Mind Matters: The past is present

We are people of the now: quick apps; Amazon at the ready; near instantaneous gratification is ours. However, something must be gnawing at our souls. Why else would we be sending our saliva samples to Ancestry.com or 23andme?

Finding your DNA matters if your family tree may come up with some surprises you didn’t expect — a relative you didn’t know you had, a proclivity to a certain disease you were never aware of. And yet we persist — we do inevitably want to understand our origins and make connections with others who share them.

Heavily influenced by psychologist Murray Bowen, who, as early as the 1950s and 1960s, stressed the importance of a client’s family of origin, I took it upon myself to always construct a genogram of every client, usually in the initial session.

Climbing the family tree gives a wealth of information that would otherwise be dismissed. Patterns emerge in creating the genogram, a diagram of families and their relationships as far back as you can get them. One begins to see how deaths, traumas, illnesses, connect. Anniversary reactions to different troubling events become understood. The past is in the present.

Bowen always believed the biological connection of how trauma is transmitted down generations would someday be found, and it has been. Epigenetics is the study of how change occurs at the genetic level when some traumatic events occur. This is not a mutation of the DNA but a turning on or off of certain mechanisms in the face of biochemical changes that occur in response to trauma. What happened generations ago to an ancestor can carry forward to a descendant.

Recently, the APA Monitor highlighted the issue of inter-generational trauma. In 1966, psychiatrist Vivian Rokoff and her colleagues published their observations of psychological distress among the offspring of Holocaust survivors. Yael Danieli is also well known for her inter-generational research with Holocaust survivors. Danieli notes, “massive traumas like those [like the Holocaust] affect people and societies in multi-dimensional ways…it behooves us to study this area as widely as possible, so we can learn from people’s suffering and how to prevent it for future generations.”

Whenever there is trauma, there can be profound inter-generational effects. In addition to Holocaust survivors, this is evident in the history of the displacement and genocide of Native Americans, in the enslavement of African Americans, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in global migrations of refugees fleeing violence.

Inter-generational trauma can affect not only a family but whole societies. While changes may occur at the cellular level — the epigenetics of the individual — they may also occur at the level of meaning-making. Family mythologies of how to view the world and others in it get filtered through the lens of trauma and fear. When we can name what we fear, we can rewrite the family mythology and address the traumatic themes in new and healthy ways.

Ignoring the past does not make it go away. Furthermore, being present to the past gives us an opportunity to bind the wounds of our ancestors and to open the future for our descendants.

The following additional resources are recommended by Tori Deangelis, in “The Legacy of Trauma,” Monitor on Psychology, February 2019:

  • “Cultural Trauma and Epigenetic Inheritance,” A. Lehrner & R. Yehuda, Development and Psychopathology, 2018.
  • International Center for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, Yael Danieli, Ph.D.,  at yaeld@aol.com.
  • International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, Y. Danieli, Springer, 1998.
  • “Intergenerational Perceptions of Mass Trauma’s Impact on Physical Health and Well-Being,” B. Bezo & S. Maggi, Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 2018.


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.



1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (4 votes, average: 4.50 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.