The Science of Suffering: Epigenetics and Trauma Transmission
Imagine you are looking at a book. The words in the book, the story it tells, that’s your DNA. But the way you read the book, the pages you linger on, the ones you skip, that’s epigenetics.
Our bodies ‘read’ our DNA based on our experiences. Traumatic experiences can lead our bodies to read our DNA differently and these changes can be passed on to our children.
Epigenetics studies how behavior and environment can cause changes in the way genes work. Importantly, unlike genetic changes, these changes might be reversible and don’t change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body “reads” a DNA sequence. In the context of trauma, some research has suggested that traumatic experiences can result in epigenetic changes, altering how genes associated with stress response function. For instance, the lasting psychological impact of the Holocaust extends to survivors’ descendants, affecting them beyond just history and potentially even altering their genetics (Yehuda & Bierer, 2008).
A study led by Rachel Yehuda, found that children of Holocaust survivors had similar changes in their DNA, specifically in a gene related to stress hormone regulation. They didn’t go through the traumatic event themselves, yet their bodies are responding as if they did.
Transgenerational Trauma: The Psychology of Inherited Pain
Moving beyond biology, generational trauma leaves a psychological imprint as well. It can color our perception of the world and influence our responses to it.
Children of trauma survivors often have a heightened sense of vigilance and an overarching fear of danger, even when there’s no immediate threat. This is due to a phenomenon known as ‘vicarious traumatization.’
Psychologists suggest that the trauma of our ancestors can affect our stress responses, potentially making us more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.
Individuals unknowingly internalize their ancestors’ traumatic experiences and respond as if they had lived through them themselves. This can have a significant impact on their mental health and social interactions, including leadership styles and behaviors in the workplace.
Research indicates that descendants of trauma survivors may experience:
- Psychological issues: higher risk of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
- Familial disruptions: changes in family dynamics, communication, parenting styles, and relationships.
- Social impact: diminished trust, unity, or support within the community.
- Cultural disconnect: a loss or disconnect from cultural values, traditions, or language.
- Neurobiological alterations: changes in brain structure or function, stress responses, and gene expression.
In the case of second and third-generation Holocaust survivors, generational trauma often manifests as:
- Resilience and Tenacity: Despite their inherited trauma, survivors often exhibit great strength and persistence. They tackle silence and adversity boldly, demonstrating the human spirit’s capacity to persist and prosper amidst inherited sorrow.
- Anxiety and Hypervigilance: In work settings, survivors may frequently be on high alert for danger, even in safe surroundings. This heightened vigilance can cause anxiety and stress, hindering focus and work performance (Yehuda & Hoge, 2008).
- Distrust: Survivors may have trouble trusting colleagues, even without a concrete reason for doubt. This can hamper relationship building and teamwork (Yehuda, Halligan, & Bierer, 2002).
- Need for Control: A strong desire to control their environment can lead survivors to micromanage and hesitate to delegate tasks. This can be frustrating for team members and hinder productivity (Herman, 1997).
Recognizing the complexity of generational trauma, with both its positive and negative impacts, is essential. With this understanding, we can create a supportive, empathetic environment for those affected by generational trauma.
How Generational Trauma Manifests in the Workplace
It is crucial to avoid sweeping generalizations about an entire group, recognizing that experiences and traits can vary widely among Holocaust survivors and their descendants. That being said, trauma, including generational trauma, can have both positive and negative impacts on individuals’ leadership and communication styles.
In the workplace, the impacts of transgenerational trauma often translate into determined resilience, shaped by narrative of survival against immense suffering (Sagi-Schwartz et al., 2003). This fuels an enduring work ethic and tenacity in facing professional challenges.
Driven by a quest for justice and equality, these individuals often become champions of fairness in their workplace relationships. They exhibit heightened empathy, compassion, and a keen sensitivity towards discrimination or bias. These traits have the potential to foster team cohesion and cultivate a more inclusive and diverse work environment (Kellermann, 2013).
