You might know that chronic stress is detrimental to your mental and physical health. It increases the risk for hypertension, memory loss, diabetes, depression, anxiety—and it can even be passed down to your children.
“Sustained stress and trauma deeply affect the building blocks of the brain, so much so that it can change your genes,” says Omar Danoun, M.D., a neurologist at Henry Ford Health. “These altered genes can be passed down to your children, and, in turn, your children can be more prone to and affected by stress. That’s why dysfunction can afflict families throughout generations—because intense, long-term stress can change the backbone of who they are.”
Studies—which have included children of Holocaust survivors—have shown that emotional trauma can lead to biological changes that affect not only their children’s mental health, but their physical health as well. One study examined a famine in the Netherlands during World War II. Children of women who were pregnant during the famine were more likely to have diabetes, obesity and schizophrenia—and died earlier in life—than those born before the famine.
And just a few years ago, research showed that sons of Civil War soldiers who experienced traumatic conditions as prisoners of war were more likely to die earlier than sons of soldiers who were not prisoners of war.
You Can Change Your Genes (To An Extent)
It’s a sobering thought that what happens to us now may affect our children, and even our children’s children. But if we know that those dealing with emotional stress and trauma may have children who are prone to certain health issues, we can preemptively get them any help they made need. Because the effects of generational trauma can be mitigated; the biological changes that occurred can eventually be reversed.
“Epigenetics is the intersection between genes and environment. It’s how your environment affects your genes,” says Dr. Danoun. “It’s been shown that when children are put into a positive environment, the genes that made them more susceptible to stress can be changed.
“For example, if the same person were to be raised in two different environments—one a caring, loving environment; the other a cold, abusive environment—different genes would be activated based upon the environment they grew up in. Environment impacts a child’s mental function and determines how they grow and mature. That is why it’s so important for kids to live in a stable, supportive environment.”
Take steps to care for your emotional and physical health: get enough sleep each night, exercise daily (it’s a great stress reliever and mood booster), eat a nutritious diet, try meditating (it has proven benefits for brain health), don’t hesitate to see a behavioral health professional if you need help—and to the best of your ability, provide a nurturing environment for your children. As Dr. Danoun says: “we are quite literally shaping our children’s future and the generations to come.”
Dr. Omar Danoun is a neurologist at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center in Taylor.