Researchers are investigating how ancestral trauma might be “passed down” to future generations, through genetics and other means.
Can trauma be transmitted by genetics? This is a question widely debated by the scientific community.
There is growing interest in whether the trauma experienced by our parents and grandparents can impact our mental health.
But it is not yet known whether this impact is biological, psychological or both.
Genetic trauma refers to the effects of trauma that some say we inherit from previous generations.
While “genetic trauma” is a term people search online and use in everyday conversation, many experts avoid the term.
Tracy L. Bale, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, says, “We don’t have a lot of evidence that trauma is genetically – or epigenetically, more specifically – inherited.”
Epigenetics is the study of how events that happen to you and your behaviors — such as traumatic events and responses to trauma — can change how your genes work. These changes don’t affect your DNA sequence, but they can affect how your body reads that DNA.
But even though there is no direct genetic evidence, Bale notes that the “effects [of trauma] on the next generation can be important without being inherited.
It’s no secret that trauma can change us. What is less understood or talked about less is its impact on the next generation.
Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is generally linked to personal trauma, some twin studies have estimated the heritability of PTSD to be between
While experts are still studying the biological drivers of inherited trauma, research offers us insight into how trauma from past generations can impact future generations.
Here are some ways trauma can impact generations:
Some non-biological ways of passing trauma from one generation to the next include:
- dysfunctional dynamics between you and your family members resulting from trauma, such as codependency, unhealthy attachment styles, or parental dissociation
- family histories of traumatic events
- memories and photographs
- letters or heirlooms
The history of genetic trauma research
Several studies conducted in the 1970s found that children of pregnant women during this famine were more prone to higher than average body mass and diabetes, forming the basis for future research on intergenerational or transgenerational trauma.
When researchers at Columbia University studied Dutch starvation child deaths for a 2013 study, they found that prenatal starvation was linked to lower mortality.
Scientists also found that trauma can have a generational impact when they studied the children of Holocaust survivors, as found in a 2015 study.
The study mentioned an association between prenatal trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety in children.
Bale’s extensive work shows that parental stress can impact the following factors in children:
- obesity risk
- diabetes risk
- brain development
She says the effects can vary depending on the gender of the baby. “Prenatal stress seems to affect boys more, and postnatal stress affects girls more. This may have to do with the protective effects of the female placenta during gestation.
“Trauma healing is so important, but not easy to do, and certainly something we don’t understand on a biological level. There’s still a lot of work to do here,” Bale says.
Although more research is needed, here are some healing avenues to consider.
Discover your family history
Even if you don’t know your lineage’s traumatic history, knowing more about your family history can help you determine how what your family went through in their lifetime may or may not have affected you.
Here are some research ideas to get you started:
- List the wars, political movements and other major historical events that your ancestors experienced and think about how these events shaped your family.
- Consider the cultural and religious values of certain eras that may have influenced your family’s belief system.
- List the personal history your ancestors endured and perhaps discuss it with living family members if there is mutual openness and security. Studying this list can lead to psychological insight.
Explore Positive Environments
Both positive and negative environments have an impact on our brain. Thanks to neuroplasticity, our brain can change.
Try to expose yourself and immerse yourself in a positive environment and healthy relationships where your needs can be met. Chances are these efforts will have an impact on your future children.
Knowing that resilience and post-traumatic growth are possible
Dealing with any form of trauma is incredibly difficult, and perhaps especially so when the trauma comes from your family of origin.
No one can be expected to show growth or recovery until they are ready, especially in the face of trauma caused by systemic racism or socioeconomic status. Some might find it helpful to consider the scientific basis for post-traumatic growth and resilience when analyzing the impact of previous generations on them.
The area of hereditary trauma research is one to watch. Generally, making connections between the past and the present can help us better understand the human condition.
As the scientific community catches up with its interest in hereditary trauma, individuals have the opportunity to explore the impact their family lineage and ancestral experiences may have had on them.
It’s probably best to discuss the generational impact of trauma with the help of a trusted therapist. If you’re looking for a therapist, consider checking out Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource.