Understanding Trauma Generation to Generation

Understanding Trauma Generation to Generation

What is ancestral trauma, intergenerational trauma, or transgenerational trauma?

Generational trauma, also known as ancestral trauma, intergenerational trauma, or transgenerational trauma, is a phenomenon where the descendants of individuals who have experienced severe trauma exhibit signs of the trauma without having directly experienced the same traumatic event or events themselves. Generational trauma can affect families, communities, and entire cultures, subtly weaving its way through generations and impacting the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of individuals.

How is Trauma passed town through generations

The concept of intergenerational trauma emerged from the study of Holocaust survivors and their children. Researchers found that the children of survivors exhibited high levels of anxiety, depression, and other psychological symptoms, despite not having lived through the Holocaust themselves (Kellermann, 2001). This led to the recognition that trauma, including childhood trauma, could be passed down from one generation to the next.

But how exactly does this transmission inherit trauma occur? Intergenerational trauma is transmitted through various biological, psychological, and social mechanisms. Understanding these pathways can help in developing effective interventions to mitigate its effects.

1. Epigenetic Changes

Epigenetic mechanisms play a significant role in the transmission of trauma. These are changes in gene expression that do not alter the DNA sequence but can be inherited by future generations. Trauma can lead to:

  1. Altered Stress Response: Exposure to traumatic stress can result in changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates stress responses. These changes can be passed on, making descendants more susceptible to stress and anxiety (Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018).
  2. Gene Expression Modifications: Trauma can cause chemical modifications to DNA, such as methylation, which affects how genes are expressed. These modifications can be transmitted to offspring, influencing their physiological responses to stress (Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018).

2. Behavioral and Psychological Factors

The behavior and psychological state of traumatized individuals can profoundly affect their children through:

  1. Parenting Styles: Traumatized parents might exhibit overprotective, anxious, or neglectful behaviors. These parenting styles can create environments where children and other family members develop maladaptive coping mechanisms and heightened stress responses (Danieli, 1998).
  2. Emotional Climate: The emotional environment within a family, shaped by a parent’s unresolved trauma, can impact children’s emotional development. This can result in increased vulnerability to anxiety, depression, and PTSD (Kellermann, 2001).
  3. Attachment Patterns: Traumatic experiences can disrupt the formation of secure attachment between parents and children, leading to attachment disorders that can perpetuate across generations (Van der Kolk, 2005).

3. Social and Cultural Transmission

Trauma can also be transmitted through social and cultural channels, including:

  1. Family Narratives: Stories and narratives about past traumas can influence how descendants perceive their identity and history. These narratives can shape their worldview and psychological resilience or vulnerability (Brave Heart, 1998).
  2. Cultural Practices: Collective trauma can be embedded in cultural rituals, traditions, and collective memory. This shared cultural heritage can perpetuate the trauma through communal reinforcement (Brave Heart, 1998).
  3. Socialization: The social environment, including community and societal attitudes towards trauma, can influence how individuals and families process and cope with trauma. Negative social attitudes and stigmatization can exacerbate the trauma (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005).

4. Environmental Factors

Environmental factors also contribute to the transmission of mental illness and trauma across generations:

  1. Socioeconomic Status: Traumatized populations often face ongoing socio-economic challenges, such as poverty and lack of access to education and healthcare. These conditions create chronic stress, which can perpetuate the cycle of trauma (Yoshikawa, Aber, & Beardslee, 2012).
  2. Community and Structural Violence: Continued exposure to violence and discrimination in a community reinforces the trauma experienced by previous generations, perpetuating feelings of fear, mistrust, and insecurity (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005).

5. Neurobiological Mechanisms

Neurobiological changes due to trauma can be inherited by younger generations, affecting brain structure and function:

  1. Brain Development: Trauma can impact brain development, particularly in areas related to stress regulation and emotional processing. These changes can influence behavior and mental health in future generations (Van der Kolk, 2005).
  2. Neurotransmitter Systems: Alterations in neurotransmitter systems due to trauma can affect mood regulation and stress responses, which can be passed on to offspring, making them more vulnerable to mental health issues (Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018).

