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Why is the way we cope with stress and traumas across cultures important for the next generations? Interview with prof. Jadwiga Jośko-Ochojska

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Polish version of the interview here

It is my great pleasure to talk to a medicine professor, neurophysiologist, expert in stress, and above all my mentor, and much more importantly, my mom, Jadwiga Jośko-Ochojska about the newest research on epigenetics in the context of globalization and intercultural communication. Especially in these days of uncertainty when we need to rethink our behavior, change routines and are exposed to a high degree of isolation. All this has a huge impact on us and we need to build resilience to cope with stress so that we do not pass the anxiety and fears to the upcoming generations.   

Joanna: We have been talking about the interdisciplinary themes for many, many years, actually throughout my entire adult life. Our discussions, on medicine, interpersonal communication, history, art, and psychology are plenty of surprises, and inviting to have a look at challenging issues from new perspectives. Today, I asked you to focus on the epigenetic inheritance of emotions and traumas, you describe in your newest book „Discussions over a cup of coffee on stress, anxiety, and trauma”. The title of your book emphasizes the process of writing, as you share your knowledge in a series of discussions with your husband and my very good friend, Andrzej. Different chapters focus on the portrait of stress, anxiety in pregnancy, bullying, empathy, and inheritance of trauma.

Jagoda: Above all, I would like to emphasize the fact that I quote over three hundreds scientific publications from the last years in our book and hence I focus on sharing knowledge that cannot be found in any medical manuals. Some of the quoted articles were published shortly before our book appeared on the market. As a scientist, I pay attention to the use of the scientific language that can be easily understood and transparent wording so that our book is addressed to readers with and without medical background. My husband who is a linguist enriched the medical content with linguistic, historic, social and legislative aspects that can be a good start of our conversation.  

Joanna: I have read your book with real pleasure and returned in memories to the situations we experienced together when we listened to the people who were dealing with trauma. Some of these stories are part of your book. Among others, I recall our common journey to Israel, where we witnessed intense struggles with the consequences of trauma among Auschwitz survivors and their families. Back then no one talked about epigenetics. People shared with us stories about experiences we could hardly imagine. What impacted us most, were their children and grandchildren’s stories on inheritance of the consequences of traumatic events. Currently, we have scientific knowledge and still in the intercultural context, the significance of history and epigenetic inheritance of emotions and consequences of traumas is neglected. Do you think that knowledge on epigenetics could help people who would be able to realize that they not only inherit gens but also the consequences of their ancestors’ traumas? 

Jagoda: I am convinced that it would help. Whenever I have lectures on epigenetics I encounter people who share with me extraordinary stories. Some listeners contacted me afterwards to say that they decided to talk to their parents and grandparents about traumas from the past that have not been dealt with or were not addressed up to that moment. As soon as they realized what traumas they might have inherited, their level of anxiety started to decrease. Epidemiologic research would be really interesting in such a context. One could check what percentage deals better with their challenges after changing their lifestyle as a result of realizing the inheritance of emotions of our ancestors.  

Joanna: Could you share with us one story from your experience as a lecturer?

Jagoda: After one of my lectures, a young man approached me and confessed that he was afraid of fire. Whenever he saw a fire in the fireplace, a fire camp or even a burning candle he panicked. During my lecture, he realized that there must be a deeper reason for his extreme fear as he never got burned, and never witnessed any fire outbreak. While talking to the family members he heard for the first time that his grandfather lost his life during the fire in the coal-mine. This extreme fear became part of the family history and got passed on further generations. Hearing this family trauma he started to use different visualization technics and kept repeating, “It is not my fear. It is not my experience”. His level of fear started to decrease. Of course, we can do research to find out what was the most powerful moment when the fear got minimalized and still as a physician, I argue that the most important fact is that there was a possibility to help someone to regain wellbeing with addressing the untold story. 

Joanna: This story reminds me of the technic of externalization introduced by Michael White, the co-creator of the narrative therapy. It is based on distinguishing between the person and the fear the person is facing. It is about perceiving the low self-esteem, fears, anxiety and depression as a feeling and not an integral part of “ego”. Accordingly to this method, we choose an element that is going to be externalized and give it a name (the emotion, the problem, the fear). Then the person is asked to look at this challenge from a new perspective. By changing the narrative and own approach, the person improves the quality of life. In the context of inheritance of emotions, such externalization is only possible when we can identify the source of those inherited emotions. And hence my question: How do we inherit emotions? 

