By: Dynasti DeGouville
Epigenetics and Trauma Response
A developing field of biological study, epigenetics, has begun to shed light on the effect of trauma on the human genome. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression without alterations to DNA sequences. Series of DNA methylations affect the ways in which genes can be transcribed and translated from the genome, rendering certain parts of the genome readable while others are unreadable.
DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism in which a methyl group (-CH3) is covalently added to the 5-carbon on a cytosine ring in a DNA sequence. This, in turn, effects the genes expressed without changing any specific gene sequences— a change in phenotype without a change in genotype. Epigenetic modifications can result from old age, diseases, or environmental factors.
Environmental factors include external stressors or traumatic experiences, which may result in genetic responses that either put one at a higher risk for developing disorders or make one more resilient to stressors. The direct cause for this difference is unknown, but it can possibly be attributed to single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), or subtle variations in each person’s genome.
Survivors of atrocities and trauma have been shown to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders. However, new discoveries in the field of epigenetics are beginning to suggest that not only do survivors experience psychological issues, but their offspring are affected by parental trauma exposures occurring before their birth, and possibly even prior to their conception. A 2013 study done on mice in labs demonstrated that when a parent is taught to fear a certain scent, their offspring, without any prior exposure to their parent’s stressor, also intrinsically fears that scent. This provides evidence to the growing field of epigenetics that trauma is, in fact, inheritable through epigenetic modifications.
Enslavement and Its Biological Impact on African American Communities
The social and psychological impact of enslavement persists across generations and still affects the African American personality in that contemporary Black Americans have inherited an extensive list of habits and behaviors from the era of slavery. Dr. Brian Dias at the USC Keck School of Medicine suggests that both epigenetic and social inheritance are modes of continuing generational trauma: “[S]table social environments allow for nurturing to occur, and that buffers future generations from the stressors that previous generations might have endured.”
Due to the frequency of slave trade, which resulted in the separation of mothers from their children, husbands from wives, sisters from their brothers, this “stable social environment” never existed for the enslaved. The constant shifting and tearing of familial and kinship ties led to the inevitable demise of stability and the possibility of thorough and prolonged childhood nurturing. What this resulted in was a sizable population of children with unpredictable and unreliable periods of care throughout their childhoods. This affects their epigenome in a way that signals a stress response that becomes adaptive to their lives as enslaved people. In other words, it becomes advantageous to be constantly hyper-aware of your surroundings, or to mistrust those around you.
The phenomena I’m describing has been coined post-traumatic slave syndrome by Dr. Joy DeGruy: “PTSS describes a set of behaviors, beliefs and actions associated with or, related to multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans that may be inclusive of but not limited to undiagnosed and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in enslaved Africans.” PTSS is an explanatory theory that makes maladaptive behaviors that originated as survival strategies pass down through generations of Black Americans even if these traits are out of context. African Americans who experience PTSS may experience symptoms similar to that of PTSD such as:
- Avoiding certain people, places, or events that may resemble the trauma
- Difficulty focusing, feeling jumpy, or being easily angered
- Feelings of hopelessness, depression, and self-destructive tendencies also referred to as “vacant esteem”
What this suggests is that the atrocities of slavery were so traumatic for African Americans and the diaspora that their genes and the genes of their children were permanently altered in a way that caused them severe anxiety and PTSD for the remainder of their lives. The continuation of this legacy of discrimination through the Jim Crow era until recently with continuous police brutality and racial profiling has upheld these symptoms of PTSS.
Typically, the human body responds to try to match what it thinks will happen later in life and for future generations. The collective long-lasting psychological implication connected with the racial violence that occurred due to Jim Crow laws and racist institutions continued the damage that was already inflicted by slavery. Thus, the bodies of African Americans continued this legacy of trauma to endure the anxiety, fear, humiliation, shame, and stress of existing in a world that oppresses you at every opportunity.
Appropriately named, “segregation stress syndrome” is similar to PTSD and PTSS in that it is a trauma response to the painful experiences of living with Jim Crow. African Americans were never given a chance to heal themselves, to unlearn the fear and anxiety and hopelessness they acquired during slavery, and this led to a compounding of genetic modifications in which these forms of PTSD became almost necessary in simply surviving life in the following century.
Today, African Americans still face systemic obstacles in healthcare , education , and mortgage lending  among other areas. Black children are not given the same resources as their white peers , and this continues, in a subtle way, the legacy of trauma that has been inflicted on African Americans since slavery. Higher qualified teachers seek jobs at better schools which are typically in predominantly white neighborhoods, the white students get a better education and therefore have a higher standard of living which leads to a decrease in chronic illnesses and mortality. This is only one mechanism in which African Americans remain oppressed in the United States today.
“It isn’t slavery, but it’s still an impoverished environment…”
-Dr. Brian Dias, USC Keck School of Medicine
With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the murders of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 and Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020, it is evident that the fight is not over yet. There are still senseless murders of Black people by law enforcement as there has been for the past three centuries, and these officers seldom, if ever, face just punishments. The genome of the African American has not yet healed itself fully, and until there can be proper reparations, proper resources, proper counseling, proper abolition, and equal opportunity, it never will and these legacies of trauma will continue to live in the psyche of the diaspora.
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