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When someone says something to you along the lines of “Oh wow you look just like your aunt!” or “your grandmother had the same kind of humor”, you immediately understand the genetic connection between yourself and your family member.
The inheritability of physical or personality traits is a well-known and accepted fact. But what about the mystery of how the emotional lives of our ancestors and their life experiences could affect our well-being? Could it be that the ways of relating to ourselves, others, and the world have been distorted and altered by trauma passed down genetically from our ancestors?
Maybe there are some pieces, especially the ones that feel bigger than us, the “I was just born this way” feeling, are not really belonging to us. Perhaps some of our biggest challenges, and our biggest gifts, are our own - and some are inherited.
Have you ever asked yourself about the stories there could be behind the closed doors you grew up with? How many of your relatives suffered from depression or anxiety? Addiction? Were there suicides? Did they live through war? A history of poverty or unmourned griefs? Anger, rage or violent behaviors? Slavery? Displacement or abandonment?
Can we really ignore the possibility that for example a veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or a trauma survivor of sexual abuse can influence the subsequent generation’s expereince of the world? What about someone with childhood trauma or some other psychological trauma that they experienced from their parents? And how does the stress and collective trauma from the history of African American people or Native American indigenous people for example show up in their offspring today?
Have you ever thought about the idea that some of these unresolved and unhealed trauma in our blood lineage may manifest indirectly in our lives as anxiety, depression, restlessness, substance abuse, mental illness, and even physical illness?
I spoke with Tanya Rosenthal, an expert in ancestral trauma who has more than 15 years of experience as a body-focused coach, psychotherapist, Kundalini yoga teacher, musician healer, and medicine women with Behold Retreats. She was inspired by several mystical, shamanic and yogic healing traditions and integrates her expertise with a unique blend of compassion, wisdom and humour. As a plant medicine facilitator she holds space to bring light deep-rooted and persistent traumas, core wounds and hidden obstructive patterns in family, women's and men's lineages - providing foundation for transformation, healing, and integration.
She specializes in deep body and process work, sex and intimacy coaching, trauma work, ancestral medicine work and healing the feminine.
Tanya works with Behold’s guests through both online therapy, in-person therapy, and on retreat.
The core wound is never the same as the symptom. Our patterns and wounds manifest in various ways in our relationships, careers, finances, and the way we view the world. They feel ingrained in us, sometimes unexplainable, and they hold us back from our true potential and how we want to show up in the world.
In my own life, for a very long time, I felt a deep sense of heaviness and fear that I would not have enough, that I was never really going to be safe in the future. A feeling of lack and scarcity, which led me to behave sometimes in a greedy way or limited me in what I thought I was capable of. Even though I always had enough; there was always enough food on the table, friends and family to support me, love to give and receive, opportunities to succeed, places to discover.
Yet…this feeling resided in me on a very deep and unexplainable level. I fortunately never had any noticeable ‘traumatic event’ happen to me in my childhood or any major life stress. It wasn’t until I sat with ayahuasca that I was able to recognize the source of this feeling (intergenerational trauma that did not belong to me), and release it. I relate to it now in a completely different way and I feel liberated. But we will get to how psychedelics like ayahuasca can assist in healing ancestral wounds a bit later.
What follows is some of the takeaway from my interview with trauma therapist and medicine woman Tanya Rosenthal on systemic /ancestral wounds, blockages, and what is limiting people to be their highest self for the greatest good, and most importantly how we can reprogram and make peace in our systems to “break the chain” of ancestral trauma.
The idea that individual and collective trauma can also be passed down to future generations is a relatively new one, or at least has been better recognized by society in more recent times. The concept of intergenerational trauma was first recognized around 1966 when psychologists began to study family members (children and grandchildren) of people who had survived the Holocaust.
In one study from 1988 on referrals to psychiatric care, it was found that the grandchildren from Hololcaust survivors were overrepresented by around 300%, leading researchers to theorize that the effects of historical trauma or overwhelming life experiences can be transferred from one generation to to the next, known as epigenetic inheritance.
