Inherited Stress from Our Historical Past

Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?

In a 2015 article in Scientific Americanit was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.

Originally posted July 26, 2018

These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?

Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?

This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?

Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):

  1. Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
  2. At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
  3. Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
  4. At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
  5. After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
  6. Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
  7. Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.

When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.

My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.

Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.

One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title,Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?

Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse.  Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.

What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.

Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?

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Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.

Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.

Robert

Joy in the Journey

Forgiveness is hard work. I sometimes refer to it as “surgery of the heart.” No one looks forward to the process of surgery, but when people look beyond the procedure to what lies ahead once healing occurs, it is easier to bear.

The process of forgiveness includes bearing pain and finding meaning in suffering. It requires pain, emotional pain, as we look directly at another’s injustice and struggle to see him or her as a person, just as I-the-forgiver am a person.

The joy comes, I think, in triumphing through a challenging process and becoming stronger once the process is complete. You stand stronger because you have not let injustice defeat you.

You stand stronger because you are now more capable of receiving the other back into your life, if he or she can be trusted. You may play a part in this person’s positively changed ways as you stand strong.

You stand stronger because you know you have a way of meeting the next injustice, and the next, and the next after that.

Having a new heart as a result of forgiving and becoming stronger and helping others get stronger is a cause for joy.

Robert

When Love Is Withdrawn from Us

Is it possible that we might change in a negative way when others withdraw love from us? Consider three issues, which might form a digression in our very selves.

  • In the first scenario, we can begin to withdraw a sense of worth toward the one who hurt us. The conclusion is that he or she is worthless.
  • In the second scenario, over time, we can drift into the dangerous conclusion, “I, too, am worthless.” After all, others have withdrawn love from me and have concluded that I lack worth, therefore I do lack worth. Here is where our own self-esteem is lowered because another or others are being unkind to us.
  • In the third scenario, and even later down the road, we can drift into the unhealthy conclusion that there is no love in the world and so no one really has any worth, thus everyone is worthless. It is here that we might settle into a pervasive pessimism, without even realizing it is happening.

This three-layer development of negativism toward the other, dislike of self, and pessimism in general can be overcome by being vigilant in forgiving. Forgiving another can reverse negative judgements about the one who hurt us, can be a safe-guard in preserving self-esteem, and can prevent a drift into negativism. Perseverance in forgiveness, then, is necessary.

Robert

What Finding Meaning in Suffering Is Not

When you find meaning in your life and in the suffering that you endured you are not doing any of the following:

You are not denying anger, grief, or disappointment because of what happened to you.  It did happen and your negative response is what we all go through.  To find meaning is not to put the pillow over your head and hope the pain goes away.

When you find meaning you are not playing games wit25h yourself by saying, “Oh well,  I can just make the best of what happened to me.”  Yes, you can make the best of what happened, but if this is your meaning in what you have suffered, you are not going after that woundedness inside of you.  The “oh, well” approach is so passive.  We need a more active approach to the pain.

When you find meaning you do not sugar-coat the injustice and distort reality by saying, “All things happen for good reasons and so I will try to see the good in what was done to me.”  Let us be honest: Maybe there was not any good in the injustice itself.  What you learn from it will have goodness, but the event itself?  Maybe you will find no good in that injustice against you and that is all right.

Robert

Expanding Our Forgiveness Horizon

As we forgive one person, look what happens: a) We start to forgive others; b) We embody forgiveness, wanting to give it away to others; c) We see each person as special; d) Because forgiveness is part of love and beauty, we begin to love more deeply and to see the beauty of the world more clearly.

Forgiveness does not lessen what happened; it alters how we view the person in spite of what he or she did. It can alter how we see the world and how we interact with others. Forgiveness can give us our life back. It can be an offer to those who acted badly to change their lives so that love and beauty are expanded in their world as well.

Robert

When Evil Seems to Be Having Its Way

Lance Morrow: “Evil possesses an instinct for theater, which is why, in an era of gaudy and gifted media, evil may vastly magnify its damage by the power of horrific images.”   If this is true, we need forgiveness all the more in our times.

Forgiveness is not justice and therefore focuses on effects, not direct solutions to injustice.  When injustice reigns, it surely is the duty of communities to exercise justice to counter that which is unjust.

Yet, what then of the effects of the injustice?  Will the quest for and the establishment of justice in societies suffice to cure the broken heart?  We think not and this is where forgiveness is needed for those who choose it.

Is there a better way of destroying the damaging effects of evil than forgiveness?  As a mode of peace, forgiveness is a paradox because at the same time it is a weapon, one that fights against the ravages of evil.  By destroying resentment, forgiveness is a protection for individuals, families, groups, and societies.

Robert

The 5 Protections of Forgiving

We now see forgiveness as a protection in at least five ways. As we forgive, we are protecting:

(A) our own emotional health;

(B) the human dignity of the offender, not because of what happened but in spite of it;

(C) our relationship if the other wants to reconcile;

(D) other family members, friends, and colleagues who are protected from our resentment; and

(E) our communities from on-going anger that can pervade neighborhoods, separate people, and leave a blight that depresses economies.

After all, communities continually in contention do not receive tourist dollars, and governments often turn away, even if subtly, from such communities with high rates of violence. To forgive is to serve, to love, and to protect.

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5565-5567). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5562-5565). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.