Seven Principles for Recovering from Trauma

A lone Desert Marigold for recovering trauma blog post

A conversation with Jungian therapist and rabbi Tirzah Firestone about epigenetics and recovering from trauma

Today I’m delighted to welcome Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone for another information-packed conversation together. (See “Inherited Wounds: Tirzah Firestone on Ancestral Healing” and “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma” for our earlier conversations).

Dr. Firestone is a Jungian analyst, rabbi, and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, whose research is on recovery from trauma, including the mechanisms of inherited trauma. In the revised edition of her deeply wise book, Wounds into Wisdom, Dr. Firestone draws on the latest neuroscientific and psychological findings, interweaving them with compelling stories of trauma and healing, to offer readers hope, understanding, healing, and the means to discover how suffering can be transformative.

Dr. Tirzah Firestone for recovering from trauma blog postDale Kushner: There is a lot of new biology out there that is changing how we think about health, lifespan, trauma, and our genetic inheritance. Your recent book explains this in a way that I found very accessible to non-scientists. Can you give us an overview here?

Tirzah Firestone: There is a lot of fascinating research going on. The last ten years have given us much more insight into the growing field of epigenetics, which studies the impact of life’s stresses on our genes’ activities.

We used to think that our genes were the major determinant of our health, our lifespan, the diseases we would get, etc. Now we know that our genes are incredibly responsive. They answer to the environment in which we live. Depending on our stresses, there are a host of epigenetic mechanisms that turn our genes on or off. Scientists call this gene expression.

So, for example, if you are living through a war, or have lost your home, or a parent dies, or some other traumatic life event is occurring, your genes will adjust to these environmental stresses by means of epigenetic mechanisms that act on (epi means upon or above) the chromosomes. They tell the genes what to do.

Epigenetics draws on clinical studies with mice and rats, demonstrating that stress and struggle can imprint not only on us but upon future generations. For example, early nurturing patterns by the mother, for example, have been shown to pass to grand-pups and great-grand-pups, even when they had never interacted.

In a study from Emory University,[1] mice were exposed to a sweet smell, acetophenone, and then received an electric shock to their feet. Associating the two, whenever the mice smelled the smell, they became fearful and froze. Amazingly, their offspring—even the grandpups who had never met their grandparents or been exposed to the smell or shock—showed panic in the presence of the smell.

These offer evidence for what many of us have been intuiting for a long time, that stresses and traumas experienced by our ancestors influence us, say in our resilience or lack thereof, several generations later.

But epigenetics also speaks to the impact of socio-economic stresses on entire ethnic groups. Moshe Szyf, a very prolific epigeneticist, shows how gene expression differs among those who grow up well-off vs. those who grow up disadvantaged, making the latter group more vulnerable to a host of diseases and shortened life spans.[2]

“Children of War” (2022) Graffiti in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Photo by Rasal Hague for Recovering from Trauma blog post

DK: Your own research is on recovery from trauma. Can you tell us about your study and findings?

TF: My study was on Jewish people from around the world who had gone through extreme traumas such as war, racial and religious discrimination, the loss of a child to terrorism, and such. My focus was on those who were able to go through the many stages of healing and integration and come out transformed by their traumas.

I discovered among all of them strong common denominators. But there is no one formula for trauma healing! Every one of us has a unique trajectory for our healing. My thirty years of experience in the healing field tells me that human beings are intrinsically primed for healing. We get directives from the inside that tell us what we need to do to work through our traumas and come back into full life.

DK:  Can you share with us today the seven principles that emerged from your research? 

TF: Yes, I’d be happy to. These are common denominators that I found in my research subjects who thrived again after their tragedies, having transformed their lives.

