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This site is for student nurses or nurses starting out. Letters to a Young Nurse are blog posts written like letters to help you find your way and make your journey as a nurse less difficult. 


How Trauma Can Alter Our Biology

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

Since my twenties I have lived by words penned by Caroline Myss. It is a type of prayer and morality to live by. She says that if we live by these words our lives will be happier and more content.

  1. Have no expectations.

  2. Make no judgements.

  3. Give up the need to know why things happen as they do.

And the one that has been proven to me over and over again as a nurse is:

“Your biography—that is, the experiences that make up your life—becomes your biology.”

And science is proving these statements to be true. On the PBS special from NOVA called Your brain: who's in control a neuroscientist and researcher, Bianca Jones Marlin studied how trauma caused changes in the DNA coding in mice. Mice were put in a box and when an almond scent was introduced in the cell there was a shock pad in the floor that would give the mice an electrical shock. When the mice smelled almond there would be a corresponding shock. Then they looked at the neuroanatomy of the brain and saw that after the introduction of the almond and the shock there were changes in the neurotransmitters in the cells in the nose that sense almonds. The smell of almonds was an important predictor of shock and therefore an important event.

The question at the root of the study was, how does a traumatic experience of a parent, or a grandparent change their children's DNA coding? Marlin looked at the offspring of the mice and found that only the mice born of mice in the study had these extra cells in their nose to sense pain or shock when there was an almond smell. In this case biography (trauma) becomes biology (more cells). Our DNA coding for certain environmental traumas comes from our parents or grandparents who were exposed to a traumatic event!

WoW! Mind blown! Not only are people who have had adverse childhood experiences (trauma) going to suffer from chronic diseases, but you will also suffer if your parents and grandparents have experienced trauma.

Go the following clip to watch Bianca Jones Marlin explain the amazing study and information learned from the study at:

Trauma is coded into our DNA and our parents and grandparents DNA and our environment can change our DNA. But what also must be understood is we have a choice whether we will allow traumatic events to shape us positively or negatively. Because my mother beat me like her mother beat her I must beat my children for them to act right (not a real scenario for me).

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. And in that space is our decision to choose." Victor Frankl. I can choose to make judgements about people or I can choose to treat everyone with love and respect regardless of my expectations of how they should act. I can choose to let go of how I think the world should act and relax in the knowledge that I am being led by a power greater than myself.

Working in the jail system has opened my eyes to the reality of pain in the world. 75-80% of the people who are arrested have used drugs or alcohol or both daily for months to years. Am I there to judge their choices or to offer care to keep them safe? What I often forget is these people made poor choices but the choice to "medicate" themselves was a way to numb the pain of daily life. A wise police officer told me he asked one of his arrestees the question, "if there was a pill that he could take to remove his craving for the drugs, would he take it?" The arrested person said no because the drugs disguise and mask the pain of his environment and circumstances. Without the drugs he would have to face the poverty and hopelessness in his life. That's trauma talking honestly and with great vulnerability.

Trauma-informed care is a new term that is being taught in medicine and nursing. We have so many broken people out there who have been victimized and traumatized by those they love or by strangers. As compassionate caretakers we cannot subject them to the same victimization by not treating them with dignity and respect. We have to dig deep when a patient is spitting in our face or calling us every foul and cruel name in the book. Their brains have been changed by their experiences and their ancestry. A good friend told me she had been molested by a friend of the family. When she told her mother about the event her mother responded with, "so what, every girl is subject to being treated like that, you are no different". In essence telling her that it was her fault that it happened by virtue of being born a girl in this environment. If I were to treat her with disdain or apathy as my patient, I would be subjecting her to the same trauma. Trauma-informed care requires an understanding of the effects of trauma on a person's soul and body. And trauma-informed care changes the question we ask our patients from, "What is wrong with you?" to "What has happened to you?" We do not define people by the worst thing they have done but see the effects that this terrible thing has on thier mind, body and spirit.

Here's an example. A young girl came in one night. It was the middle of a hot summer, but she was wrapped in a heavy coat. When I pushed the sleeve of her coat up to get her blood pressure, I saw hundreds of old scars all over her arms. I asked her if there were more on her other arm and legs and she quietly nodded yes. I didn't have to ask why she used methamphetamines and fentanyl because the answer was drawn in the scars. The drugs allowed her to disappear when she was being violated and traumatized by those she loved. Cutting her skin metaphorically freed the demons from her soul from the constant violation and shame and guilt she felt. Judging her simply by calling her an addict rather than a human being who uses drugs is the opposite of trauma-informed care. I do not have the right to forget that this person is someone's daughter, wife, sister, who deserves not to be labeled as the worst thing they have done, addict, junky, abuser. The words that we use perpetuate the trauma.

Trauma lives in the body, in our cells and our DNA. It manifests itself through pain and chronic conditions. It sits on our shoulders and lives in our upset stomachs. Do we continue to push it further down and ignore it? Or do we face it through awareness and naming of the feelings. Like my back pain that was related to not feeling supported somewhere in my life. Once I became curious about the cause of the pain and looked at the areas that could be causing this pain, the pain would go away. I didn't need medications, I didn't need therapy, all I needed was to name the pain and to pay attention to what the pain was trying to tell me. But other people may need other things like medication, therapy, activities, meditation and so many others. It has to be patient-centered to work for the individual.

According to one of the greatest names in the field of trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, trauma doesn't magically go away. But patients can become desensitized to the trauma. He found while working with Vietnam vets and PTSD that medications did not work well for their PTSD symptoms. He studied Prozac and other medications. He studied the effects of yoga, EMDR, MDMA on PTSD symptoms. The question that formed the basic foundation of all the studies was, "how can we find a treatment that allows the basic sense of defectiveness and self-loathing to be controlled?" These men were reliving traumatic events in a place that was supposed to be safe, their home or residence far removed from the sounds and sights and smells of war. Yet, they were right back there when triggered or in their dreams. Functional MRI scans show that the areas that are triggered in the brain while relating the story of the trauma are the same areas that lit up when actually experiencing the trauma. These men had to dissociate from their mind and body to do the things required of them during war. How do they come back and unite those places that are fractured? And how do they live in a body that is constantly on edge and on guard for survival in a place where they are safe? According to van der Kolk the best therapies allow for retelling of the stories while aware of being safe in their bodies. EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, "...eye movement desensitization actually changes the circuitry of the brain to interpret your current reality from a different angle. This had amazing effects on people being able to let go of what happened." (van der Kolk, 2023) Yoga works to bring the person back into their body, while breathing calmly in a peaceful setting. He also studied MDMA, (ecstasy and Molly) and found from scientific studies was:

"What we see in the people who get the drug is amazing. People are able to go to places they have never felt safe to go. This is not a picnic. They see the horrible things that's happened to them. But MDMA allows people to see themselves with compassion." (van der Kolk, 2023)

Here are men who had to do terrible things to other human beings, who have only scorn and self disdain for their actions. These men were able to learn how to be compassionate toward their body and their mind. Successful therapy does not erase what they did but allows for a realization that the past can't be changed but the perception of it can change.

To watch Bessel van der Kolk explain trauma go to:

van der Kolk, B. (2023, November 5). 6 ways to heal trauma without medication, from the author of “the body keeps the score.” Big Think.

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