Jagoda: In order to answer your question, I would like to focus on a couple of basic facts regarding epigenetics. Currently, we know that we not only inherit gens but also the so-called epigenom, the DNA with chemical groups that are attached to the gens. Nessa Carey uses a vivid metaphor to describe the difference between genetics and epigenetics in her book “The Epigenetics Revolution”. Accordingly to the author, the DNA is like a screenplay and depending on the director, actors and their acting, the identical screenplays can lead to different results. If there are methyl groups joining the DNA, they modify the gen’s function. It is called gens expression. And so the gen’s malfunction can be inherited and cause predispositions to different diseases. It is worth mentioning, though that only a random number of diseases, 5-10 % occur because of gens. The remaining 90-95 % of diseases are the result of epigenetics. It proves that we can have an influence on minimalizing the predispositions to inherit different diseases.   

Joanna: How can we do that?

Jagoda: We know now that we can cause the methyl groups to detach from the gens and get rid of the inherited emotional luggage by changing our lifestyle. The causes of the epigenetic changes are multitude and they range from stress, trauma, limited access to nutrition, malnutrition, lacking physical activity, drinking alcohol, smoking, drug addiction, unhealthy elements in the air, water and food, noise, electromagnetic radiation, etc. We can influence most of them and reduce their negative impact. By changing our lifestyles we are changing not only our life stories but also the course of the history of the upcoming generations. As here and now we “prepare” the emotional backpack they are going to inherit.

Joanna: In this context, I would like to share one story that made me reflect on the question if all of us inherit the consequences of the traumatic events to the same degree. Once during my classes on multicultural teams at the Leibniz University in Hanover two sisters from Bosnia and Herzegovina offered a presentation on their country of origin. They relocated as refugees to Germany when they were little children. One of them said: “I cannot imagine getting friends with someone from Serbia. Actually, it is not only about friendships. I could not even imagine having an appointment at a doctor of Serbian origin”. With the beating heart, I asked her, what town their parents were from and when I heard Srebrenica, I froze. 1995 the genocide on 7000 citizens of Islam faith took place in that corner of former Yugoslavia. Sensing the moved atmosphere in the group, I asked the students to leave the regular program for twenty minutes and shared the insights from the epigenetic inheritance of emotions and dealing with this emotional luggage passed on us by our ancestors. Students of different origins, such as Chinese, Turkish, Curds from Turkey and Iraq and German students listened to the research in complete silence.  

What actually, attracted my attention the most, was the reaction of the student’s younger sister.  Both girls entered their lives with the traumatic luggage at the level of the family, of the religious group and the national level and both of them dealt with this heritage completely differently. What might it mean from the medical point of view? 

Jagoda: Your observations are very valuable regarding the dynamics of the process of epigenetics. Not every child inherits the consequences of traumatic events. It is a very important insight as there is a possibility to pass on the emotional luggage but not a certainty. We still do not know why some children inherit ancestors’ emotions and some not. There are families, where among concentration camp survivors’ grandchildren one sister wakes up regularly because of war nightmares and the other one does not have any signs of traumatic consequences inheritance. We can support those who suffer, as the methyl groups as much as they can attach, they can detach as well. The newest research shows that three months of MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, enriched by the nutrition change and the physical activity leads to such detachment process. The changes are visible in the MRI when the amygdala is not permanently activated and so the level of fear and anxiety drops. 

Joanna: Facing the newest knowledge on the trauma inheritance, how can we cope with challenges in the intercultural context, for instance during relocations or migrations to the corner of the world bound to the place of our origin with the traumatic past, such as wars and colonization? 

Jagoda: I cannot answer this question as a physician and neurophysiology doctor. This phenomenon requires interdisciplinary studies among interculturalists, sociologists and historians. I am convinced we need such research as soon as possible. Today, we can rely on our intuition and the emotional intelligence, among others the self-awareness, dealing with emotions and empathy. Additionally, if we have access to the knowledge of a certain cultural circle, we are calmer as we are in the so-called controlled stress, in which we trust that despite different stressors we have an influence on what is happening. We are not permanently shocked and do not struggle with uncertainty typical for the scenario when we do not know anything about the host culture. The change of lifestyle appears to be smoother when we know how to thrive in the new cultural surrounding. If we are in uncontrolled stress, we are convinced that we have no influence on the events around us. Enduring in such an uncertain situation is very harmful to our health. 

Joanna: You have mentioned that we are able to break the chain of inheritance of traumatic events. How do we know that the chain has been broken? 

Jagoda: There are cases of the so-called posttraumatic growth. People experiencing trauma not only regain emotional balance but also enter a higher level of sensitivity development and change their attitude towards life. Why does it happen? We do not know. We only know that the support of the surrounding and work with own emotions, and, above all, love from the people around play an important role. 

Jagoda: We need to remember that we are writing our emotional letter to the next generations and build resilience by supporting each other. Only this way we can pass on strength and positivity, needed so much right now and in the future. 

Joanna: I really love hope in your words. In these uncertain times, the only thing I can wish all of us is to face the challenges with positive energy, lots of constructive thoughts and stamina so that the traumatic events do not overwhelm us. 

Joanna: Thank you, Mom for sharing not only your knowledge but also hope.