Intergenerational Trauma, Epigenetics & Mental Health

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

We know that we pass down genes from generation to generation, but do we also pass down the effects of experiencing trauma? There is still a lot that we don’t know or understand about this possibility, but researchers are exploring how intergenerational trauma may impact our lives.

Intergenerational trauma is based on a theory that trauma creates changes to our DNA, which is then passed down to the next generations. The changes to DNA are thought not to change the actual DNA structure, but rather how our genes function.

Examples of Intergenerational Trauma

There are a range of examples of past and present trauma that could result in intergenerational trauma. Some examples include:

  • Indigenous genoicide
  • Slavery
  • The racism experienced by many people of color in the United States
  • The Holocuast
  • War
  • Famine
  • Natural disasters

Can Trauma Be Passed Down?

Trauma can have many consequences for later generations. Some of these are external to the person and include things like financial implications and patterns of behavior that develop to cope with the trauma. 

However, the idea that trauma could also be passed down through our genes is the subject of ongoing research and debate. While there does appear to be some evidence for intergenerational trauma, more research needs to be done to better understand if trauma can be passed down and if so, how that process affects our genetic material.

What Is Epigenetics?

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)1, epigenetics is the study of how the environment and our behaviors change the ways in which our genes are expressed. 

Epigenetics does not study how genes change, but instead how gene expression changes. This means that the original DNA structure is still intact. 

“Epi-” means “on top of” in Greek, so epigenetics is the study of what is going on “above” your genes. Much of epigenetics concerns whether certain genes have been turned “on” or “off.” The underlying genome has not been affected, but the expression of it has.

Can DNA Change?

Intergenerational trauma does not change our DNA. Instead, it changes how it is expressed.

In other words, what we experience may create tiny chemical tags that attach to our genes and influence how that gene functions. With intergenerational trauma, these tags may appear on the genes of the people who directly experienced the trauma, and it’s possible that the tags may also be passed down from generation to generation.The theory is that intergenerational trauma alters the expression or functioning of our genes. One study2 found that sons of soldiers who had been prisoners of war (POWs) in the Civil War were more likely to die earlier than those who were sons of soldiers who were never captured or who were placed in camps with better conditions. The researchers believed that this may indicate that the stress experienced by POW fathers may have affected their genes and that this was then passed down to and influenced the children’s gene expression.

What Does Gene Expression Mean?

Your DNA includes encoded instructions for cell production. Gene expression happens when that code is read and put into action. However, the interpretation of that code may differ depending on certain factors. 

Epigenetics is concerned with this interpretation of our genetic material. In particular, it takes a look at how trauma can affect that interpretation and whether or not trauma-induced changes to interpretation can then be passed down to other generations. Experiencing a war, for example, can cause your body to produce higher levels of stress hormones in order to survive. However, these higher stress levels may be passed on to children who did not experience the war themselves, as was found in a 2015 study regarding children of Holocaust survivors.3

Epigenetics and Trauma

How does trauma create intergenerational trauma? Epigenetic researchers believe that trauma of all kinds may leave a chemical marker that can affect gene expression for subsequent generations. In addition to the studies on the Civil War prisoners of War and Holocaust survivors, other studies have also pointed to evidence of chemical markers from trauma.

One study4 on Swedish individuals found higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular death for individuals whose parents and grandparents had greater access to food during their own childhoods. Essentially, if a parent overate when they were a child in the 1940s, their child may have a higher risk for diabetes and hypertension as an adult in the 1980s. 

Another study5 found that children of Tutsi genocide survivors were more likely to experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than children whose mothers had not experienced that trauma.

While scientists and researchers do not yet fully understand intergenerational trauma, there is evidence that trauma may impact future generations.

How Inherited Trauma Affects Mental Health

We know that having a history of trauma can impact a person’s mental health throughout their lifetime. Epigenetic studies indicate that the trauma experienced by past generations may also affect our own mental health. Intergenerational trauma could possibility lead to mental health issues like:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Substance abuse
  • Hypervigilance or hyperarousal
  • Disassociation
  • Other medical issues

Many mental health disorders can either be caused by trauma or can be made worse if the person experiences trauma. Trauma-related mental illnesses can create negative emotions and have a negative impact on a person’s daily life. Some trauma-related disorders include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Addiction
  • Dissociation/derealization
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Is All Mental Illness Caused by Inherited Trauma?

The research into intergenerational trauma is still in its infancy. There is a great deal that we don’t yet understand, but having a history of trauma in your family doesn’t mean that you will automatically develop a mental illness.

Risk Factors for Mental Illness

The causes of mental illness are varied and are more accurately described as risk factors. Risk factors for mental illness include stressful life situations that you experience, changes in brain chemistry, use of alcohol or recreational drugs, and a history of abuse or neglect. Intergenerational trauma is simply another risk factor for trauma.

Therapy for Intergenerational Trauma

If you or someone you love is perhaps experiencing intergenerational trauma, therapy may be helpful to reduce the effects and improve your mental health and quality of life. Some of the therapies that may be used to treat intergenerational trauma include:

  • EMDR: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy used to help people with the symptoms and emotions caused by trauma.
  • Somatic therapy: Somatic therapies connect a person’s mind and body through physical techniques to help relieve symptoms of trauma.
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): CPT helps people who are stuck in their thoughts, particularly surrounding a trauma experience.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A form of talk therapy, CBT helps the client change their thought patterns.

Visit our directory today to find a trauma-informed therapist and book your appointment.

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm
  2. https://www.pnas.org/content/115/44/11215
  3. https://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(15)00652-6/fulltext
  4. https://www.nature.com/articles/5200859
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24690014/