What are some causes of ancestral trauma or Generational Trauma?Causes of Ancestral or Generational Trauma

Generational trauma, also known as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma, can arise from various severe and pervasive stressors that can affect future generations of individuals and communities. Here are some primary causes of ancestral or generational trauma:

1. Historical Oppression and Genocide

  1. Colonization: The violent colonization of indigenous lands often involved forced relocation, cultural suppression, and widespread violence, leading to lasting trauma among native populations. For instance, Native American communities continue to grapple with the trauma resulting from colonization and forced assimilation policies (Brave Heart, 1998).
  2. Genocide: The systematic extermination of a group, such as the Holocaust during World War II, leaves deep psychological scars on survivors and their descendants (Kellermann, 2001).

2. Slavery and Forced Labor

  1. Transatlantic Slave Trade: The enslavement and brutal treatment of African people during the transatlantic slave trade have left a legacy of trauma that affects African American communities to this day (DeGruy, 2005). The trauma manifests in ongoing struggles with identity, systemic racism, and socio-economic disparities.
  2. Forced Labor Camps: Conditions in forced labor camps, where individuals were subjected to extreme deprivation, violence, and dehumanization, have lasting impacts on survivors and their descendants.

3. War and Conflict

  1. World Wars: Families affected by the World Wars, including soldiers and civilians who experienced bombings, displacement, and loss, often pass on the trauma to their descendants (Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018).
  2. Civil Wars and Ethnic Conflicts: Ongoing civil wars and ethnic conflicts, such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia, result in widespread trauma that is transmitted across generations.

4. Displacement and Refugee Experiences

  1. Forced Migration: Refugees fleeing war, persecution, or natural disasters experience significant trauma, which can be passed down to their children. The constant threat to safety and the loss of home and community during natural disasters contribute to a legacy of trauma.
  2. Internment Camps: The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, for example, created profound psychological impacts that affected future generations (Nagata, 1998).

5. Systemic Racism and Discrimination

  1. Racial Segregation and Apartheid: The systemic racism experienced by African Americans during Jim Crow laws in the United States or by Black South Africans during apartheid created deep-rooted trauma that persists through generations (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005).
  2. Ongoing Discrimination: Continuous exposure to racism and discrimination reinforces the trauma experienced by previous generations, perpetuating a cycle of stress and psychological harm.

6. Sexual and Physical Violence

  1. Sexual Abuse: Survivors of sexual abuse often experience significant trauma, which can affect their parenting and subsequently impact their children (Morris et al., 2015).
  2. Domestic Violence: Exposure to domestic violence creates a traumatic environment for children, which can lead to the transmission of trauma across generations.

7. Poverty and Economic Hardship

  1. Chronic Poverty: Long-term economic hardship can create a pervasive sense of insecurity and stress, affecting family dynamics and child development (Yoshikawa, Aber, & Beardslee, 2012).
  2. Economic Discrimination: Groups systematically marginalized and denied economic opportunities, such as certain immigrant populations, experience ongoing stress and trauma.

The Impact of iIntergenerational Trauma on Mental Health

The effects of generational trauma can be profound and multifaceted. They often manifest as mental health problems, such mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. However, the impact is not limited to psychological symptoms. Physical symptoms can also occur, with higher rates of chronic illnesses observed in individuals with a history of familial trauma.

For instance, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that children of Holocaust survivors had higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, indicating a heightened stress response (Yehuda et al., 2016). Similarly, research on Native American communities has shown a link between historical trauma and increased rates of substance abuse, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (Brave Heart, 1998).

Intergenerational trauma can manifest in various ways, affecting emotional, psychological, and physical health. Recognizing trauma symptoms can help individuals understand their experiences and seek appropriate support. Here are some indicators that you might be affected by intergenerational trauma:

1. Emotional and Psychological Symptoms

  1. Anxiety and Depression: Persistent feelings of anxiety and depression that seem disproportionate to your current life circumstances may be linked to inherited trauma.
  2. Hypervigilance: A constant state of alertness and fearfulness, even in safe environments, can indicate a legacy of trauma.
  3. Low Self-Esteem: Feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, or an inability to achieve personal goals can be rooted in generational trauma.
  4. Unexplained Guilt or Shame: Experiencing intense guilt or shame without a clear cause can be a sign of trauma passed down through generations.

