Mind Matters: From family therapy to epigenetics

In my early years as a psychologist and family therapist, I had the good fortune to meet and learn from many pioneers of family therapy. Perhaps the grandfather of family therapy, Murray Bowen, and his theories captivated me the most. He did not just consider the individual, couple, or family in the session; he was interested in the inter-generational patterns in the family tree. He wanted to know who the great-grandparents, the grandparents, the parents were, both who was born and who died when and where. He derived emotional patterns in the facts of the family as they cascaded down the generations. Bowen intuited that there was a biological foundation in how the grief, stresses and traumas of one generation informed succeeding generations

Now, with the burgeoning field of epigenetics, Bowen’s theories prove true. Epigenetics is the study of the influence of the environment upon the genome —the individual’s DNA identity. No. Your DNA doesn’t change, but the environment does “tag” the various expressions of your genes, so that parts of your genome don’t get expressed. Geneticists, such as Randy Jirtle (see the July 24, 2007, PBS Nova program regarding Epigenetics, Ghost in Your Genes.) use this analogy: consider the genome (the particular DNA) of an individual to be like a computer, and the epigenome would be like the software.

So you can say, “OK, big deal, I eat junk food or smoke cigarettes and debilitate my body. It’s my body, so what?” Well, the problem is what you do to your body that changes the biochemical expression of a gene gets passed down the generations. What our grandparents did does affect us. But, it is not only what we, or our grandparents, did themselves. It is also what has been done to them or us that is especially profound psychologically. If our grandparents suffered traumas—wars, violence or poverty—the emotional effects are transmitted not just behaviorally, but in the expression of genetics.

That is the downside. The upside is that this epigenetic effect on the genome can be changed. This is where choice and awareness come in. We actually can heal the past—at least the DNA expression of our history—through psychotherapy, learning about our family mythology and transcending its constrictions, learning how to emotionally regulate and defuse our emotional reactivity. Turns out our bodies are more than ourselves. We truly are connected to the past and we can change the future generations by changing ourselves now.

* Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or 610-388-2888. Past columns are posted to www.drgajdos.com

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About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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