Inherited Stress from Our Historical Past

Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?

Posted Jul 26, 2018

In a 2015 article in Scientific American, it was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs

These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?

Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?

This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?

Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):  

  1. Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above. 
  2. At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
  3. Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
  4. At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.  
  5. After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.  
  6. Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923). 
  7. Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.

When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs

My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.

Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study. One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title, "Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges." Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?

Are we becoming psychologically more compromised with each subsequent generation?

Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overusePsychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagersAnxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs

What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation. Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?

So that I am not misunderstood, I am not talking only about current adolescents and those in emerging adulthood who are showing mental health disorders.  I am talking about entire generations as a whole that may not be as psychologically whole in general as they could be.

If this analysis has merit, then it is all the more imperative that we take very seriously the idea of forgiveness education in general, not just for those with diagnosed mental disorders.

Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.  

A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.  

Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.