transgenerational trauma – anngwyn st just

Transgenerational trauma

In Coaching, Counselling and Personal Development, Mind and Movement by Dr Anngwyn St JustLeave a Comment

Are some families cursed? Can trauma from past events be passed on to your descendants through inherited genes?

Transgenerational trauma

Throughout cultural history we find the theme of descendants punished for the behaviour of their forebears. We see it in the Bible. Exodus 20:5, “…punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

Versions of this message can be found around the world and extend back through the ages. This frightening notion was a common theme in Greek tragedy and later in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

In modern times the subject of family curses appears in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles. We also have the haunted family theme in Edgar Allan Poe’s American classic, The Fall of the House of Usher. This iconic tale recounts the story of the Usher twins Roderick and ‘Mad Madeline’. As children, they vowed to never have children of their own. This was in order to bring an end to the nightmare saga of a cruel and evil family lineage.

‘The Kennedy curse’

More recently we may observe what has been called the ‘Kennedy curse’ in which many generations of this wealthy and politically powerful dynasty have suffered premature deaths, as well as many accidents and other varied misfortunes.

‘The ancestor syndrome’

Within the psychological realm, French psychiatrist Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger presents her psycho-geneological approach in work with French patients whose families have experienced generations of adversity, devastating life events, and other unresolved traumas in The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree.

Family and systemic constellations

Similar repeating patterns, mapped out in the form of genograms used by many therapists, have taken on physical representation and other dimensions in Bert Hellinger’s innovative family and systemic constellation work which originated in Germany.

Behavioural epigenetics

Now, with the advent of this exciting new field of behavioural epigenetics, it appears that there is a sound biological basis for the transmission of multi-generational patterns. Since the 1970s, researchers have known that our tightly wound spools of DNA within every cell require something to inform them as to exactly which genes to transcribe.

One such element is a common structural component of organic molecules known as the methyl group. This acts something like a placeholder in a cookbook. It attaches to the DNA only those genes necessary for that particular cell’s proteins. Since these methyl groups are attached to genes, alongside but separate from the double helix DNA code, this new area of genetic research was named epigenetics. This comes from the Greek ‘epi’, meaning over, outer, or above. While it was originally believed that epigenetic changes occurred only during foetal development. However, ongoing research reveals that this molecular bric-a-brac can be added on during adulthood as well.

It appears that these methyl groups can attach to DNA as a result of dietary changes, exposure to chemicals, and, I would imagine, radiation too.

Most surprising was the discovery that epigenetic changes could be passed along from parent to child, generation after generation

It was found that methyl group changes could be inherited, much like a genetic mutation. Even more astonishing is the notion that, if diet and chemicals can cause epigenetic changes, experiences such as child abuse and neglect, substance abuse or other negative stresses can also trigger epigenetic changes to the DNA within the human brain.

This notion then became the basis for the even newer field of behavioural epigenetics. According to the premise of behavioural epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our own past, or in that of any of our recent ancestors, can leave what may be termed molecular scars, adhering to our DNA.

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine, after a tsunami recedes, our own overwhelming life experiences, as well as that of our forefathers, may leave a residue which can become an integral part of us. While these experiences may have been forgotten, and the DNA remains the same. Methyl group attachments allow psychological and behavioural tendencies to be inherited. (Dan Haley, Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes, Discovery Magazine, May 12, 2013.)

Holocaust effect

Epigenetic research has profound implications. Not only for an understanding of and resolution of individual trauma, but also for transgenerational and collective trauma involving groups larger than the family. We can now understand that survivors of the Holocaust or any genocidal horror – war or any variety of violent social, religious or political upheaval, cataclysmic disaster, forced migration or immigration, famine, epidemic – are likely to carry more than just memories.

Tendencies – not mandates

Its important to bear in mind that whatever molecular scars may be passed on, they are only tendencies and not mandates. In my own work with transgenerational individual, family, and collective trauma, it seems clear that not all negative experiences leave an imprint; especially those which came to some degree of healing and resolution.

Lies cover-ups and denial

Traumatic experiences that reverberate through generations appear to be those which also involved lies, cover-ups, hidden crimes and denial. While we can find both hope and and challenge within this new field of behavioural epigenetics, it seems clear that resolving our own issues, as best we can, as well as being mindful of long-term consequences of our life decisions, can be an important contribution to the well-being of our descendants.

This article is based on Anngwyn’s blog post, Behavioral Epigenetics –


The team at LivingNow are proud to be affiliated with the following events at which Anngwyn presents. We can offer you a special discount when you use the code LN2019 at registration – details below.


21 February, 2019 – Sydney

LivingNow special discount code: LN2019 – save $60

Full price: $180 LivingNow price: $120

Anngwyn St Just PhD and Dr Karl-Heinz Rauscher share a passion for healing the collective trauma for women and men. The hidden causes of pain and misunderstanding between people often have their roots in family, social, and historical trauma.

Understanding and honouring on a deeper level the masculine and feminine as two aspects of the collective soul helps us to reconcile our real and imagined differences.

Together Anngwyn and Karl-Heinz bring their many years of experience in trauma and family/systemic constellation work to explore patterns that hurt and disconnect us. Importantly, they also explore what brings resolution and real peace into the relationship between men and women.

This is a rare opportunity to experience two highly experienced international constellation trainers. The one-day event is suitable for both professional and personal development.


Creating Change for Future Generations

22-25 February, 2019 – Sydney

LivingNow special discount code: LN2019 – save $200

Full price: $1300 (depending on accommodation options) LivingNow price: $1100

A brief solution-oriented process, systemic constellations creates the potential for healing intergenerational traumas and destructive patterns. This may manifest in our daily lives as unresolvable health and relationship issues. A dynamic psychotherapeutic approach that connects us to the strengths of our ancestors and healing on the level of the soul.

With four different streams, this event is suited to therapists, coaches, healthcare workers and everyone on a journey of self-discovery to create healthy relationships.

Through a combination of lectures, experiential processes and immersion into the core principles of systemic constellation work, you will learn the value and application of these principles for your own relationships and well-being. Practitioners will learn how they can enhance their work with clients, groups and organisations.

Connect and belong to an open-hearted community

Presenters and participants from all around the world committed to making a difference.

Gain valuable new skills and insights professionally

Be enriched personally

Participants include a diverse group of mental health professionals, educators, coaches and business owners. There are also many other practitioners in alternative and complementary health practices.

About the author

Dr Anngwyn St Just

Anngwyn St. Just, PhD is a systemically oriented social traumatologist who holds advanced degrees from the Western Institute for Social Research and the University of California in Berkeley. She is also a cultural historian, psychotherapist and somatic educator who specialises in developing multimodal cross-cultural methods based upon easily transmitted concepts for trauma education and recovery. Anngwyn has spent a lifetime working on personal, societal, and collective trauma and has written nine books on trauma and constellation work.

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