APR 27, 2018 4:47 AM PDT

Is Trauma Inherited?

Most people understand what trauma can do to general health. Mental trauma such as experiencing violence or traumatic events, witnessing war or other disasters or suffering a loss like the death of parents or caregivers can impact more than just mental health. Some research suggests that trauma can pass through the generations, like other inherited disorders.

While it's been more than 70 years since World War II ended, the trauma of the Holocaust is still ongoing. There are still survivors, and they have children and grandchildren who may be caring for them. Researchers at Bar-Ilan University looked at the signs of "intergenerational trauma" among Holocaust survivors who are being cared for by their children.

The concept of what a "typical" Holocaust survivor differs among many experts. There are those that believe the experience of a survivor has to include tremendous strength and resilience in the face of unimaginable horror and this strength is passed to their offspring. Other research shows that some changes in DNA can happen between the generations when ancestors have experienced severe trauma such as the Holocaust.

There is also a theory suggests that the offspring of survivors are pretty strong and resolute, but when faced with chronic stress, such as caring for an elderly family member, vulnerabilities that developed as a result of the trauma will come to the surface.

The study at Bar-Ilan consisted of three parts. They started with extensive interviews of 10 adults who were caring for their elderly Holocaust survivor parents. Questions in the discussions were very detailed concerning the offspring's feelings on taking care of their parents, the stress it involved and the difficulty in finding appropriate health care for a trauma survivor. Many relayed that it was challenging to manage irrational concepts like a survivor's reluctance to be treated by physicians who had German surnames.

In the second portion, the team compared levels of anxiety and commitment to caring for an elderly parent between the children of Holocaust survivors and those whose parents were not survivors. In this comparison, the children of survivors had a higher level of commitment to caring for their parents, but also a higher level of anxiety regarding this care.

In the third part, it was shown that children of survivors had higher levels of anxiety if their parents had suffered from PTSD. Children whose survivor parents did not have PTSD had less anxiety. Prof. Amit Shrira, of the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences, who researched the work with Dr. Moshe Bensimon, of the Department of Criminology explained in a press release, "These findings have some important practical implications for practitioners assisting adult offspring of Holocaust survivors in caring for their parents. Practitioners should help both sides process negative emotions, resolve conflictual and problematic relationships, and improve their relationships. They should also facilitate offspring comprehension of, and empathy towards, complicated behaviors exhibited by the care recipient. Lastly, they should encourage offspring of Holocaust survivors to express their own needs and suggest other methods of care for their parents so that the burden doesn't fall entirely upon them." The video below offers some tips for adult children who are caring for parents who have experienced trauma, take a look.

Sources: Bar-Ilan University. Aging and Mental Health.

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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