2. Behavioral Patterns

  1. Avoidance: Avoiding situations, people, or places that trigger distressing memories or emotions.
  2. Substance Abuse: Using alcohol or drugs to cope with emotional pain or stress.
  3. Perfectionism: An excessive need for control and perfection, often stemming from a desire to avoid criticism or failure.
  4. Repetitive Negative Patterns: Engaging in self-destructive behaviors or relationships that mirror those of previous generations.

3. Physical Symptoms

  1. Chronic Health Issues: Persistent physical health problems, such as headaches, gastrointestinal issues, or chronic pain, without a clear medical cause.
  2. Sleep Disturbances: Insomnia, nightmares, or other sleep disorders that affect your quality of life.
  3. Fatigue: Chronic fatigue and lack of energy, despite adequate rest and nutrition.

4. Relational Issues

  1. Attachment Problems: Difficulty forming secure, trusting relationships or experiencing intense fear of abandonment.
  2. Family Conflict: Repeated family conflicts and dysfunction that seem to recur across generations.
  3. Isolation: Withdrawing from social interactions and feeling disconnected from others.

5. Cognitive and Psychological Effects

  1. Intrusive Thoughts: Recurring, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks related to traumatic events experienced by ancestors.
  2. Difficulty Concentrating: Trouble focusing or making decisions, often accompanied by a sense of overwhelm.
  3. Dissociation: Feeling detached from reality or experiencing out-of-body experiences during stressful situations.

Criticism of Inherited Trauma via Epigenetics

The concept of inherited trauma through epigenetic mechanisms has garnered significant interest and support in scientific and psychological communities. However, it also faces substantial criticism and skepticism. Here are some key criticisms:

1. Scientific Evidence and Reproducibility

  1. Limited Direct Evidence: While animal studies have shown that trauma can cause epigenetic changes that affect subsequent generations, direct evidence in humans is less conclusive. Critics argue that the existing human studies often have small sample sizes and inconsistent results (Heard & Martienssen, 2014).
  2. Reproducibility Issues: Epigenetic studies, particularly those related to trauma, sometimes struggle with reproducibility. Variability in findings and the influence of external factors make it challenging to replicate results consistently (Rothstein, Cai, & Marchant, 2009).

2. Complexity of Epigenetic Mechanisms

  1. Epigenetic Changes are Dynamic: Epigenetic marks are not static and can be influenced by a wide range of environmental factors, making it difficult to establish a direct causal link between ancestral trauma and specific epigenetic changes in descendants (Goldberg, Allis, & Bernstein, 2007).
  2. Multiple Influences: Critics point out that numerous factors, such as diet, lifestyle, and environmental exposures, can influence epigenetic modifications, complicating the interpretation of data linking trauma to epigenetic changes (Skinner, 2014).

3. Methodological Concerns

  1. Confounding Variables: Studies on epigenetic inheritance of trauma often face challenges in controlling for confounding variables, such as socio-economic status, cultural factors, and ongoing stressors, which can influence both epigenetic marks and psychological outcomes (Heijmans & Mill, 2012).
  2. Longitudinal Studies Needed: Establishing causal relationships between ancestral trauma and epigenetic changes requires long-term, multi-generational studies, which are logistically challenging and expensive to conduct (Dias & Ressler, 2014).

4. Ethical and Social Implications

  1. Determinism Concerns: Some critics argue that emphasizing epigenetic inheritance of trauma can lead to deterministic views, where individuals feel that their fate is sealed by their ancestors' experiences, potentially undermining personal agency and resilience (Browne, 2018).
  2. Social and Policy Implications: There is concern that focusing on biological explanations for trauma transmission might divert attention from addressing social determinants of health and the need for systemic change to support traumatized communities (Lappé & Landecker, 2015).

5. Interdisciplinary Perspectives

  1. Integration with Psychological and Social Models: Critics advocate for a more integrated approach that combines biological, psychological, and social models to understand trauma transmission. They argue that focusing solely on epigenetics oversimplifies the complex nature of trauma and its transmission across generations (Meaney, 2010).
  2. Holistic Approaches: A comprehensive understanding of generational trauma should also consider cultural, historical, and environmental contexts rather than attributing it primarily to epigenetic mechanisms (Szyf, 2014).

