I'm a fan of the podcast "On Being" and it's host Krista Tippettt. I listen to them while I walk in the woods. Krista has introduced me to so many new ideas and it was on one such walk, that this sex educator that specializes in the needs of women met Dr. Rachel Yehuda and the brand new science of "Epigenetics."
Listening to this podcast was alike a bolt of lightening coming down from the sky. Suddenly, so many of the experiences that I witnessed with my team at Back to The Body (a retreat that has been created to support women in their relationship to their bodies and their sexuality) made perfect sense. In the simplest of terms, Epigenetics looks at the flexible nature of our DNA and its response stress. It's this idea that when something bad happens to you (a traumatic event) there is this generated biologic response. Scientists are looking at how stress hormones influence how our brain functions and literally marks our DNA.
So, yes, stressful experiences like trauma get lodged in our bodies and effect us. Yehuda says "through the miracle of meiosis" we can receive this in our genetic code from our parents and generations before them; as well as mark our own code negatively or positively.
The studies have focused on sub-groups that have suffered traumatic effects such as 9/11 survivors, veterans, indigenous people and the survivors of the Holocaust. I think we can apply this science to all women and their relationship to sex, body image and even food issues. And if we can understand the science of Epigenetics -- all of this coded information in our DNA can be changed at any time. I have seen this in action during the immersion work that my team does with women. I see how they walk in and how they walk out.
Why aren't we studying this legacy of generational trauma in one of the biggest groups of long-term trauma in the world -- women?
Research indicates that women are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experience a longer duration of post-traumatic symptoms, and report more sensitivity to stimuli that remind them of the trauma than men. Did you know that? I didn't have the language for this until very recently. For me, it has been emerging through 27 retreats packed with women of every experience and background -- and the discovery about all the kinds of trauma that is held in our bodies -- and how we can release it through the understanding of what we are actually working with -- and the power of immersion to shift our neuro-pathways. What I have learned -- experienced, deepening into, is the young and emerging science about all of this. Once we have the language and unpack this -- we will increase resiliency and positive transformation for all women. It's possible and I would love to see studies.
Traumatic events that women experience routinely include surgery and medical interventions that change our relationship with our bodies, birth trauma, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse; terrorism and war; domestic violence; witnessing violence against others; and accidents, natural disasters, sexual assault and the COMBINED effects OVER TIME of body shaming, food shaming and sex shaming. Trauma and stress can be subtle and over time wear us down like water against a rock.
Approximately one half (50 percent) of all individuals will be exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. But I think for women, the reason why women are the biggest sufferers of depression, eating disorders, and other types of addiction and dysfunction may be because of "Epigenetics."
The theory I am holding around Epigenetics and women struggling with sexuality and body image issues is that perhaps because of inherited stressors of being a woman over their lineage combined with their own life experience -- we experience trauma at a higher level. Why are some women "targets"? Why do they have repeat attackers? I see this over and over again. What do the attackers smell on their skin? How much of the daily experience of the trauma of so many women is genetically coded and they go forth with as Dr. Yehuda names it; "poor shock absorbers" into a predatory world for women? Why is there a legacy of abuse against women in families? Why is the result of all of this resulting often in three outcomes for the women: 1. An Increase in Victimization 2. Hard Armoring and closed offness of sexuality. 3. A fear of feeling.
If our mothers weren't trusted with their sexuality, then as a woman you may have inherited the trait of not trusting your own sexuality. Now combine that with the environmental factors that most women face on a daily basis.
Knowing this and putting language to it -- knowing that you may not have great shock absorbers around sexuality and body image issues -- allows us to work with what we have and create change in our body and thus our behaviors. Just acknowledging the force of trauma is a piece of knowledge that is healing; it helps. Having language and understanding it are building blocks toward resiliency. We must recognize it before we can use it. When we can put all of this, our genetic lineage and our experiences, into a context, then we are able to empower our future. We cannot run from our family history, or our own real life experiences. But, as always we can change our now, and optimize our environment.
This IS why programs like "Back to the Body" work so well, Because it is about "Immersion" and changing our environments. This is why we take women away! Away for our daily lives and as much as possible from our relationships so that we can literally release the trauma from our bodies and reclaim our sexuality and our physical bodies. This is why women see such dramatic results in such a short time. We are immersing our neurons in in new possibility and experiences. Most women have SOME kind of trauma. Some of it is small. Some of it is big. It all has an effect on us.
I believe in the message of taking your trauma forward and using it positively. Trauma survivors work for social justice. Trauma Survivors become activists. The podium of suffering provides an opportunity. This is why so many trauma survivors of female sexual and body trauma go into doing this work around sexual healing and revitalization and the body positive movement. What happens to people with generational trauma.
There is science in putting language into the consciousness of what is happening to human beings. And it all doesn't have to be negative. A full range of responses is possible. There are advantages/intelligences in our bodies that we can learn from trauma. There is a wisdom in our body and junk in our body from these big and small events. The power is in acknowledging that trauma effects last and endure -- and we can use it and lose it.
Trauma that is kept stale and rotting keeps people stuck in this cycle of focusing on the past. What's really important to understand is that we cannot change the past but there is this whole future that you might be able to do something about.
Pamela Madsen runs retreats around the world to help women re-connect to their bodies and sensuous nature and is author of the book; "Shameless: How I Ditched The Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner" (Rodale 2011).
Check out Pamela's free library of sexuality and relationship videos here.