Omega: You write in your book, It Didn’t Start With You, “Just as we inherit our eye color and blood type, we also inherit the residue from traumatic events that have taken place in our family.” Can you briefly explain the science of how this phenomenon works?
Mark: When a trauma happens, it changes us. Literally, it causes a chemical change in our DNA and this can change how our genes function, sometimes for generations.
Technically, after a trauma, chemical tags can attach to our DNA and tell our cells to use or ignore certain genes. Then, the way the genes are affected can change how we act or feel.
For example, we can become sensitive or reactive to situations that are similar to the original trauma so that we’re better prepared to deal with it. If our grandparents, for example, came from a war-torn country, they could pass forward a skill set of sharper reflexes and quicker reaction times to help us survive the trauma they experienced.
The problem is that we could also inherit a stress response with the dials set to 10, preparing us for a catastrophe that never arrives. In other words, we’re born with fears and feelings that originated with our parents or grandparents—and we think those feelings are ours.
Omega: Can you give a case example of inherited family trauma?
Mark: I once worked with a guy with a rare neurological disorder who began experiencing intense burning sensations on his skin when he was 10 years old.
He told me about a trauma his father experienced when he was ten. The father was playing with matches and accidentally burned the house down. The father's brother died in the fire and the father never forgave himself. Because the trauma remained unhealed and unresolved, the man’s son, my client, expressed symptoms at the same age. He never made the connection. After working together, his symptoms subsided.
Omega: This work is about individual families and also about groups of people—Jews, Native Americans, African Americans, and others who have suffered due to systemic discrimination and abuse. Can you explain how negative family and group experiences impact the individual?
Mark: When traumas remain unresolved in one generation, we can experience unexplained symptoms in the next. Depression, anxiety, illness, financial challenges, and unhappy relationships can all be forms of this unconscious inheritance.
With respect to group or cultural trauma—whether it’s from the Holocaust, or slavery, or massacres, or repeatedly being defeated and discriminated against—there can be remnants of these traumas in the generations that follow.
We can see patterns of depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well as the continuation of families being forcibly broken apart—parents who don’t get to raise their children, children who don’t get to be raised by their parents, and more. The methods I share in my book and in my classes are helpful in healing these wounds.
Omega: Many times, trauma goes back several generations. How can someone begin to uncover hidden family secrets from so long ago?
Mark: Even when we don’t have information about our family history, this information lives in our trauma language. It’s in our fears and in our unexplained symptoms and destructive behaviors. It even lives in our relationship struggles and the repeated ways we deal with money and success.
All of this forms a breadcrumb trail that gives us more than a glimpse of what might’ve happened in our family history—even if the story’s been lost or kept secret—and can help explain why we feel the way we feel. When we take the time to uncover our trauma language and explore the events and behaviors that repeat in our life, we take an important step toward healing.
Omega: How do you discern general anxiety or other personal health symptoms from an inherited family issue?
Mark: An inherited trauma can have a distinctive quality. It can show up as a sudden onset of anxiety, or a symptom, or a fear that strikes as soon as we hit a certain age or reach a certain milestone in our lives. It can be when we get married, or have a child, or when we leave home for the first time, or get rejected by a partner. It’s as though there’s an ancestral alarm clock that starts ringing inside us.
I once worked with a woman who was consumed with anxiety as soon as she became a new mother. We discovered that she had a terrible fear of harming her new baby.
When I asked her if anyone in her family had ever harmed a baby, she said: “When my grandmother was a young woman, she lit a candle that caught the curtains on fire. The flames spread throughout the house, and she was unable to get her newborn out, and the baby died. We were never allowed to talk about it.”
In that moment, she made a crucial link that she had inherited her grandmother’s experience. After that, we were able to take the steps to help her heal. This story goes to show that many of us rarely think to connect our experience to what may have happened in a previous generation.
Omega: If someone has or is starting their own family, is there anything they can do to help relieve the burden of their family trauma for their children?
Mark: Yes, most certainly. It’s essential that we do our own inner work so that our issues don’t affect our children. Children often express what’s unresolved between the parents, as well as what’s behind the parents. Children can also mirror to us what we felt at their age but have long ago suppressed. Having said that, if we struggle with depression or anxiety or an unexplained phobia or OCD, and haven’t been able to figure out what’s causing it, it’s important to shake the family tree and see what falls out.
What family secrets have been hidden? What stories didn’t get told? What traumas have never healed? It’s important to know these things, especially if we’re unconsciously reliving elements of a trauma that don’t belong to us.
I encourage parents to talk about the traumas in their family and try to work through them. That way they're less likely to be passed down to future generations
Omega: One method you use for resolving inherited family trauma is family constellations. Can you explain how this method works?
Mark: A family constellation is a group process in which participants stand in as our family members to help us shift an old image. Dialogue, imagery, movement, healing sentences, and body-centered releases all contribute to help us break destructive patterns of generational suffering. It’s an extremely powerful tool. In a constellation, we literally step into a new image of feeling whole, and afterward stand in a much stronger and clearer place.
Omega: Some have observed your work with clients to be deeply intuitive. How much of your approach is clinical and how much is perception?
Mark: It’s hard to say where the line between perception and knowledge exists. Having observed similar family patterns over many, many years, I can say that people are more alike than they are different. Each of us struggles in some way with the residue of past trauma. I’ve found that if we ignore the past, it can come back to haunt us. If we explore it, we don’t have to repeat it. We can break these destructive patterns.
© 2018 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies