In Depth: Eating Disorders in Men

People often think “Eating disorders are a woman’s disease.” This myth is constantly reinforced by character portrayals on television, targeted advertisements, and even studies and articles that draw from exclusively female samples. The sad reality is that eating disorders affect any and all genders, and those who do not identify as female may even suffer more with the very diagnosis of their disease due to the stereotype that eating disorders are feminine. Therefore, although eating disorders affect each individual differently, it is important to consider one’s gender identification in order to increase efficacy for prevention, detection, and treatment of the disease.

Why do men get eating disorders?

While beauty standards for women emphasize thinness, men are taught to prioritize muscle gain. Similar to women’s beauty standards, this fixation on strength derives from cultural gender norms and is perpetuated at a very young age. Throughout the past five decades, the muscles on action figures have been getting significantly larger. Comparable to the physically impossible size measurements of Barbie, the 1998 Wolverine doll had a waist the size of its bicep and half the size of its chest.1 One study confirmed that male college students who were assigned to play with the most unrealistic action figure dolls then reported the lowest levels of self-esteem.2 Another study found that men’s confidence surrounding their physique plummeted after watching music videos that featured hyper-muscular stars. Even more fascinating—researchers still observed this drop in self-esteem after the male participants watched music videos in which the main star did not have outrageous bulging muscles, but rather, was a more realistic depiction of an average (white) American male.3 These unanimous declines in body image indicate that men are deeply susceptible to ingesting harmful media standards, and these standards can take a lifelong toll on their body image.

What do eating disorders look like for men?

These dips in body image can oftentimes lead men to develop an unhealthy fixation on their build or, in some cases, an eating disorder. The estimated rates of men with eating disorders vary. Some studies cite that for every 10 women with an eating disorder there is 1 man with the disorder1, 4, while other studies indicate that 25% of eating disorders occur in men5. The discrepancy in these statistics is due to the fact that many men with eating disorders do not report their disease, due to shame and fear of suffering from a “female” issue. Another stereotype is that the men who are diagnosed with eating disorders are predominantly homosexual. This assumption has been widely disproved, and in fact 80% of men with eating disorders are heterosexual.4 That being said, confusion surrounding sexual orientation can be a contributing cause for eating disorder in some men, so it is important to acknowledge sexuality during the treatment process.

Men can suffer from any and all types of eating disorders, but some of the most prevalent eating disorders among men are binge eating disorders or exercise addictions. As for the former, American culture is actually more accepting of men with binge eating disorder than their female counterparts. This acceptance is positive for men who may avoid emotional scarring from fat shaming, but it is negative for men who are enabled to continue binge eating because their symptoms are not validated as being disordered eating, and therefore they are significantly less likely to seek treatment. However, the severity of binge eating disorder among men should not be minimized. A recent article, which profiled men with binge eating disorders, included testimony from a man whose early life traumas caused him to weigh 724 pounds by the time he was 34 and from another man who gained and lost 100 pounds 4 times throughout his life.4

Exercise addiction, sometimes called Anorexia Athleticism, is also prevalent among men with eating disorders.1 These addictions usually stem from a cultural aversion to softness, particularly in men.6 Many of the behaviors characteristic of this addiction are similar to those of anorexia, including restlessness, physical over-activity, and self-starvation.1 This addiction can also lead men to develop substance abuse problems, particularly with steroids. Over two million men in the United States have reported using anabolic steroids at some point in their lives, and while these drugs do not have any immediate effects, they can have disastrous physical and emotional long-term effects, such as high cholesterol, depression, and prostate enlargement.1

How do we treat men with eating disorders?

Because there are so few studies on men with eating disorders, there is not enough substantive literature that indicates how (or if) eating disorder treatment should vary between men and women. However, there are some known factors to bear in mind when treating male eating disorder clients. While women are more susceptible to developing eating pathology if they have a history of feeling fat, men have a much greater risk of developing an eating disorder if they were actually obese during childhood.1 Additionally, men who have a history of sexual trauma are more prone to develop an eating disorder due to the body image disturbance that can occur as a result of their abuse.1 Men who experience a sexual assault can also develop a drive to build their muscle mass because they believe that becoming stronger and more masculine will make them more prepared in the event of a future threat.1 Additionally, depression can be a major cause of eating disorders, but since depression is also stigmatized as a “feminine” disease, it can go severely underreported.1

Men who have confusion surrounding their sexuality may find comfort in starvation, especially because anorexia can lower their testosterone levels and lead to asexuality, so by wiping out their sexuality altogether they no longer have to cope with the internal worry.1 However, this can make treatment much more difficult because regaining weight will unleash any sexual feelings they may have been repressing, which restarts the sexual discovery many men dread. Eating disorders are also common among men who identify with an “undifferentiated” or “feminine” gender role. Therefore, understanding the sexuality and gender of a male patient is imperative in order to grasp the underlying influences for one’s eating disorder.

Finally, many male eating disorder clients who engage in excessive exercise have Muscle Dysmorphia, which is categorized as an obsession with one’s body or muscle size.1 However, since there are no official diagnostic criteria relating to food or diet, it is not technically considered an eating disorder, even though the symptoms and treatment suggestions are almost identical to those for eating disorders.1 Therefore, treatment practitioners must be able to identify the ways in which Muscle Dysmorphia manifests and may contribute or cause an eating disorder.1

Although there is still major progress to be made in the depiction of eating disorders as diseases that affect all genders, there is promising evidence to suggest that men can successfully recover from eating disorders. However, because men are taught a completely unique set of beauty standards, their eating disorders manifest in many different ways and they require specialized treatment that reflects these cultural gender differences. The sooner we abandon the stereotypical notion that eating disorders exclusively affect one group of people, the quicker we can pave the way for reduced stigma, access to recovery, and a bright future for all eating disorder clients.

http://www.emilyprogram.com/blog/eating-disorders-in-men

Navigating the Holidays

Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders

The holidays can be stressful for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. We get it. A lot happens this time of year—extra family time, busy schedules, social gatherings—and most of it centers on food.

To help you prepare for the upcoming holidays, our staff has come up with some tips and words of encouragement. Add any or all of them to your recovery tool box for Thanksgiving and other upcoming holiday events.

  • Continue doing what works for you despite the fact that your schedule may change, stress may increase, and time may be short.
  • Remember: it’s progress, not perfection.
  • Have a plan for food and skills to use during the day.
  • Keep practicing self-care by feeding yourself, getting enough water, moving when/if/how it makes sense for your body, resting when you need to, and connecting with others.
  • All foods fit, and your body knows how to use them.
  • Allow yourself to ask for more support from others you trust, whether that be family, friends, or treatment team members.
  • Remember that although it may seem like everyone is sharing happy memories with their loved ones, not everyone is and it’s okay since that is often real life. Stay away from social media if it allows you to have a more realistic picture of the world.
  • Consider what would make you enjoy the holiday season more, whether that be doing something traditional, such as baking or going to church, or something less traditional, such as getting a pedicure or volunteering. Make the holiday season your season, not something that you think it should be.

Wishing you all a happy holiday season!

The Power Of A Morning Routine

It’s early. You don’t want to move, let alone get up and start the day. You feel drained. You’re cozy, all wrapped up in blankets. Thoughts about all that you should accomplish today floods your mind. You feel overwhelmed, so you hit “SNOOZE” one more time.

Uh oh, now you’ve overslept. You’re running late. Time to get up and rush into the day.

Sound familiar? Mornings are hard, right? Actually, mornings aren’t definitively hard—they can be made easier.

The key to an easier morning is to keep your first waking hour as consistent as possible throughout the weeks. The more we struggle to make decisions, the more energy we deplete. When first starting the day, it’s important to avoid “decision fatigue” by having a set morning routine.

Having a morning routine can increase your energy, productivity and positivity. It also generates momentum, building up to the brain’s peak time for cognitive work (late morning). Here are a few suggestions to include in your morning routine.

Ease Into The Day

It’s easier to lull yourself out of sleep when you’re not rushing into the day. You feel more motivated to open your eyes and let your body properly wake up when you have a little bit of time to lounge in bed without jumping up. After a few minutes of lounging, follow these steps:

  1. Open your curtains and let the natural light energize you. Exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning can improve your alertness and energy during the day.
  2. Put some upbeat tunes on—music lights up the entire brain.
  3. Do some light stretching to get your blood flowing.

These small things can help you start the day in a positive mood, rather than feeling stressed to get up and out the door.

Eat Breakfast

Research shows that those who eat breakfast have more energy than those who wait until lunch to eat. While coffee will help jolt you awake, your body will eventually crash without food. You don’t need to feast first thing in the morning—a healthy snack and lots of water is all that’s needed to start the day off right.

Read

There are many ways to stimulate your brain, but one of the most recommended methods is reading. Reading a book in the morning can start your day in a richly detailed story, “how-to” or narrative, as opposed to a stressful, overflowing to-do list.

Reading is considered a “mental break,” because the brain is only focusing on one thing rather than the usual eight things. You can’t multitask while reading a book, and what you’re focusing on causes you to think, use imagination and create your own visual imagery. It’s this type of focus that gets our minds more nimble and creative. As the saying goes: “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”

Stimulate Your Body

Speaking of, you should also exercise in the morning. Exercise increases production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, which enhances the body’s ability to deal with stressors and creates a post-workout feeling of bliss. Research shows that you are more creative and productive for the two hours following exercise. It also shows that people who exercise regularly are less stressed at work and more able to maintain work-life balance.

Begin Work With A Proactive Mindset

Psychologist Ron Friedman explains in an interview with Harvard Business Review that our usual start to the work day—checking email, answering questions or listening to voicemails—is, as he says, “cognitively expensive.” Starting the day this way puts you into a “reactive” mindset, and while switching from a proactive mindset to a reactive mindset is easy, the reverse is much more challenging. Instead, he suggests starting the workday with a brief planning session: strategize first, execute second.

Using these tips, here’s an example of what a healthy morning routine could look like:

6:55-7:00 – Slowly wake up, and open your eyes.
7:00-7:15 – Open the curtains, put on energizing music and do some light stretching.
7:15-7:30 – Eat some fruit and almonds for breakfast.
7:30-8:00 – Read and drink tea or water to get the mind stimulated and the body hydrated.
8:00-8:30 – Shower (don’t forget to sing!) and get ready for work.
8:30-9:00 – Walk to work to get in some moderate exercise.
9:00-9:15 – Begin work with a planning session to strategize your day.

As you can see, this routine takes two hours from the time you wake up until you get to work. While it may be difficult to find the extra time, you will find yourself reaping only benefits throughout the day. Many people don’t like getting up early, but this is the type of routine that can help you actually enjoy mornings.

Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator at NAMI.

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/August-2017/The-Power-of-a-Morning-Routine

33 Things All Daughters of Strong Women Will Relate to

My mom is not only a strong mother, but a strong woman.

She’s the woman who packed up her tiny life to move to NYC at 16 years-old. She’s the woman who had a special needs child, and then another child after that – on her own.

She’s the woman who started her own business with no college degree, and made it to the top in a man’s world. She is strength and dignity and beauty all wrapped into one.

Any girl who grew up with a mother like this – the kind who won’t take no for an answer; the kind who will drive two hours to pick you up in the middle of the night; the kind who can solve any problem with a phone call – has learned a few things from her.

Mom’s words will always be the loudest ones in your head. They will always ring clear when you need that extra push from her tenacious, compassionate, lionesse-heart. From being her daughter, she has taught you so much about being a woman:

  1. When someone tells you that you can’t do something, do it anyways. And do it well.
  2. You can go it alone. And it’s better to be alone than unhappy with someone else.
  3. Don’t apologize for being successful. Never apologize for being great.
  4. Or for having a voice. It’s better to speak up and be wrong, than to not speak up at all.
  5. Empower other women, don’t compete with them.
  6. Brush it off. There will always be people who put you down, but don’t mind them. Their shittiness is more about them than it is about you.
  7. Do things that make you feel pretty. When you feel beautiful inside, you look beautiful outside.
  8. Be humble. Big-headed people are just insecure.
  9. Always have a little black dress in your closet. And sometimes two.
  10. Don’t let other people’s accomplishments intimidate you. Use it to feed your hunger for success.
  11. Do your squats. Feel blessed to have that big booty.
  12. Don’t go to sleep with your makeup on. In 20 years you’ll be thankful.
  13. It’s okay to love yourself. It doesn’t make you narcissistic; it makes you confident.
  14. In order to lift yourself up, don’t knock someone else down. It won’t get you anywhere bigger, better, or faster.
  15. Don’t compare yourself to other women. It won’t make you better.
  16. Take pride in being a woman. We’re so much luckier than men are. *wink*
  17. Your body’s a temple. Respect it; be kind to it; love it.
  18. Use condoms. Seriously.
  19. Do your kegels. Seriously.
  20. Don’t write your story before you’ve even opened the book. Things change, plans change; life happens.
  21. Don’t let boys be mean to you. Don’t cry over anyone who wouldn’t cry over you.
  22. Forgiving someone doesn’t make you a doormat. It makes you healthy.
  23. And apologizing doesn’t make you weak. It shows growth.
  24. Accept a compliment with a smile. But inside you can scream FUCK. YEAH.
  25. If a man wants to give you a gift, let him. And no, it doesn’t mean you owe him something.
  26. It’s okay to cry. And to laugh, and to scream. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
  27. Sleeping around won’t make you feel good. Your body should only be shared with the special ones.
  28. Focus your energy on making yourself better, not making others worse.
  29. Wear red lipstick, and own it.
  30. If someone wrongs you, let it go, and move on. Success is the best revenge.
  31. Primping should feel like a treat, not like a job.
  32. Don’t aim to be perfect, aim to be human.
  33. The three best things in life are chocolate, champagne, and sex.And that’s the truth.

http://www.puckermob.com/relationships/all-daughters-of-strong-women-will-relate-to

It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are

Trigger Warning: Self Harm, Suicide

A well-documented feature of trauma, one familiar to many, is our inability to articulate what happens to us. We not only lose our words, but something happens with our memory as well. During a traumatic incident, our thought processes become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button has been pressed, causing us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our day-to-day lives. Unconsciously, we could find ourselves reacting to certain people, events, or situations in old, familiar ways that echo the past.

Sigmund Freud identified this pattern more than one hundred years ago. Traumatic reenactment, or “repetition compulsion,” as Freud coined it, is an attempt of the unconscious to replay what’s unresolved, so we can “get it right.” This unconscious drive to relive past events could be one of the mechanisms at work when families repeat unresolved traumas in future generations.

Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung also believed that what remains unconscious does not dissolve, but rather resurfaces in our lives as fate or fortune. “Whatever does not emerge as Consciousness,” he said, “returns as Destiny.” In other words, we’re likely to keep repeating our unconscious patterns until we bring them into the light of awareness. Both Jung and Freud noted that whatever is too difficult to process does not fade away on its own, but rather is stored in our unconscious.

Freud and Jung each observed how fragments of previously blocked, suppressed, or repressed life experience would show up in the words, gestures, and behaviors of their patients. For decades to follow, therapists would see clues such as slips of the tongue, accident patterns, or dream images as messengers shining a light into the unspeakable and unthinkable regions of their clients’ lives.

Recent advances in imaging technology have allowed researchers to unravel the brain and bodily functions that “misfire” or break down during overwhelming episodes. Bessel van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist known for his research on post-traumatic stress. He explains that during a trauma, the speech center shuts down, as does the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for experiencing the present moment. He describes the “speechless terror” of trauma as the experience of being at a “loss for words”, a common occurrence when brain pathways of remembering are hindered during periods of threat or danger. “When people relive their traumatic experiences,” he says, “the frontal lobes become impaired and, as result, they have trouble thinking and speaking. They are no longer capable of communicating to either themselves or to others precisely what’s going on.”

Still, all is not silent: words, images, and impulses that fragment following a traumatic event reemerge to form a secret language of our suffering we carry with us. Nothing is lost. The pieces have just been rerouted.

Emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of the individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as a part of the whole picture. Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.

The following story offers a vivid example. When I first met Jesse, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year. His insomnia was evident in the dark shadows around his eyes, but the blankness of his stare suggested a deeper story. Though only twenty, Jesse looked at least ten years older. He sank onto my sofa as if his legs could no longer bear his weight.

Jesse explained that he had been a star athlete and a straight-A student, but that his persistent insomnia had initiated a downward spiral of depression and despair. As a result, he dropped out of college and had to forfeit the baseball scholarship he’d worked so hard to win. He desperately sought help to get his life back on track. Over the past year, he’d been to three doctors, two psychologists, a sleep clinic, and a naturopathic physician. Not one of them, he related in a monotone, was able to offer any real insight or help. Jesse, gazing mostly at the floor as he shared his story, told me he was at the end of his rope.

When I asked whether he had any ideas about what might have triggered his insomnia, he shook his head. Sleep had always come easily for Jesse. Then, one night just after his nineteenth birthday, he woke suddenly at 3:30 a.m. He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried. Three hours and several blankets later, Jesse was still wide awake. Not only was he cold and tired, he was seized by a strange fear he had never experienced before, a fear that something awful could happen if he let himself fall back to sleep. If I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up. Every time he felt himself drifting off, the fear would jolt him back into wakefulness. The pattern repeated itself the next night, and the night after that. Soon insomnia became a nightly ordeal. Jesse knew his fear was irrational, yet he felt helpless to put an end to it.

I listened closely as Jesse spoke. What stood out for me was one unusual detail—he’d been extremely cold, “freezing” he said, just prior to the first episode. I began to explore this with Jesse, and asked him if anyone on either side of the family suffered a trauma that involved being “cold,” or being “asleep,” or being “nineteen.”

Jesse revealed that his mother had only recently told him about the tragic death of his father’s older brother—an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm just north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Tracks in the snow revealed that he had been struggling to hang on. Eventually, he was found facedown in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia. His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again. Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death—specifically, the terror of letting go into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

Making the connection was a turning point for Jesse. Once he grasped that his insomnia had its origin in an event that occurred thirty years earlier, he finally had an explanation for his fear of falling asleep. The process of healing could now begin. With tools Jesse learned in our work together, which will be detailed later in this book, he was able to disentangle himself from the trauma endured by an uncle he’d never met, but whose terror he had unconsciously taken on as his own. Not only did Jesse feel freed from the heavy fog of insomnia, he gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.

In an attempt to explain stories such as Jesse’s, scientists are now able to identify biological markers— evidence that traumas can and do pass down from one generation to the next. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is one of the world’s leading experts in post-traumatic stress, a true pioneer in this field. In numerous studies, Yehuda has examined the neurobiology of PTSD in Holocaust survivors and their children. Her research on cortisol in particular (the stress hormone that helps our body return to normal after we experience a trauma) and its effects on brain function has revolutionized the understanding and treatment of PTSD worldwide. (People with PTSD relive feelings and sensations associated with a trauma despite the fact that the trauma occurred in the past. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, nightmares, frightening thoughts, and being easily startled or “on edge.”)

Yehuda and her team found that children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD were born with low cortisol levels similar to their parents, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation. Her discovery of low cortisol levels in people who experience an acute traumatic event has been controversial, going against the long-held notion that stress is associated with high cortisol levels. Specifically, in cases of chronic PTSD, cortisol production can become suppressed, contributing to the low levels measured in both survivors and their children.

Yehuda discovered similar low cortisol levels in war veterans, as well as in pregnant mothers who developed PTSD after being exposed to the World Trade Center attacks, and in their children. Not only did she find that the survivors in her study produced less cortisol, a characteristic they can pass on to their children, she notes that several stress-related psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, chronic pain syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome, are associated with low blood levels of cortisol. Interestingly, 50 to 70 percent of PTSD patients also meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression or another mood or anxiety disorder.

Yehuda’s research demonstrates that you and I are three times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD if one of our parents had PTSD, and as a result, we’re likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. She believes that this type of generational PTSD is inherited rather than occurring from our being exposed to our parents’ stories of their ordeals. Yehuda was one of the first researchers to show how descendants of trauma survivors carry the physical and emotional symptoms of traumas they do not directly experience.

That was the case with Gretchen. After years of taking antidepressants, attending talk and group therapy sessions, and trying various cognitive approaches for mitigating the effects of stress, her symptoms of depression and anxiety remained unchanged.

Gretchen told me she no longer wanted to live. For as long as she could remember, she had struggled with emotions so intense she could barely contain the surges in her body. Gretchen had been admitted several times to a psychiatric hospital where she was diagnosed as bipolar with a severe anxiety disorder. Medication brought her slight relief, but never touched the powerful suicidal urges that lived inside her. As a teenager, she would self-injure by burning herself with the lit end of a cigarette. Now, at thirty-nine, Gretchen had had enough. Her depression and anxiety, she said, had prevented her from ever marrying and having children. In a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone of voice, she told me that she was planning to commit suicide before her next birthday.

Listening to Gretchen, I had the strong sense that there must be significant trauma in her family history. In such cases, I find it’s essential to pay close attention to the words being spoken for clues to the traumatic event underlying a client’s symptoms.

When I asked her how she planned to kill herself, Gretchen said that she was going to vaporize herself. As incomprehensible as it might sound to most of us, her plan was literally to leap into a vat of molten steel at the mill where her brother worked. “My body will incinerate in seconds,” she said, staring directly into my eyes, “even before it reaches the bottom.”

I was struck by her lack of emotion as she spoke. Whatever feeling lay beneath appeared to have been vaulted deep inside. At the same time, the words vaporize and incinerate rattled inside me. Having worked with many children and grandchildren whose families were affected by the Holocaust, I’ve learned to let their words lead me. I wanted Gretchen to tell me more.

I asked if anyone in her family was Jewish or had been involved in the Holocaust. Gretchen started to say no, but then stopped herself and recalled a story about her grandmother. She had been born into a Jewish family in Poland, but converted to Catholicism when she came to the United States in 1946 and married Gretchen’s grandfather. Two years earlier, her grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz. They had literally been gassed—engulfed in poisonous vapors—and incinerated. No one in Gretchen’s immediate family ever spoke to her grandmother about the war, or about the fate of her siblings or her parents. Instead, as is often the case with such extreme trauma, they avoided the subject entirely.

Gretchen knew the basic facts of her family history, but had never connected it to her own anxiety and depression. It was clear to me that the words she used and the feelings she described didn’t originate with her, but had in fact originated with her grandmother and the family members who lost their lives.

As I explained the connection, Gretchen listened intently. Her eyes widened and color rose in her cheeks. I could tell that what I said was resonating. For the first time, Gretchen had an explanation for her suffering that made sense to her.

To help her deepen her new understanding, I invited her to imagine standing in her grandmother’s shoes, represented by a pair of foam rubber footprints that I placed on the carpet in the center of my office. I asked her to imagine feeling what her grandmother might have felt after having lost all her loved ones. Taking it even a step further, I asked her if she could literally stand on the footprints as her grandmother, and feel her grandmother’s feelings in her own body. Gretchen reported sensations of overwhelming loss and grief, aloneness and isolation. She also experienced the profound sense of guilt that many survivors feel, the sense of remaining alive while loved ones have been killed.

In order to process trauma, it’s often helpful for clients to have a direct experience of the feelings and sensations that have been submerged in the body. When Gretchen was able to access these sensations, she realized that her wish to annihilate herself was deeply entwined with her lost family members. She also realized that she had taken on some element of her grandmother’s desire to die. As Gretchen absorbed this understanding, seeing the family story in a new light, her body began to soften, as if something inside her that had long been coiled up could now relax.

As with Jesse, Gretchen’s recognition that her trauma lay buried in her family’s unspoken history was merely the first step in her healing process. An intellectual understanding by itself is rarely enough for a lasting shift to occur. Often, the awareness needs to be accompanied by a deeply felt visceral experience. We’ll explore further the ways in which healing becomes fully integrated so that the wounds of previous generations can finally be released.

An Unexpected Family Inheritance

A boy may have his grandpa’s long legs and a girl may have her mother’s nose, but Jesse had inherited his uncle’s fear of never waking, and Gretchen carried the family’s Holocaust history in her depression. Sleeping inside each of them were fragments of traumas too great to be resolved in one generation.

When those in our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered with immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and can escalate beyond what they can manage or resolve. It’s human nature; when pain is too great, people tend to avoid it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the necessary healing process that can lead us to a natural release.

Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain. For Jesse, the unrelenting cold and shivering did not appear until he reached the age that his Uncle Colin was when he froze to death. For Gretchen, her grandmother’s anxious despair and suicidal urges had been with her for as long as she could remember. These feelings became so much a part of her life that no one ever thought to consider that the feelings didn’t originate with her.

Currently, our society does not provide many options to help people like Jesse and Gretchen who carry remnants of inherited family trauma. Typically they might consult a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist and receive medications, therapy, or some combination of both. But although these avenues might bring some relief, generally they don’t provide a complete solution.

Not all of us have traumas as dramatic as Gretchen’s or Jesse’s in our family history. However, events such as the death of an infant, a child given away, the loss of one’s home, or even the withdrawal of a mother’s attention can all have the effect of collapsing the walls of support and restricting the flow of love in our family. With the origin of these traumas in view, long-standing family patterns can finally be laid to rest. It’s important to note that not all effects of trauma are negative. In the next chapter we’ll learn about epigenetic changes—the chemical modifications that occur in our cells as a result of a traumatic event.

According to Rachel Yehuda, the purpose of an epigenetic change is to expand the range of ways we respond in stressful situations, which she says is a positive thing. “Who would you rather be in a war zone with?” she asks. “Somebody that’s had previous adversity [and] knows how to defend themselves? Or somebody that has never had to fight for anything?” Once we understand what biologic changes from stress and trauma are meant to do, she says, “We can develop a better way of explaining to ourselves what our true capabilities and potentials are.”

Viewed in this way, the traumas we inherit or experience firsthand not only can create a legacy of distress, but also can forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.

https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/an-excerpt-from-it-didnt-start-with-you-how-inherited-family-trauma-shapes-who-we-are-and-how-to-end-the-cycle-viking-april-2016-by-mark-wolynn/