How Our Kids and Grandkids Inherit Our Stress

Have you ever noticed that when you are stressed, every little glitch and hiccup in your life is magnified? When my emotions are frayed, stress seems to build with every setback, real or perceived.

Typically this mentality of stress can be traced back to something in particular happening in my current life stage, whether it be a looming work deadline or an unsettling situation or whatever. But recent research findings suggest that the origins of our stress go back even further—like to our parents and grandparents. Carrie Arnold reports on this in an article posted at Scientific American titled “Effects of Stress Can Persist for Generations”:

Larry Feig and Lorena Saavedra-Rodríguez, biochemists at the Tufts University School of Medicine, caused chronic social stress in adolescent mice by regularly relocating them to new cages over the course of seven weeks. The researchers then tested these stressed mice in adulthood using a series of standard laboratory measures for rodent anxiety, such as how long the mice spent in open areas of a maze and how frequently they approached mice they had never met before.

[ . . . ]

The males who had been stressed as adolescents even transmitted these behavior patterns to their female grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Interesting, isn’t it? If the findings of stress patterns in mice can be applied to stress patterns in humans, then the stress we feel today may have started before we were even born. In a way, our stress was inherited, passed down from generation to generation. It makes sense, really: We learn from our parents how to handle and respond to life. Stress reactions and responses are part of that bundle.

This echoes something Moses said to the Israelites. It was a warning that God will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Num. 14:18, ESV). Stress, spiritually speaking, is the emotional signal showing a lack of trust in God’s care and provision in our lives. At its root, then, stress is sin, something passed along—visited—in future generations.

Although it may be tempting to blame our ancestors for the stress we experience today, this isn’t the full story. We choose plenty of our own dysfunction and sin in life. (Also, we must remember that we will one day be among the ancestors accused—and guilty.)

The good news is that God doesn’t leave us to forever accumulate sin. In Christ, sin’s power is canceled out, which was also part of Moses’s speech. Just before he warned of sin’s haunting nature, he spoke of God’s forgiving nature: “God, slow to get angry and huge in loyal love, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; still, never just whitewashing sin. But extending the fallout of parents’ sins to children into the third, even the fourth generation” (Num. 14:18, The Message).

As true as it may be that stress is included in the sin bundle we inherit, it is even more true that God has stepped in to forgive and cut off the fallout to lighten the load. Stress may be inherited, but we are not required to keep it.

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