  1. Facing the loss
    More than anything else, directly facing our losses initiates the process of healing. This first principle means resisting our friends’ well-intentioned urges to get back to work or “get on with life.” We must give ourselves the gift of time and ride the waves of our pain.
  1. Harnessing our pain
    Once we face our losses, we may encounter intense pain. Because trauma disconnects us from our bodies, there’s a tendency to numb out. The alternative is to re-inhabit our physical selves. Physical exercise and self-care are paramount here. Pain made conscious can turn into fuel.
  1. Finding new community
    We may find ourselves changed by our trauma, feeling that there is no going back to how we used to be. Now we have to find people who understand us. Because traumatic experiences often leave us with a sense of shame or isolation, finding authentic connections with people who can hear and hold us compassionately is essential. The people I worked with felt a need to build a new social network, to find other like-minded people.
  1. Resisting the call to fear, blame, and dehumanize
    Unprocessed trauma can leave us permanently defensive. The human tendency to “other” people around us is the obvious next step. But that leaves us isolated, self-righteous, and lonely. Those who do the hard work of healing their traumas succeed in melting the walls of separation and resisting hatred for those who hurt them.
  1. Disidentifying from victimhood
    One of the main keys to trauma recovery is agency, the inner sense that we are in charge of our own lives, and we can shape their outcome.
  1. Redefining specialness
    One of the legacies of trauma can be the feeling that we are different, alone, and separate. But these feelings can flip into their opposites: feeling special, chosen, superior, for what we have gone through. One of the most important takeaways from trauma healing is that human beings are interdependent, that our healing depends on one another.
  1. Taking action
    Trauma recovery means facing what has happened directly and deeply mourning our losses. Then—and for each person there is their own internal timing—some kind of work or meaningful action in the world emerges.

DK: Our interview will be appearing around the holidays and just before the new year.  Do you have any special advice for readers at this time of year?

TF: Yes, holidays can be a particularly challenging time of year, especially for those of us who are raw from losses and traumatic upheaval. We are often bombarded by family or lack of family, outward cheer that doesn’t match our inner felt sense, and so many distractions that pull us out of our own inner experience. Take alone time to feel your feelings, journal, take walks, move your energy to let off steam, and avoid excesses like sugar, alcohol, or recreational drugs that unground you. Main point: This is the time for doubling down on our self-care. Stay in touch with yourself and lead with self-compassion!

References

[1] Dias, B. G. and Ressler, K. J. (March, 2014). “Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations.” Nature Neuroscience 17:89-96

[2] Nada Borghol, Moshe Szyf, et al., “Associations with Early-Life Socio-Economic Position in Adult DNA Methylation,” International Journal of Epidemiology 41, no. 1 (February 2012): 62-74

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma

The Wounded Angel (1903) by Hugo Simberg for inherited trauma blog post

 

One fine spring day when I was five, I decided to jump on the back of a neighbor’s schnauzer and ride him around the yard like a horse. Mikey had other ideas. He leaped up and tried to chomp on my cheek. Back then, no one called my run-in with Mikey a trauma. The word “trauma” had not yet entered the popular vernacular. But my experience with Mikey was a trauma, and for many years, I was terrified of dogs.

Times have changed. Discussions about trauma appear everywhere. Simply defined, trauma refers to any deeply disturbing event; in reality, trauma has many nuanced manifestations. Native American scholar and psychotherapist Eduardo Duran calls trauma “the injury where blood does not flow.”

Reference to trauma is now so ubiquitous, it has become almost meaningless. A recent newspaper article suggested that TV audiences are tired of watching gritty, realistic shows about afflictions; they now prefer plots with indomitably cheerful characters like Ted Lasso. It’s understandable we seek entertainment that makes us feel good, but are we denying, ignoring, or dismissing trauma’s impact on our lives and world? Have we seen, heard, read, experienced more trauma than we can process? Do we have trauma fatigue?

The truth is there is still much to learn about traumatic experiences. With deeper knowledge, more healing can occur.

Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone (Photo by Kirsten Boyer, 2019).Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone has been investigating this terrain for most of her adult life. Her teachings offer new insights, synergistic modalities of healing, and instill a sense of agency and hope to the burdened. In her second interview with me for Psychology Today, she offers more insights on the heritability of trauma, and how we may be carrying emotional afflictions that do not belong to us.

Dale Kushner: In a recent article for the “International Journal of Communal and Transgenerational Trauma,” you state that trauma can be transmitted by parents and other adults to the younger generation. This is a startling revelation. Can you explain how you became aware of this fact in your own life?

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone: It’s only in the past several years that evidence of the transference of trauma has been studied in depth. In my own life, the residues of war were deeply imprinted in my parents—my mother escaped Nazi Germany narrowly in 1939 and my father was stationed in the death camps as a U.S. soldier—but they kept their horrors a secret. It was only when I began to seriously study trauma science at midlife that I was able to identify their behaviors as the sequelae of trauma.