Tanya confirms that clinical research based on neurology shows that experience and knowledge in our system and body contains information from our blood lineage and ancestry. Studies in neurobiology and psychiatry show how big, overwhelming, or painful experiences can change or shape our DNA. These burdens or blessings are stored in our cell memory and produce genetic changes. She explains how “it can feel like ‘this is bigger than me,’ ‘I was born this way,’ or ‘there’s no point trying to change,’” and that “every experience that is not healed or being resolved is somewhere in the information field of our bodies.”
There is evidence that trauma alter’s people’s genes, and so genetic variations could be passed down through generations which can predispose thier recipients to be sensitive to subsequent traumas and stressors. The study of epigenetics shows us how generational trauma is passed on through our genes and is held in our nervous systems which affects our psyche; these genes might trigger a flight, fight, or fawn response in our nervous system.
But the way these transgenerational DNA patterns and traumas are activated depends on the life of each person and their circumstances. For example, Tanya gives an example of one sibling in a family that might trust in life, flow, and create, while the other sibling might feel totally different. They might have a sense that they don’t belong, they are not seen or acknowledged, or that something is wrong with them - and it feels like it’s coming out of nowhere. This is a symptom of transgenerational trauma, she says.
It can manifest differently for everyone. Stress, eating disorders, addiction, psychiatric conditions, and other mental health issues - are often based on systemic material being activated or passed on to next generations.
Regardless of our identity, we as humans have the same core wounds around belonging, bonding, abandonment and attachment, our needs being met, safety, love and fulfilling our dreams. What differs is our storyline, which is what creates the depth and complexity of our ancestral healing process.
In this way, trauma can be passed on behaviourally as well to subsequent generations. For example parental trauma; a child raised by someone who suffers from anxiety or depression can learn and internalize ways of thinking and behaving from the parent, a child with a parent who reacts with rage and anger can pick up and store those emotions themselves, and a child who does not receive the love and support from their suffering parent that they need will learn unhealthy ways of relating and attaching to others.
Everyone can take a step back and recognize patterns in the family; for example, the way women in the family relate to men, what love means, how children are raised, etc. We learn these styles of attachment and love from our families. If a parent is depressed and too empty to be present for their children, this gets passed onto the next generation. If parents of a child didn't get the support they needed and didn’t learn about healthy relationships, these unresolved traumas are given to their children. “It’s a difference if we are getting a supportive family and village versus not…we’re little particles of human individuals, absorbing this collective DNA, already conditioned by how our mothers or fathers were feeling ” Tanya says.
These are the things from life we get that are not ours, they do not belong to us, they are something we absorb. As a child, we did not have a choice or were aware of this. We just think, “this is how life is, how the world works, who we are” and if we remain unaware, unconscious, and asleep, we might not be able to change.
If we do not acknowledge the events of the generations before us, and write them off as a “normal” part of human existence, they can create a wound inside our psyches, energetic bodies, and behavior patterns. And when this continues to happen without spiritual honouring, ritual, or resetting of the nervous system, we then continue to pass on these ideas and energies onto the next generation.
Ancestral healing is innate to the collective human experience and inherent to our cultural belonging. No matter where we come from, we all have traditions, cultures and ways of honoring our heritage and ancestors. It is original to all humans and has always helped us to create a sense of connection and belonging through rituals that honour life, death, and living cycles.
History moves forward quickly, and our roots are often forgotten. When we do ancestral work we are becoming aware of and honoring the lands we come from, the lives our relatives lived, and how they contributed to their children’s lives and their communities. It is about honoring your lineage and recognizing what has been lost, and observing the patterns within your family and yourself.
When we are able to do so, we are able to change the way we relate to this information. It is to reinterpret and embody both the traumas and blessings of our lineage in a way that resonates with our own thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and actions.
When we begin to do acestral work we begin to restore our nervous system. It is not necessarily only from a psychological or neurological perspective that we can begin to heal, but also from a spiritual and energetic approach as well. At some point, this unresolved trauma which keeps manifesting itself over and over again in our lives and the lives of the generations after us, we have to break the cycle.
This is where you might need to keep an open mind. We can directly connect with our ancestors through ritual, song, and dance to help shift their energy so that you can embody the energy of transformation.
So the first step is to open up to experiencing life in a new way and to commit to take ownership that things can be different in your life. The next step is to become aware by looking into the patterns in your own family and personal life, looking for insights into the core wound. The third step is through the spiritual and energetic realm through something like ritual and inquiry.