While our research shows the field of epigenetics provides intriguing insights into potential mechanisms for the transmission of trauma, it is essential to approach these findings with caution. The complexity of epigenetic regulation, coupled with methodological challenges and broader ethical concerns, underscores the need for a balanced and interdisciplinary perspective. Continued research, particularly long-term and multi-generational studies, is necessary to clarify the role of epigenetics in inherited trauma and to integrate these findings with psychological, social, and cultural frameworks.

Can Genes Be Switched On and Off?

Genes can indeed be switched on and off through various mechanisms, which can have profound effects on our health and well-being. Trauma can be transmitted across multiple generations, through epigenetic changes, but these changes are not permanent and can be influenced by environmental factors, including therapeutic interventions.

Mechanisms of Gene Regulation

1. Epigenetic Modifications

  1. DNA Methylation: This involves adding methyl groups to DNA, which can suppress gene expression. For example, trauma can lead to increased DNA methylation in stress-related genes, potentially passing on heightened stress responses to offspring (Bird, 2002).
  2. Histone Modification: Histones are proteins around which DNA is wound. Chemical modifications to histones, such as acetylation and methylation, can either promote or repress gene expression by altering chromatin structure (Jenuwein & Allis, 2001).
  3. Non-Coding RNAs: These small RNA molecules can interfere with gene expression at both the transcriptional and post-transcriptional levels, thereby playing a role in regulating gene activity in response to environmental changes (Bartel, 2004).

Transmission of Trauma Through Genes

Trauma can lead to epigenetic changes that are passed on to subsequent generations. These changes do not alter the DNA sequence itself but trauma may affect how genes are expressed. Here are some ways this can occur:

  1. Altered Stress Response: Traumatic experiences can alter the regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls stress responses. These changes can be epigenetically inherited, leading to increased susceptibility to stress in descendants (Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018).
  2. Behavioral Patterns: Trauma can influence behavior and coping mechanisms, which can be passed down through both genetic and social learning mechanisms. These behaviors can affect gene expression in subsequent generations.

How do you break ancestral trauma?

Breaking the cycle or healing generational trauma requires a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach that addresses the complex ways in breaking generational trauma is transmitted and manifests in individuals and communities. Seeking support from a mental health professional is crucial in assessing the situation, providing support, and guiding individuals in working through complex emotions related to generational trauma. Here are key strategies to help break the cycle:

Understanding the impact of multigenerational trauma is essential. This type of trauma often stems from historical events such as oppression, violence, and major traumatic events experienced by specific cultural, racial, or ethnic groups known as collective trauma. Recognizing these long-lasting effects and psychological distress that can affect a trauma survivor can help in developing effective coping mechanisms and healing strategies for those seeking to heal generational trauma.

Trauma survivors who have experienced oppression, racism, discrimination child abuse, or violence often carry the burden of generational trauma. Addressing the needs of these individuals and providing them with the necessary support is vital in breaking the cycle of trauma within families and bonded communities.

1. Trauma-Informed Therapy

  1. Individual Therapy: Engaging in trauma-focused therapies, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and somatic experiencing, can aid in healing generational trauma (Levine, 2015).
  2. Family Therapy: Family-based interventions can address patterns of behavior and communication that perpetuate trauma. Therapies like Family Systems Therapy can help families develop healthier dynamics (Danieli, 1998).
  3. Group Therapy: Support groups and group therapy provide a space for individuals to share their experiences and gain support from others with similar backgrounds. This can foster a sense of community and reduce feelings of isolation (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005).

2. Cultural and Community Healing

  1. Cultural Revitalization: Reconnecting with cultural traditions, languages, and practices can foster a sense of identity and belonging, counteracting the effects of cultural or collective trauma (Brave Heart, 1998).
  2. Community Programs: Initiatives that focus on community building and resilience can provide support and resources. Examples include community healing circles, cultural events, and educational workshops.
  3. Collective Healing Rituals: Engaging in collective rituals and ceremonies can help communities process grief and trauma collectively, reinforcing social bonds and shared resilience (Brave Heart, 1998).

3. Education and Awareness

  1. Trauma Education: Increasing awareness about the nature and impact of generational trauma can empower individuals and communities. Educational programs can teach coping strategies and promote mental health literacy (Danieli, 1998).
  2. Historical Education: Learning about the historical context of trauma can help individuals understand their experiences and develop a sense of agency. This includes educating people about the histories of oppression, colonization, and systemic discrimination (Brave Heart, 1998).