DK: Can actual memories be transferred?    

TF: It’s well known that children’s psychic borders are highly permeable. Like mirror neurons in the brain,[1] the feelings that echo between people, mental images can also be transferred by parents and other adults to the younger generation. Although actual memories aren’t transferred, it’s not uncommon for parents and caregivers who have experienced extreme psychic trauma to transmit to a child what has been called an image deposit,[2] that is, a mental picture of the excruciating events that they and others from their group have endured.

So yes, mental pictures—like the Twin Towers in flames on 9-11—with the strong feelings that they evoke, can be passed from generation to generation. They become part of the internal reality of descendants. Seeing one’s home demolished before one’s eyes, or one’s town burned to the ground is an experience that rarely dissipates. In my case, the legacy of my father’s trauma from war—the images he saw, the terror he felt, and the rage that ensued over the dehumanization of his people—became part of my visceral inheritance.

Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre (1891) Photo by John C. H. Grabill for Inherited Trauma blog postDK: How exactly might an adult or caregiver transmit an image deposit?

TF: Numerous studies show that children absorb the stress responses of parents and other caregivers in the wake of traumatic events and invest them with their own meaning[3]. For instance, after the events of September 11, 2001, studies on children whose parents and caregivers responded with heightened emotion suffered far more post-traumatic stress than those whose caregivers remained calm or detached.[4]

Vamik Volkan, who is a student of Erik Erikson and scholar on the topic of collective trauma, calls the powerful mental representations of large-scale trauma internalized images. We’ve already mentioned how permeable the psychological border between the child and caretakers is. Volkan maintains that traumatized adults can unconsciously deposit their internalized images into the developing self of the child. The child then becomes a reservoir for the adult’s trauma images.[5]

DK: How can a person know if the anxiety, depression, or other mental states of suffering are the result of traumas in the ancestral line or have emerged from their own life experience in the present? Are the two intertwined?

TF: That’s an important question. We hardly need studies to tell us that our family’s trauma affects us. With so much research coming out on intergenerational patterning, it can be a relief to know that we didn’t make up our mental and emotional disposition, but that there may be an ancestral precursor for our anxiety, depression, and even feelings of guilt, shame, or alienation. If we are in doubt, we can do some genealogical work on our families and look at the historical traumas they lived through. Did they endure poverty, displacement, or war? Or maybe their lives were continuously hampered by racial discrimination. These and other residues of extreme life conditions can travel down to us, especially when they are not metabolized.

DK: Soviet children during a German air raid in the first days of the WWII.(near Minsk,Belorussia) June, 1941 for Inherited Trauma blog postOne trauma researcher has noted that a generation can inherit the “unfinished psychological tasks” of a previous generation. What are some examples of these tasks? What is your role as a therapist in helping a client unburden herself from the unfinished task?

TF: I see intergenerational or ancestral transmissions like suitcases stuffed with important family heirlooms. No matter how weird or troubled you think your family is, there are ancestral treasures in your suitcase, like good values, resilience, or gems of hard-earned wisdom. When I taught at San Quentin, the men shared with me the beautiful legacies they carry and think about daily, mostly from their moms and grandmothers.  And then there can be trauma images that we inherit, too.

Think about the Vietnam or Syrian wars, or the incursion of Russia into Ukraine. When a large group has experienced massive trauma and severe losses at the hands of enemies, the children of the next generation receive the emotion-charged images of war. Volkan, who studied post-war populations around the world, maintains that embedded in these memories is a task. The next generations receive a “to do” list associated with the transmitted image.

Unmetabolized tasks translate to the next generations as many things. They might require completing the mourning process over losses, converting shame and humiliation into pride or helplessness into assertion. All these tasks are connected to the mental pictures that are the residue of traumatic events. The image binds the members of the group together in an invisible way.[6]

DK: Unless younger people are helped to address the unfinished tasks and their psychological legacy, is it true/is there evidence that the psychological reverberations travel horizontally through families and nations, and vertically through time and generations?

TF: Ultimately, it’s up to us, members of the younger generation, to decipher our own psychological landscape. We have to discern what inherited legacies we want to bring forward with us, and what we need to work on and discard. Often we find ourselves doing the hard psychological and emotional work that was left unfinished by our parents and grandparents. Will we continue to internalize our people’s defining historical traumas or reject them? These are the questions every psychologically mature person must ask themselves.

