That hyper-awareness, adrenaline fuelled, heart-beating-out-of-your-chest kind of feeling you might get if faced with say, an axe wielding serial killer? Totally acceptable. That same feeling when you are simply sitting at home running a conversation you had two years ago around and around in your head and thinking of what you should have said instead? Hmm…not so much.
Anxiety. While we all have experienced in it some shape or form, do we really understand it? Of course, the scope of this post doesn’t allow for a full diagnosis (nor does my lack of psychology qualifications) but I have recently found some studies that certainly give food for thought when thinking of the cause of our anxiety and irrational fears.
What if the source of the irrational, festering anxieties within us have been passed down from our ancestors?
Sounds a bit ‘woo-woo’, right?
But bear with this thought for a moment as we run through some scientific studies to support this controversial theory called ‘epigenetic inheritance’.
Neuroscientists at Emory University, Atlanta, carried out a study in which mice were subjected to mild foot shocks accompanied by a burst of a cherry blossom-like scent called ‘acetophenone’ and naturally came to associate the scent with a fearful event. After three days of odour conditioning, just the cherry blossom scent alone instilled a panicked heart rate and surge of adrenaline in these little mice.
Here is where things get especially interesting.
All of the mice conditioned were male, and their sperm was later used to inseminate female mice who gave birth to their offspring. Raised separately,these little baby mice had no influence from their fathers, nor were they subjected to any odour conditioning.
But yet, the offspring displayed the very same panicked reaction towards the scent of cherry blossom?
Further tests showed the offspring had even developed a heightened sense of smell for the cherry blossom scent. The offspring could decipher the odour molecules of the scent at a much lower dosage than their fathers or offspring whose parents weren’t subjected to any odour conditioning.
“There was more real estate devoted to this particular odorant receptor, suggesting that there’s something in the sperm that is informing or allowing that information to be inherited,”
states Brian Dias, who led the study alongside Kerry J Ressler.
Us humans can inherit transgenerational behaviours too evidence shows.
A study on Biological Psychiatry Journal reports that the children of Holocast survivors (born after the war) had an increased likelihood to develop stress disorders compared to Jewish families who were not in Europe at the time.
Women who were pregnant during the Dutch Famine in 1944-1945 and their children were also studied for genetically inherited connections. The study concluded, “A mother’s exposure to famine prior to conception of her offspring was associated with lower self-reported measures of mental health and quality of life in her adult offspring.”
Strangely, men who smoked pre-puberty have also been associated to having sons with the highest mean BMIs compared to those whose fathers did not smoke before they were 11 years old!
So what does that mean for us?
Could our anxiety boil down to an inherited behavioural genetic tag from our ancestors? There isn’t enough supporting evidence to say for sure, but it is certainly something to consider if you do struggle with anxiety.
That said, I don’t view this discover with negativity and dismay. I don’t feel an even more lack of control towards my anxiety, and nor should you. Instead I gain a better understanding of anxiety and how to overcome it. I believe this new information should encourage us even further to let go of the shackles of our past. To take up, or return to, something that fuels your soul, to get inspired again and become devoted solely to your future – especially if our past extends beyond that of our own!
What are your thoughts on epigenetic inheritance? I’d love for you to join the discussion in the comments below.
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