The Ancestors In the Room

Driving in to work today, I caught this fascinating programme ‘All in the Womb’ on Radio Four about Rachel Yehuda’s research into epigenetic inherited trauma.

Yehuda’s work has focused on the children of Holocaust survivors and latterly children who were born to mothers involved in the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks.  By measuring Cortisol ranges, the study’s findings show:

“Exposure to stress in utero results in developmental programming of tissue structure and function associated with cortisol and cortisol metabolism in the fetus, and later, adult offspring”.

She also suggests that there may be attachment, bonding and other issues resulting from this inherited trauma.

I’m interested by this because, an essential aspect of Core Process Psychotherapy both in our training and in the work with clients,  holds attention on the pre/peri-natal experience and how the body structures and tissues may hold this early patterning.

When working with a client, I’m curious about their family tree, not because I’m looking for someone to blame or doing detective work to figure anything out. Rather because it enables me to sense into the environment within which the client was conceived, held and birthed and what she or he may be holding in their body as a result.

An aspect of this involves paying attention to trans-generational trauma and so the ancestors are often a third aspect the room as we explore.

One of the textbooks for Core Process Psychotherapy is ‘Being and Becoming – Psychodynamics, Buddhism and the Origins of Selfhood’,  by Franklyn Sills, who says:

 ‘The pre-nate senses umbilical inflow as a living experience, makes decisions about experience, and takes shape accordingly.’

Sills discusses at length the work of Frank Lake, a pioneer in the field of pre-natal psychology and for Lake:

‘…the mixed bag of early relational and environmental experience generates a complexity of umbilical affect and a hierarchy of defended response in the prenate/infant’

Yehuda’s research seems to bear this out and in the Radio 4 documentary today, the discussion around the epigenetics of trauma are explored in relation to the impact on DNA as well as the psychological aspects.

This work is so rich and particularly important to those whose parents have suffered PTSD because it demonstrates how trauma is held in the cellular structures of the body.

A bodymind approach to psychotherapy is vital for working in this territory and it is exciting that many of the things that drew me to Core Process Psychotherapy, which at the time felt like an instinctual knowing for me, are now becoming grounded in scientific research.

So can we change?  In the documentary Yehuda says that it is possible, but that just using medication to change the DNA structures is not the only answer.  We need therapeutic approaches that hold both body and mind –  it is not nature or nuture but both that need our attention.

One aspect that seems particularly important for healing which is at the heart of Core Process Psychotherapy involves a compassionate relational holding field. My experience of this both personally and as a clinician is that healing happens in the opening and deepening within a wider holding relational field.   This may take time because the traumatised bodymind is oriented to safety and often for some people this may manifest in a form of self-protection by keeping the relationship out by any means.

I have often found that working with nature facilitates a deep experience of stillness or being held.  I learned in Dave Harley & Matt Adams’ presentation at The Heart of Silence conference this weekend that Christopher Bolas refers to this as the ‘uncanny pleasure of being held’

Franklyn Sills states that whilst mindfulness is now being taught in a variety of cognitive therapies, he suggests that

‘Cognitive therapies are not, however, oriented to the deeper organising factors of self-form.  They are geared more to affect and behaviour modification.’

In talking about Core Process Psychotherapy as an approach to healing deep developmental trauma he says:

‘This healing process is non-linear; it is more like being in the presence of spirals within spirals, fields within fields.  The therapeutic imperative takes its own course in its own time, and the nature of its unfoldment cannot be guessed or analyzed.  It is by its own nature, a mysterious gateway to being-itself’

In this work, I often think about the more shamanic aspects of ancestral rituals. I wonder in the spirals of healing, whether the ancestors may receive some benefit and are able to rest deeper into the stillness.


Rachel Yehuda, PhD and Linda M. Bierer, MD – The Relevance of Epigenetics to PTSD: Implications for the DSM-V  Published in final edited form as:
J Trauma Stress. 2009 Oct; 22(5): 427–434.
Published online 2009 Oct 7. doi:  10.1002/jts.20448


Sills, Franklyn – Being and Becoming, Psychodynamics, Buddhism and the Origin of Selfhood, Pub by North Atlantic Books 2008


Dave Harley & Matt Adams ‘Silence Research’ presented at The Heart of Silence Conference, Regents University 17th April 2016.

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