Work ethic can also be impacted by generational trauma. Some survivors and their descendants may have a strong work ethic that reflects their survival instinct, resilience, perseverance, or sense of responsibility. They may work hard to achieve success, security, or recognition. They may also value education, learning, or self-improvement as a way to cope with trauma or prevent future oppression. Often, such survivors and their descendants have a high work motivation that reflects their passion, purpose, or meaning in their work.
However, the undercurrent of trauma can also give rise to hyper-vigilance and an intense focus on security and stability. This perspective influences their decision-making process, leading to a cautious and meticulous approach when navigating professional obstacles. They may be assertive, decisive, or confident in leading others. They may also be demanding, rigid, or inflexible in setting goals or expectations.
The hyperawareness and vigilance can lead to anxiety, and the strong bias towards fairness could potentially lead to indecisiveness in difficult situations. This is why understanding and being aware of the impact of generational trauma is so important in leadership.”
Generational Impact on Leadership
Descendants of Holocaust survivors often exhibit leadership styles shaped by an ingrained sense of moral purpose and social justice rooted in their familial legacy. Many adopt transformational, authentic, and servant leadership approaches, leveraging their experiences to motivate and inspire followers towards a shared vision of a more equitable and compassionate world.
Leaders influenced by generational trauma often have a strong protective instinct, a heightened sense of justice and fairness, and a profound commitment to their teams. This is because they carry within them the echoes of their ancestors’ fight for survival and justice.
Research also indicates that leaders carrying generational trauma may exhibit heightened empathy and attunement to the emotional states of their team members. A study conducted by Bar-On, Eland, Kleber, & Krell (1998) found that second and third-generation Holocaust survivors often exhibit high levels of emotional intelligence, a crucial trait in effective leadership.
- Transformational leadership: Transformational leadership, in particular, emerges as a powerful force for positive change, as these leaders channel their inherited trauma. Through transparent communication and appeals to higher ideals and moral values, they motivate followers to transcend self-interest for the collective good. For descendants of the Holocaust, their “higher purpose” stems from a legacy of injustice that fuels their unwavering advocacy for diversity, empathy, and inclusiveness. They may be able to inspire, motivate, or empower others to achieve a common vision or mission. They may also be able to communicate, collaborate, or negotiate with others effectively.
- Authentic Leadership: Similarly, authentic leadership, characterized by self-awareness, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency, allows these individuals to establish credibility and trust. Their communication style tends to be emotionally intelligent, visionary, and resonates with followers’ own experiences of marginalization or the yearning for purpose. This leadership approach cultivates empowerment and commitment in teams, anchored by a shared belief in the intrinsic worth of every individual.
- Authoritarian Leadership: Still, some survivors and their descendants may have an authoritarian or directive leadership style that reflects their need for control, order, or security. They may be assertive, decisive, or confident in leading others. They may also be demanding, rigid, or inflexible in setting goals or expectations.
While academic and psychological research on the communication styles of second and third-generation Holocaust survivors remains relatively limited, some general observations on communication styles emerge from existing literature:
- Emotional Avoidance: Descendants may exhibit a tendency towards emotional avoidance or repression due to the intergenerational transmission of trauma. This can manifest as difficulty expressing emotions, avoiding discussions about the past, or a preference for silence on traumatic topics.
- Indirect Communication Style: Descendants may employ indirect communication styles, using metaphor, storytelling, or nonverbal cues to convey their experiences or emotions related to the Holocaust. This indirectness may stem from cultural influences, familial dynamics, or the desire to protect themselves and others from the pain associated with the traumatic past.
- Social Responsibility: Research suggests that second and third-generation Holocaust survivors often possess a strong sense of social responsibility and a commitment to justice. Their family history and awareness of their ancestors’ suffering can shape their leadership approach by prioritizing ethical decision-making, promoting inclusivity, and advocating for human rights.