4. Supportive Policies and Practices

  1. Trauma-Informed Care: Institutions, such as schools, healthcare facilities, and social services, should adopt trauma-informed practices to create safe and supportive environments for individuals affected by generational trauma (SAMHSA, 2014).
  2. Economic and Social Support: Policies that address socio-economic disparities and provide access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities can reduce the chronic stressors that perpetuate trauma (Yoshikawa, Aber, & Beardslee, 2012).

5. Building Resilience

  1. Mindfulness and Self-Care: Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and other forms of self-care can help individuals manage stress and build emotional resilience (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
  2. Strengthening Social Connections: Developing strong, supportive relationships can provide emotional support and reduce the feelings of isolation that often accompany trauma (Cohen & Wills, 1985).
  3. Positive Parenting Programs: Programs that teach positive parenting skills can help break the cycle of trauma by promoting healthy, supportive, and nurturing parent-child relationships (Van der Kolk, 2005).

Recognizing the signs of intergenerational trauma is the first step towards healing. By seeking professional help, exploring your family history, and engaging in self-care and community resources, you can begin to break the cycle of trauma and build a healthier future for yourself and future generations.

How Therapy Can Help Regulate Gene Expression

Therapeutic interventions can influence gene expression and potentially reverse harmful epigenetic changes. Here’s how:

1. Psychotherapy and Epigenetics

  1. Reduction of Stress Hormones: Effective psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol. This reduction can lead to changes in DNA methylation patterns associated with stress, thereby potentially "switching off" stress-related genes (Yehuda et al., 2013).
  2. Improvement in Mental Health: Psychotherapy can improve mood and stress resilience, which can normalize gene expression patterns linked to depression and anxiety (Russo et al., 2012).

2. Trauma-Focused Therapies

  1. EMDR and PTSD: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can help reduce symptoms of PTSD by reprocessing traumatic memories. This therapeutic process can lead to changes in neural networks and gene expression, helping to "switch off" genes associated with heightened stress responses (Shapiro, 2014).
  2. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): Mindfulness practices can reduce inflammation and stress at the molecular level. Studies have shown that mindfulness can lead to beneficial changes in gene expression, including reduced activity of genes related to inflammation and stress (Black & Slavich, 2016).

3. Pharmacotherapy and Epigenetics

  1. Antidepressants: Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can influence gene expression by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. This increase can lead to epigenetic changes that promote neuroplasticity and resilience (Tsankova et al., 2006).
  2. Histone Deacetylase (HDAC) Inhibitors: These drugs can increase gene expression by preventing the removal of acetyl groups from histones. They are being studied for their potential to treat mental health conditions by promoting more open chromatin structure and active gene transcription (Grayson et al., 2010).

4. Lifestyle and Behavioral Interventions

  1. Exercise: Regular physical activity can influence gene expression positively. Exercise has been shown to reduce methylation of genes involved in metabolism and inflammation, which promotes overall health and well-being (Barrès et al., 2012).
  2. Diet: Nutrition impacts gene expression through the availability of nutrients that act as methyl donors or cofactors in enzymatic reactions involved in epigenetic modifications. A healthy diet can support favorable gene expression patterns (Waterland & Jirtle, 2004).

While trauma can be transmitted through epigenetic changes, these changes are not irreversible. Genes can be switched on and off based on various factors, including therapeutic interventions, lifestyle choices, and environmental influences. By utilizing psychotherapy, trauma-focused therapies, pharmacotherapy, and healthy lifestyle practices, individuals can potentially mitigate the effects of inherited trauma and promote healing and resilience.


Understanding and addressing generational trauma is essential for creating healthier families and communities. By acknowledging the past and its impact on the present, we can work towards a future where the silent legacy of trauma no longer dictates the lives of those who inherit it. Healing is possible, and with the right support and interventions, individuals and communities can break free from the chains of generational trauma and thrive.

Breaking the cycle of ancestral trauma is a complex but achievable goal. It requires a holistic approach that addresses the biological, psychological, social, and cultural dimensions of trauma. By providing trauma-informed therapy, fostering cultural and community healing, increasing education and awareness, implementing supportive policies, and building resilience, individuals and communities can heal from the wounds of the past and create a healthier future.


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