For example, as a simple practice to bring awareness into your own ancestral patterns, you can light a candle, meditate, and set an intention to connect to the main ancestral wound limiting you from who you want to be, how you want to change, and the harmony you wish to feel. Write down in your journal anything that wants to be heard for 5-10 minutes. Ask yourself what stories you have been told to support this wound.
Who taught you how to hold that story or wound in your body?
What do you desire to change about it?
My core wound was “we never have enough.”
My desire is “ I am abundant in my life, things flow to me and through me with ease and I feel free to live out my truest desires.”
I then encourage you to find a mentor - a healer, therapist, mental health professional, or a coach who can help you manifest your intention through communal healing. Health care and therapy is becoming more and more inclusive of the idea of the intergenerational transmission of past trauma. Something like Family Constellations therapy can help you place the wounds in the right place not only in your mind but also in your body and neural system. You can ask your ancestors to take responsibilities for their pain and suffering and embody the blessings they offer so the network begins to shift.
Once you have an awareness of these ancestral patterns, you can begin to integrate this insight and relate to the knowledge in a different way, bridging the gap between the body and mind, as Tanya says. This shift is a deep process and requires us to be present with the sensations in the body, rather than to logically think about it. Our nervous system can feel these insights and as it recognizes the new information it creates the right space for this truth which gives us more peace in the overall system. “We are systematically interconnected, and in this systematic ecology, everything has its place. Pain and blockages are misplaced by intergenerational trauma in the body, so when we can see it clearly and feel the truth in relationship with us, we feel the change because our relationship with the experience has changed, and we can place it in the right place in the body by being aware, present, and curious. It is about learning to live with awareness of relating to ancestral knowledge” Tanya says.
That is why many traditions maintain ancestral rituals based on gratitude, “as is it is the emotional state of connectedness to something or someone, and a state of our nervous system where we are grounded and open to receive in a healthy way. Gratitude is the natural law of connectedness. Rituals about what we are grateful for in life, is the most powerful and humble gesture to feel connected and supported.”
Look for the patterns and the signs, and then decide to be aware, and make a choice. It is all about making different choices.
Psychedelic therapy is one powerful way to address intergenerational trauma. “Psychedelics or entheogenic medicines are expanding our consciousness. It is about the essence of life as interconnectedness and an interdependent network of everything … so psychedelic work opens the container and gives the tools and guides people into the process of expansion and awareness in the bigger field” says Tanya.
They are called ancestral medicines for a reason, and our ancestors have been using them for thousands of years to heal and to deepen their spirituality. These medicines, such as ayahuasca and psilocybin work with the information in the cell and the experiences and memories stored there to bring them to our attention and daily consciousness. A traumatic experience in one’s life or an intergenerational trauma from their ancestors might be brought up to one’s consciousness to be seen, felt, and healed.
“These plants are very big teachers. There is no dignity in these spaces. We are little and humble.” Tanya goes on to explain how during a psychedelic ceremony we are shown the lessons from the bigger intelligence that we need to look at in order to get the right connections in our neural system. This is part of neuroplasticity. The parts and patterns that we borrowed without being conscious of are revealed and our minds altered as a result. Psychedelics do the work to repattern our minds. “The body knows, the mind does not. All we need to do is surrender and connect to the deeper truth inside and embrace what happens when we set the intention with our minds.”
“We didn’t see 10-20 years ago many people 20+ or 30+ really looking into the collective field.” Tanya explains why now people are turning to therapy, looking to break their patterns, connect with their inherited trauma… The experience of humanity is cyclical. We are in the middle of a massive collective process facing Covid, and each of us is a tiny particle of human consciousness in the big soup. Each of us needs to become aware of what is needed in the collective field, and we are. We know and we feel. In this cycle of crisis and conflict, like previous big challenges such as the Black Plague, we are creating awareness of change for the next cycle to embark together on collective healing. “Overwhelming experiences in the long term are actually the source of growth, the source of expansion, and the source of new awareness for life. Awareness of the ecology of relating. After the Black Plague, there was a renaissance, an awakening. This is our moment” she concludes.
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