What to Know About Generational Trauma

March 22, 2024

Hiding face. Kind reliable man supporting his crying friend and putting hand on his shoulder

Trauma has a ripple effect, particularly within families. As mental and emotional health experts continue to research this, they shed necessary light on a concept known as generational trauma, also referred to as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma. The primary question is this: can the impact of trauma be “inherited”? Scientists believe yes.

Defining Generational Trauma

This concept isn’t new. Researchers started examining the legacy of trauma in 1966 with children of Holocaust survivors. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a study team led by Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff “documented high rates of psychological distress in [these] children. Since then, researchers have been assessing anxiety, depression, and PTSD in trauma survivors and their progeny, with Holocaust survivors and their children the most widely studied and over the longest period of time.”

This is just one small sample. Further research through the decades reveals that in multiple scenarios with millions of people around the world, “the transgenerational effects are not only psychological, but familial, social, cultural, neurobiological and possibly even genetic as well,” the APA notes.

Why is this? Well, you’ve heard of “nature” vs. “nurture”—how a person develops and is influenced by their genetics compared to their environment. Epigenetics is another field of study that shows promise in understanding transgenerational trauma. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines it as the possibility of certain behaviors and environmental factors causing changes in how your genes actually work.

What Our Genes Remember

The CDC cites research from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences regarding epigenetics. One resonating point concludes “early-life exposure to nutritional and dietary factors, maternal stress, and environmental chemicals can increase the likelihood of developing disease and poor health outcomes later in life. In addition, some of the effects of these exposures can be passed down for multiple generations, even after the original exposure has been removed, through a process known as transgenerational inheritance.”

As just one example, one of the most famous studies of epigenetics involves survivors of the Dutch Winter Hunger of 1944–1945. During World War II, Nazis intercepted food supply shipments to The Netherlands. Most citizens of all economic classes were not only beleaguered by war, crop failure, and a challenging winter, but also had severely reduced rations during this time—roughly 400–800 calories a day—and supplemented their diets with grass and tulip bulbs. Thousands died and millions more survived, but not without long-lasting consequences.

Researchers studied the effects of the same on individuals who were in utero during that time, along with siblings born after the famine, and the grandchildren of both. In addition to increased lung and kidney conditions and a higher prevalence of various cancers, The Moore Institute of Oregon Health & Science University reports that:

  • “Males and females exposed at any stage in utero put them at higher risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”
  • “Children whose mothers were in utero during the famine were heavier at birth, while those whose fathers were exposed in utero were heavier in adult life—suggesting different epigenetic influences according to the sex of the parent.”
  • “Men and women exposed to famine in early gestation had poorer cognitive function later in life.”
  • “Males exposed to famine in early gestation had a higher risk for neurodegenerative diseases.”
  • “Males exposed to famine in early gestation reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression.”

Generations of Trauma Within the BIPOC Community

The APA notes that members of the BIPOC community experience not only health issues as the result of intergenerational trauma, but also continuing societal ramifications such as systemic racism that make it more challenging to heal effectively.

For example, clinical psychologist Monnica T. Williams at the University of Ottawa has invested research in topics that support these theories, especially anxiety-related disorders in the context of racism, reactive coping due to racism, and the traumatizing impact of racism.

Historical trauma also negatively impacts millions of Native Americans, although for decades, this theory was disregarded among many mental health professionals. Researchers now understand that forced displacement, massive cultural oppression, and suppression of language and traditional customs created a cascade of mental and physical health issues through multiple generations.

Treatment for Generational Trauma

Individuals who might be suffering the effects of generational trauma share similar symptoms to those with adverse childhood experiences or PTSD that contribute to a cascade of wellness issues including, but not limited to:

  • A belief in a shortened future
  • A greater sense of hypervigilance and mistrust
  • A heightened “fight or flight” response
  • An inability to fully express emotions
  • Challenges nurturing others in their care
  • Difficulty establishing self-esteem and self-confidence

They might also experience:

  • Autoimmune and chronic health issues
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • High anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Panic attacks
  • Higher rates of suicide and suicide ideation

However, another fascinating fact of generational trauma and epigenetics is that, along the lines of nature vs. nurture, progressive clinical interventions can help alter the course for descendants in positive ways.

The Responsibility of Treatment Centers

A holistic, whole-person treatment approach for mental, emotional, and physical health issues must have a foundation of cultural sensitivity, as well as a comprehensive awareness of possible inherited generational trauma factors. This can be achieved through quality pre-admission assessments and personalized recovery solutions that not only respect someone’s history but also create a lifeline for individual and family healing. Discover how Farley Center has a family of professionals to help you and your loved ones.