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Generational trauma, epigenetics, and mental health

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

An image of DNA.

We know that our genes are passed down from generation to generation, but do we also pass down the effects of trauma? There’s still much to learn about this possibility, but researchers have begun exploring how generational trauma can influence our lives.

What is generational trauma?

“Generational trauma” (also called “intergenerational trauma” or “inherited trauma”) is a term for traumatic impacts that are passed from one generation of a family to the next. It has been linked to a range of experiences, including:

  • Indigenous genocide
  • Slavery
  • Racism
  • The Holocaust
  • War
  • Famine
  • Natural disasters

Trauma can have deep consequences for later generations. Some are external, such as financial difficulties or the behavior patterns a family develops in order to cope.

The idea that trauma can also be passed down internally is the subject of ongoing research and debate. The theory is that trauma can change the way our genes function, and those changes are then transmitted to future generations. There appears to be some evidence that this happens, but more research is needed to confirm and clarify the process.

What is epigenetics?

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) describes epigenetics as “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the ways your genes work.”1 “Epi-” means “on top of” in Greek, so epigenetics can be thought of as the study of what’s happening “above” your genes.

Your DNA includes encoded instructions for cell production. “Gene expression” happens when that code is read and put into action. The code’s interpretation may differ depending on certain factors, such as your overall genetic makeup, your age, and whether you’ve been exposed to harmful substances.2

Epigenetics focuses on this process, looking at how experiences can affect gene expression and whether those changes can then be passed along. Much of epigenetics concerns whether certain genes have been turned “on” or “off.”

Epigenetics and trauma

Epigenetic researchers believe traumatic experiences of all kinds may create tiny chemical tags that attach to our genes and influence how they function. We may then pass these tags along to our children and grandchildren.

Scientists and researchers don’t yet fully understand the epigenetic picture of generational trauma, but they have found evidence of the internal impact of trauma on future generations. Experiencing severe trauma, for example, can cause you to produce higher levels of stress hormones in order to survive. These higher stress levels may be passed on to descendants who didn’t experience that trauma themselves, as a 2015 study involving children of Holocaust survivors found.3

In another study, sons of Civil War soldiers who survived Confederate prisoner-of-war camps were likely to die earlier than sons of soldiers who weren’t captured or were placed in camps with better conditions.4 A third study showed that children whose mothers survived the Tutsi genocide during pregnancy were likelier to experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than children whose mothers hadn’t experienced that trauma.5

Trauma-related mental illnesses

Trauma can cause or worsen a range of mental health disorders, including:

Generational trauma and mental health

We know our own traumatic experiences can impact our mental health. Epigenetic studies suggest that the trauma of past generations may also play a role in mental health issues such as:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Substance abuse
  • Hypervigilance or hyperarousal
  • Dissociation

Does generational trauma always result in mental illness?

Research into generational trauma is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot we don’t understand. But it is clear that having a history of trauma in your family doesn’t mean you’ll automatically develop a mental illness.

The causes of mental illness are varied and more accurately described as “risk factors.” Risk factors for mental illness include stressful life situations, abuse of alcohol or recreational drugs, and a history of abuse or neglect. Generational trauma is another risk factor.

Therapy for generational trauma

If you or a loved one are struggling, therapy can help improve your mental health and quality of life. Trauma-informed therapies include:

Visit our directory to find a trauma-informed therapist who can help support your healing.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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