.
2. Language gives us the power to change ourselves and to find a common sense of
meaning between each other.
3. We have the ability to regulate our own physiology (even the involuntary parts)
through breathing, moving and touching
4. We can change social conditions to create environments where children and adults
feel safe and are able to thrive.
One of the characteristics of PTSD is that a person is unable to remember aspects of their
previous experiences, they experience a sense of doom, shame, self-blame and
hypervigilance. Their somatic stress response is unregulated and is triggered
disproportionately to stimuli from their environment. This makes it very scary for them to
feel or access emotion. Brain imaging of traumatised patients who are scanned while
reimagining their trauma, show depression of Broca’s area in the brain. Broca’s area is
essential for putting our thoughts and experiences into words. One of the brain’s defences is
to lose the language to name the trauma.
Gabo Mate writes, “the attempt to escape from pain, creates more pain.” The first step is
awareness, the path to healing is remembering. When we all begin to name, observe, be
curious about the parts of ourselves that are frightening, this is the first step towards
healing. We are, all of us, carrying our own losses, pains, disappointments and also, the
generational weight of what we have inherited. We are more genetically similar to the
worms and rodents I first mentioned than we might think; no doubt though; that through
language, dance, theatre, music and stepping together in time, we can begin to foster safety
for our children and those that need support towards healing.
Dacher Keltner, in his book, Awe, calls a chapter Collective Effervescence; experiments have
shown that just the simple act of walking in step with one another, is a bonding exercise in
community which translates to increased comradery and goodwill between people. For
every person that steps bravely towards confronting their own quietened traumas, may
another person step towards them in support. Slowly, we can unentangle ourselves from
the shackles of what is past by integrating our trauma into the fabric of presence that is
suffused with gratitude, openness, awe and wonder.