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The Resilience Behind Suffering


The Resilience Behind Suffering

Scott Lilleston

The pain and struggle that the Native people at Standing Rock have experienced as they fight to protect their land and water is at the forefront of many of our minds these days. This devastating threat to human life feels deeply symbolic of the suffering that has been inflicted on American Indians for hundreds of years.

In this vein, I’d like to discuss the subject of “epigenetics,” a new buzzword in the world of science these days that has entered mainstream thought and approaches to the health and mental health worlds. The science of epigenetics, which literally means “above the gene,” proposes that we pass along more than DNA to future generations, but that our genes actually carry the memory of trauma experienced by our ancestors. This imprinted trauma can influence how we react to trauma and stress in our own lives.

Trauma influenced by earlier generations can influence the structure of our genes, making them more likely to “switch on” negative responses to stress and trauma.

Many experts agree that this is the first time in the history of medicine that we have had such clear insight into the determining factors of the health of an individual from infancy to adulthood.

Epigenetics allows us to look at an individual’s life not in disconnected stages but as integrated across time, offering insight into the origins and contributing factors to mental and physical illness.

American Indian healers have expressed wonder that it has taken science so long to catch up with traditional native knowledge, which has always used oral traditions to pass this information along to each generation.

Now that there is scientific proof that epigenetics is real, as healers and therapists we can begin to patch together how historical trauma is a major contributing factor in the development of illnesses such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and so forth.

So what exactly is the historical or intergenerational trauma that epigenetics refers to? Researchers have pointed out that there are three phases: in the first, the dominant culture perpetrates mass trauma on a population in the form of colonialism, slavery, war or genocide. In the second phase the affected population shows physical and psychological symptoms in response to the trauma. In the final phase, the initial population passes these responses to trauma to subsequent generations, who in turn display similar symptoms.

The high rates of addiction, suicide, mental illness, sexual violence and other ills among American Indians might be, at least in part, influenced by historical trauma. Experts agree that most of the historical trauma experienced by American Indians around colonization, such as the banning of indigenous language, traditional religious practices, tribal governments, banning of tribes, warfare, and disease have all been contributive factors in the mental health of later generations.

I feel that one of the most exciting components of the study of epigenetics is the hope of creating better and more specific mental health interventions.

I’d like to suggest that there is a resilience and nurturing gene on the horizon as well. Epigenetics simultaneously points to a certain level of resilience that is unique to certain populations that have historically experienced great trauma. We are beginning to understand inherited resilience, too.