[1] van der Kolk, 2014, pp. 58-59, 111-112

[2] Volkan, 20062013

[3] Allen & Rosse, 1998Scharf, 2007

[4] Shechter & Coates, 2006

[5] Volkan, 2006, 2013

[6] Volkan, 2006, p. 154

References:

Transgenerational Trauma Shaping History: The Power of Images” by Tirzah Firestone, PhD., in International Journal of Communal and Transgenerational Trauma, Issue 1, Professional and Philosophical Perspectives, February 1, 2022.

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk (Penguin: New York, 2014)

Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts by Varnik D. Volkan (Pitchstone Publishing: Durham, NC, 2006, 2013)

“Children’s Response to Exposure to Traumatic Events” by Richard D. Allen and William Rosse, in Children, Youth and Environments, Vol.  14, No. 1, Collected Papers (2004) Published by University of Cincinnati.

“Long-term effects of trauma: Psychosocial functioning of the second and third generation of Holocaust survivors” by Miri Scharf, Journal of Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 19, Issue 2, April 25, 2007. Published online by Cambridge University Press.

“Caregiver traumatization adversely impacts young children’s mental representations on the Macarthur Story Stem Battery” by Daniel S. Schechter, MD, and Susan W. Coates, Journal of Attachment and Human Development, Vol. 9, Issue 3, December 4, 2007. Published by Taylor & Francis.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Inherited Wounds: Tirzah Firestone on Ancestral Healing

“Black Friday” May 19, 1780. Detail from Pictorial Quilt (1895-1898) for Ancestral Healing blog post

 

Imagine yourself at a family reunion. Aunt Sadie puts her hand on your shoulder and tells you you’re the spitting image of her sister Rose. Uncle Mo swears your soccer prowess comes from his side of the family, superb athletes all. The baby has the thick black hair of your Irish ancestors, and though you’ve always said you’ll never scowl like your mother, as you age identical scowl lines appear around your mouth.

The heritability of physical traits is a known and accepted fact, but a burgeoning branch of scientific investigation, epigenetics, has unlocked the mystery of how the emotional lives of our ancestors, and the traumas they suffered, affect our well-being.

In the ancient world, when a tragedy recurred in a family line—sons murdering their fathers, suicides, madness—the cause was thought to be the workings of a curse, or Fate, or the actions of punishing, vengeful gods.

The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)With the aid of our vibrant imaginations, humans have spun tales about how the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the children and their children’s children “unto the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34.7). The great Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—warned audiences that transgression against the gods weighed heavily on future generations. The chorus in the opening lines of Sophocles’ Antigone proclaim the horror in the family line:

“How many miseries our father caused! And is there one of them that does not fall on us while yet we live?”

In contemporary fiction, novelists Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Water Dancer), among others, explore manifestations of transgenerational trauma. We’ve come a long way from pinning our misfortunes on family curses and the whims of the gods, but we are still discovering how the emotional experiences of our ancestors, their personal stories, told and untold, have altered our bodies and minds.

What stories whispered behind closed doors did you grow up with? How many relatives suffered with depression? Were there suicides? Violent behavior? Exile and displacement? A history of poverty? Unmourned griefs? Which questions about your family’s past do not get answered? Evidence supports the claim that what has not been healed in our lineage may manifest indirectly in us, a new generation, as anxiety, depression, physical illness, or other afflictions.

In my own life, for a long time, I felt that the heaviness of a grief I carried did not originate with me. While researching my second novel, I discovered that one of my grandmothers died in a state mental asylum. She was never mentioned during my childhood, and I assume she was a source of pain and great shame. No one is alive now to tell me her story, but I am aware that her presence has always been with me. A character in my second novel is loosely based on her story, and through workings of my imagination, grandma has been returned to her glory!

Dr. Tirzah Firestone for Ancestral HealingDuring the years writing this novel, I began a period of searching and seeking, hoping to uncover, face, and resolve the hurt in my lineage. Toward the end of this time, I discovered the work of Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone. As the saying goes: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Dr. Firestone has spent at least one lifetime investigating intergenerational trauma from spiritual and psychological perspectives. She offers insight into the manifestations of inherited trauma and generously supplies stories and healing practices from many traditions in her online teachings. Her most recent book, Wounds into Wisdom, is a guide into deep inner excavations and explorations. In a world so harshly and painfully broken, her encouragement for us to heal as individuals expands the hope that we can also heal globally.

