Experts are learning more about who is vulnerable to it and how it manifests in families and communities.
Many things get passed down through families, like heirlooms, genetic conditions, and physical characteristics. In some cases, trauma can be inherited, too. Generational trauma (also known as intergenerational trauma or transgenerational trauma) is a field of study that researchers have a lot to discover regarding its impact and how it presents in people who experience it.
This is due in part to an emerging field of study known as epigenetics. A study published in 2018 in the journal World Psychiatry defined epigenetics as "a set of potentially heritable changes in the genome that can be induced by environmental events."
Per the study, it is theorized that generational trauma can be induced through in-utero exposure (for example, a fetus being exposed to chemicals involved in maternal stress, such as cortisol, that impact future development) or through epigenetic changes. These are the changes to an individual's DNA as a result of a traumatic experience that can theoretically be passed down through generations.
However, while there is much to learn about epigenetics and inheritance patterns related to trauma, here's what we know, according to experts.
Defining Generational Trauma
Generational trauma is trauma that isn't just experienced by one person—it extends from one generation to the next. "It can be silent, covert, and undefined, surfacing through nuances and inadvertently taught or implied throughout someone's life from an early age onward," licensed clinical psychologist and parenting evaluator Melanie English, PhD, said to Health.
Per the American Psychological Association, in 1966, Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, and Dr. Rakoff's colleagues recorded high rates of psychological distress among children of individuals who survived the Holocaust—and the concept of generational trauma was first recognized.1 This population has been the most widely studied group. However, in theory, any type of extreme, prolonged stress could have adverse psychological effects on children and grandchildren, resulting in clinical anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"Trauma affects genetic processes, leading to traumatic reactivity being heightened in populations who experience a great deal of trauma," said child and adolescent psychiatrist and author Gayani DeSilva, MD.
Who Is Vulnerable To Intergenerational Trauma?
Everyone is susceptible to generational trauma, but there are specific populations that are vulnerable due to their histories.
"Being systematically exploited, enduring repeated and continual abuse, racism, and poverty are all traumatic enough to cause genetic changes," Dr. DeSilva said. "So African Americans in the United States and around the world are particularly vulnerable. And the families affected by catastrophes such as the 2004 tsunami in Asia will have traumatic reactivity for generations to come."
People in countries that have endured years, even decades, of war may also have generational trauma, Dr. DeSilva said. Furthermore, domestic violence, sexual assault or sexual abuse, and hate crimes are other acts that can result in generational trauma.
How Generational Trauma Presents
The symptoms of generational trauma may include hypervigilance, a sense of a shortened future, mistrust, aloofness, high anxiety, depression, panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, a sensitive fight or flight response, and issues with self-esteem and self-confidence, Dr. DeSilva said.
Experts are learning more about how trauma affects the immune system. "It may lead to a dysfunctional immune system—one that's either too active or not active enough," Dr. DeSilva said. "This can result in more autoimmune diseases or a greater propensity for illness."
Trauma also influences the microglia, the brain's immune system. "When in a high trauma reactive state, the microglia eat away at nerve endings instead of enhancing growth and getting rid of damage," Dr. DeSilva said. "The microglia go haywire in the brain and cause depression, anxiety, and dementia. This can translate into genetic changes, which can be passed down to further generations."
There is no specific diagnosis of generational trauma, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals. But the phenomenon of intergenerational trauma is well accepted.
"We know trauma can manifest itself through stress, anxiety, fight or flight, and other heightened alert systems in our brain and bodies, but intergenerational trauma can also mask itself through learned beliefs, behaviors, and patterns that become engrained," English said. "This kind of wiring impacts personalities, relationships, parenting, communication, and views of the world."
Dr. DeSilva said they often saw the results of trauma in families where the trauma is repeated. "For instance, incest is often a traumatic experience which is repeated generation after generation," Dr. DeSilva said. "It becomes a horrid experience that is somehow accepted by the family because the family becomes desensitized and feels hopeless and powerless about the recurrence, and thus inadvertently enables the trauma to continue."
There are no easy answers, but generational trauma can be resolved if a holistic, intense intervention is put in place. This often involves individual therapy, though group/family therapy is another option. In some cases, treatment for generational trauma may be focused on "traditional healing methods and ceremonial practices of communities" to foster a group's cultural identity, as noted by the Administration for Children & Families, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services.2
Another aspect that can be helpful is education about generational trauma. A study published in June 2022 in the Journal of Loss and Trauma investigated the effectiveness of a generational trauma card (GTC), which included illustrations explaining how trauma could transfer from one generation to the next and how trauma could affect a person's health.
The participants, who were adolescent mothers between the ages of 13 and 22, reported a high level of wanting to learn about generational trauma and that they would likely share what they learned with others. The participants also noted that, with the information from the GTC, they would engage in activities such as dedicating time to process any trauma and utilizing the assistance of a mental health professional or support group to break the cycle of trauma.
"Knowing you aren't alone or helpless and knowing that there may have been factors outside of your control might help process the trauma," Dr. English said. "When we process things and understand them, we can then often find coping mechanisms. When we find coping mechanisms, we can heal, and redefine ourselves. and reclaim a part of our life."
If the trauma or abuse is ongoing, it's crucial to stop the cycle, which may require a huge amount of encouragement and support. "Support groups, financial support, housing support, health care, education, nutritional support, community resources, spiritual connections, and individual therapy will all need to be addressed for successful cessation of generational trauma," Dr. DeSilva said.