- Empathy and Sensitivity: Descendants of Holocaust survivors may demonstrate heightened empathy and sensitivity towards the experiences of others. This manifests in leadership approaches that prioritize active listening, empathy, and the creation of a supportive and compassionate work environment.
- Awareness of Power Dynamics: In light of the historical context of oppression and trauma surrounding the Holocaust, descendants may display heightened awareness of power dynamics and exhibit a commitment to equitable leadership practices.
My Personal Encounter with Generational Trauma and Leadership
Exploring the concept of generational trauma in an abstract sense, based on academic research, is fascinating. However, to truly understand its manifestations, it’s helpful to dive into a lived experience. So, I will share my own; one that intertwines the legacy of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor with my identity as a woman in technology and a lesbian.
The echoes of my grandmother’s Auschwitz experience, tales of horrific atrocities and humbling survival, served as my moral compass since I was a child. It pushed me to break the silence, face the antisemitism of my youth head-on, and vow to never stand by in the face of discrimination. My grandmother’s stories, fraught with unthinkable terror yet colored by a tenacious will to survive, fueled my resolve to confront any challenge head on. And as I carved a niche for myself in the largely male-dominated tech industry, I grappled with yet another facet of my identity – my sexuality.
This struggle highlights a recurring theme in generational trauma literature – the continuous negotiation between personal identity and social expectation, between the longing for acceptance and the fear of marginalization (Bar-On, Eland, Kleber, & Krell, 1998). Like many others inheriting generational trauma, I lived in the confines of the closet, driven by the fear of being reduced to a stereotype or labeled solely based on my sexuality.
My path to acceptance was marred by the challenge of aligning my personal identity with societal views. The fear of being solely identified by my sexuality, of losing hard-earned respect, and of being seen as ‘other,’ kept me in the closet. This fear resonates with those carrying generational trauma, especially when multiple marginalized identities are involved (Yehuda, Schmeidler, Giller, Siever, & Binder-Brynes, 1998). The dread of being restricted to the ‘gay’ label overshadowed my accomplishments.
Academic research highlights the immense pressure faced by individuals juggling multiple marginalized identities. For second and third-generation Holocaust survivors like me, this pressure escalates due to a deeply rooted fear of injustice and silence (Danieli, 1998). However, resilience, a trait imprinted on us through our ancestors’ experiences, shines as a beacon of hope.
For me, resilience sparked the courage to overcome fear, accept my sexuality, and claim my diverse identity. This decision wasn’t just about acknowledging my sexual orientation, but also recognizing my entire self and asserting my right to be appreciated for who I am, not just what I am. Coming out was more than revealing my identity; it was about challenging deeply rooted prejudices and the fear of labeling.
Now, as a leader, my experiences fuel my empathy and dedication to cultivating an inclusive environment. My commitment to opposing discrimination and the understanding that silence sustains prejudice guide my actions. I strongly believe the workplace should reflect the diversity of our world, and as a leader, it’s my duty to ensure it does.
Thus, the story of generational Holocaust trauma transforms from a narrative of inherited suffering to a testament of resilience. It evolves into a tale of hope, determination, and transformation, illustrating how individuals like me can turn inherited trauma into a driving force for change, advocacy, and leadership.
Transcending Trauma: The Emergence of Hope
Despite the weight of their traumatic legacy, descendants of Holocaust survivors often embody an extraordinary manifestation of hope. This hope represents a forward-looking stance, a longing to transcend the horrors of the past and envision a future free from such inhumanity. It is a testament to their resilience and unwavering determination, aiming to construct a world that celebrates diversity and upholds the inherent dignity of every individual.
In professional settings, this hope becomes a catalyst for innovation and forward-thinking strategies. Leaders who carry this generational legacy inspire hope within their teams, motivating them to overcome obstacles and strive for a brighter future. By transforming adversity into strength, they set an example that ignites a shared vision of a more inclusive and equitable world among their team members.
The Journey Beyond: From Trauma to Triumph
Undoubtedly, the profound shadow of the Holocaust shapes the worldview of second and third-generation survivors, influencing their professional paths and leadership styles. Yet, within this legacy, a beacon of hope emerges—a testament to the unwavering pursuit of a compassionate world.
Our identities are complex tapestries woven from personal experiences, familial legacies, and societal norms. For me, coming out was an act of resistance against marginalization and an embrace of an identity obscured by societal expectations. This journey, though challenging, was vital for asserting my complete identity and striving for authenticity.
My story, as a woman in the tech industry, a second-generation Holocaust survivor, and a lesbian, emphasizes the significance of embracing multifaceted identities. It demonstrates how these experiences shape leadership styles, instilling empathy, courage, and a profound commitment to inclusivity. I lead not despite my experiences, but because of them—challenging prejudice, advocating for diversity, and fostering inclusivity.
On a broader scale, this narrative illuminates the transformative power of generational trauma. Descendants of Holocaust survivors transform inherited suffering into resilience, change, and empathetic leadership. They bring unique perspectives to the workplace, cultivating environments where everyone, regardless of their identity, feels valued.
Identifying the signs of generational trauma and understanding its influence
Recognizing generational trauma can be complex as it often manifests subtly and subconsciously. Common indicators could include heightened stress responses, a pervasive fear of danger, and deeply ingrained beliefs and behaviors reflective of past traumas.
To truly understand its influence, we must embark on a journey of introspection, exploring our familial histories and their interplay with our present selves. As we uncover these inherited narratives, we can better understand their impact on our leadership styles and behaviors
We’re not just passive recipients of our ancestral experiences. We can recognize their influence, but we also have the power to transform them into sources of strength and empathy.
We can foster a culture of open communication, encouraging team members to share their thoughts, concerns, and experiences. This culture of openness can make everyone feel seen, heard, and valued.
Promoting mental health and well-being is equally crucial, through mindfulness exercises, regular breaks, and access to mental health resources.
And, let’s not forget about cultivating a supportive environment, providing mentorship, and promoting work-life balance.
By adopting these strategies, we can harness our inherited narratives, creating more compassionate and inclusive workspaces.
In conclusion, the tale of generational Holocaust trauma stands as a testament to humanity’s unwavering resilience, boundless courage, and enduring hope. It teaches us that our past does not confine us; instead, it molds our character, fueling our resilience and paving the way for triumphs. So let us not forget that our identities, no matter how complex, carry within them the potential for profound change and resilience. As we navigate our own journeys, let’s continue to break barriers, challenge prejudices, and uphold empathy and inclusivity in all spaces we occupy.
- Bar-On, D., Eland, J., Kleber, R. J., & Krell, R. (1998). Multigenerational perspectives on coping with the Holocaust experience: An attachment perspective for understanding the developmental sequelae of trauma across generations. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 22(2), 315-338.
- Sagi-Schwartz, A., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Grossmann, K. E., Joels, T., Grossmann, K., Scharf, M., Koren-Karie, N., & Alkalay, S. (2003). Attachment and htraumatic stress in female Holocaust child survivors and their daughters. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 160(6), 1086-1092.
- Kellermann, N. P. (2013). Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: Can nightmares be inherited? The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 50(1), 33–39.
- Danieli, Y. (1998). International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. Plenum Press.
- Kellermann, N. P. (2001). The long-term psychological effects and treatment of Holocaust trauma. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 6(3), 197-218.
- Yehuda, R., & Bierer, L. M. (2008). Transgenerational transmission of cortisol and PTSD risk. Progress in brain research, 167, 121-135.
- Johns AN, Brown LS, Cromer LD. Examining intergenerational transmission of Holocaust trauma as it relates to Jewish identity, communication type, and mental well-being. J Trauma Stress. 2022 Oct;35(5):1497-1507. doi: 10.1002/jts.22856. Epub 2022 Jun 22. PMID: 35733300.