It brings me pleasure to introduce Tirzah Firestone to you in this two-part interview series.

Dale Kushner: Briefly, what is ancestral healing?

Tirzah Firestone: Ancestral healing is an ancient and currently burgeoning field that is based upon the spiritual premise that consciousness continues after death. After we pass from this world, regardless of our age or station, our bodies return to the earth, but our non-corporeal self continues to travel in non-visible realms, ultimately passing into an ancestral plane. Most spiritual traditions in the world agree that the ancestors, those who are no longer in the physical world, are still tied to us here on earth, for better and sometimes for worse.

DK: Why worse? 

TF: Generally speaking, ancestors wish to play a beneficial role to their living offspring. Their job is to guide and care for their living progeny, assisting them to remain in life and flourish here. But because the deep residue of our lives continues to reverberate after death, it is not only our ancestors’ wisdom but their unprocessed traumas that affect their next of kin. Ancestral healing is the garnering of wisdom, guidance, and blessings of the well and wise ancestors, and then, with their support, helping to resolve and repair the unhealed wounds of those who are not yet well and wise.

DK: Is ancestral trauma, inherited, transgenerational, and intergenerational trauma the same thing? If not, how are they different?  Please clarify collective trauma.

TF: All of these terms are related.

Pictorial Quilt by Harriet Powers 1895-1898 for Ancestral Healing blog postAncestral traumas are the unworked legacies of those who have died. This might include unresolved life stories, secrets, resentments, or other injuries that never had a chance to heal. The scientific field of epigenetics bears out that these unprocessed life stresses can influence future generations in the form of inherited tendencies to similar kinds of stress, anxiety, and psycho-emotional issues. The term transgenerational trauma is much the same as intergenerational trauma, used more widely in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.

Collective trauma is the residue of extreme life circumstances that occur (historical trauma is another term for this) that continues to affect not only individuals, but entire groups, ethnicities, communities, and entire nations. One example is the African-American community whose ancestors were abducted, shackled, and forced into centuries of slavery. We might say that their ancestral trauma is also a collective trauma that is still being worked through intergenerationally, in the lives of their living offspring as well as in the life of American society.

DK: In the last several years, you’ve worked privately with individuals and taught experiential courses on ancestral healing. Do all lineages have ancestral wounds?

TF: Yes, we might indeed say that all lineages carry ancestral wounds. Those who colonized others bear great moral wounds; the human pain incurred by their misdeeds is a legacy that continues for generations. Likewise, those who were colonized, enslaved, or murdered bear wounds that reverberate intergenerationally.

DK: You are a revered rabbi as well as a Jungian analyst. What led you to ancestral work?

TF: I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. My mother escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, leaving behind scores of relatives who were murdered in unconscionable ways. Even though she never spoke of them, I felt the reverberations of the family’s unprocessed shock, grief, and trauma. Ultimately, this led me to uncover the family history and then as a rabbi and psychotherapist, to study the effects of collective trauma in my people and far beyond.

DK: Does a person have to know about their ancestry to benefit from your teachings?

TF: One can begin this work with the tiniest amounts of information about one’s family (country of origin, political events there, etc.) Finding out about one’s ancestral history is relatively easy online these days. If we bring sincere intention, the unconscious will assist. Dreams and synchronicities come to inform us and help us to uncover more and more information.

DK: What are the dangers of not acknowledging ancestral/transgenerational trauma?

TF: Uncovering the dimension of intergenerational (or ancestral legacies) in our lives is extremely important. Without understanding the historical context of our lives and what came before us, our tendency is to think that our problems and imbalances began with us, that we created them. It is more often the case that the issues we are working on—whether we suffer from anxiety, fear, addiction, shame, or a feeling of not belonging, to name just a few examples—have roots in the lives of those who came before us, in what they suffered, and what they could not complete in their lifetimes. Often we are doing the work that was left to us, and it becomes our work. This then is ancestral healing! In doing our own inner emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing and untangling, we are also healing the legacies of those who gave us life.

You may also be interested in reading my two other posts about intergenerational trauma: “Family Deeds: Constellation Therapy & Generations of Trauma” and “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”