Is Generational Trauma a Real Thing? And How to Know if it Affects Your Family

Oct 19, 2022

misc image

Is Generational Trauma a Real Thing? And How to Know if it Affects Your Family

our parents and grandparents might have passed down their antiques, traditions, and recipes to you. But did you know that trauma can be passed down in families as well? Generational trauma can flow down family lineage much like hair and eye color. And everyone is susceptible to it. This week, let’s answer the question, is generational trauma real? And how to know if it affects your family.


Generational trauma (also called intergenerational trauma or transgenerational trauma), refers to the study of trauma passed down in families. Believe it or not, mental illness has a strong genetic component. If someone else in your family has mental health problems, you may be more at risk yourself. 


This is the basis of epigenetics – the study of how our behaviors and environment change our gene expression. Under certain circumstances, some of our genes may turn off while others turn on. And these changes in gene expression can have positive or negative consequences – including cancer and mental health problems. 


But does this fact hold out when it comes to trauma-based mental illness? Don’t you have to experience trauma in order to be affected by it? 


KarmaDocs is an integrative psychiatry practice based in Palm Desert and Gramercy Park. We help people with all types of trauma to recover from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and more. Our clients come to us tired of the status quo in mental health care. We go above and beyond to help you live a better life. Even if previous treatments haven’t been helpful. 


We’re always looking to answer our patients’ questions. You should be well informed in order to make the right decisions for your health. Maybe you’ve heard of generational trauma. Maybe you’re experiencing it already. Let’s talk about whether it’s real or not. 

Is Generational Trauma a Real Thing? 

Many scientists think so. Research has shown a strong link between genetics and trauma-based illnesses. This link was first discovered in 1996, when scientists found that children of holocaust survivors experienced a higher prevalence of PTSD. And in twin studies, between 30-70% of PTSD cases are linked to genetics. 


This research is mostly focused on children of holocaust survivors. But other groups have experienced mass trauma events as well. It’s clear that some people are more at risk for trauma than others. Here are some other examples of historical events that caused massive trauma in specific populations:


  • Enslavement and Civil Rights struggles of black and brown people 
  • Genocide and displacement of indigenous peoples 
  • Battle action in national and domestic conflicts
  • Natural disasters, like hurricane Ian and the Tohoku tsunami 


Did your ancestors experienced one of these traumatic events? If yes, then you may be more at risk for generational trauma. Which raises the question, how can people be traumatized by events that they weren’t even alive for?


It turns out, there’s more than one way that trauma is passed down in families. Socially, our family members anxieties influences how we see the world. And genetically, trauma writes itself into our DNA. Let’s talk about the mechanisms for passing down generational trauma. 

How is Generational Trauma Passed Down?

Trauma-based illnesses are passed down in families via two main mechanisms:


  • Genetically-Inherited Generational Trauma 

This is when a person is more predisposed to trauma because of differences in their genes, and how those genes are expressed. A person can be genetically more at risk for trauma because of these mechanisms: 


  • A person may be more at risk for trauma because of things that happened during critical developmental stages. 


For instance, pregnant women in high-stress circumstances have higher levels of stress hormone. In some trials, maternal stress en utero was strongly associated with infant stress after birth. This may have long-term effect on a developing fetus, and on children as they develop. 


In other circumstances, environmental exposures may affect a child’s development – decreasing their resiliency later in life. Nutritional problems, lack of care, and chemical exposures can cause brain development and plasticity problems. This may put a child more at risk for physical and mental illnesses. 


  • Epigenetic changes may influence genes and how they’re inherited. 


Traumatic events don’t add or subtract information from our DNA. But these events, and the stress they cause, can affect how genes are expressed. 


One example of this is called DNA methylation. This is when chemicals called methyls attach to DNA. They cause a gene to turn off and stop producing proteins and stick to DNA through inheritance. Changes related to methylation may make a person more at risk for diseases like cancer and mental illness. 


  • Socially-Inherited Generational Trauma

Trauma changes a person. Veterans may be more emotionally closed off after coming home. Women who have been abused may carry chronic anxiety. And if either of these people are parents, these behaviors can rub off on their children. The ways that parents cope with their own trauma may help determine coping mechanisms for kids. This is the social inheritance of trauma through families. 


Think about your own parents and the behaviors they’ve passed on to you. Is your handwriting similar to your Mom, Dad, or Grandparent’s? Do you talk in similar ways, or have similar tastes in foods? These traits may not have a direct link to your genes (that we know of), but they were given to you by your family. 


In the same way, anxieties and depression can be passed down in families as well. If you’re used to seeing your Mom be anxious in certain circumstances, you may anxious too. If the dynamics in your family don’t encourage open communication, you may struggle to have difficult conversations with people. 


It’s impossible to separate genetic inheritance from social inheritance in families. In reality, trauma is probably inherited through a combination of these mechanisms. 


If you’re just learning about generational trauma, you may be wondering what it looks like in families and individuals. How does generational trauma affect people? Let’s give some specific examples. 

What Are Examples of Generational Trauma? 

Intergenerational trauma may contribute to mental illness in these specific populations. 


  • Mass enslavement of African people in the United States created a mass trauma experience in this population. Historical oppression and genetics contributes to why black people are more likely to develop PTSD than white people.  


  • Children of veterans with PTSD tend to have more serious developmental, emotional, and behavioral problems. These kids also tend to be more at risk for psychiatric illnesses, alcohol and drug dependency. 


  • In other families, generational trauma may go unsaid. Unresolved patterns of abuse, or unhealthy coping mechanisms perpetuate across generations. Alcohol dependency, for instance, tends to run in families and also has a genetic component. 


These examples are loosely based on existing evidence. We don’t yet know how much generational trauma affects a person’s risk, compared to the trauma that they experienced themselves. Generational trauma may help explain these discrepancies in mental health outcomes. But how can people heal?

Healing Intergenerational Trauma in Your Family

Intergenerational trauma is hard to treat because people often don’t know what it is, or what it looks like. By arming yourself with knowledge, you can help yourself and your family. Generational trauma can be healed through a holistic approach. This may look like. . .


  • Having a conversation with your parents about the traumas they’ve experienced and showing your support 
  • Going to family or individual therapy to understand the root of your family trauma
  • Creating a safe space in your house for your children to talk to you about their mental health
  • Seeking treatment for your own PTSD, anxiety, or depression


These are great ways to start the conversation and start healing at home. If you’re ready for professional help with generational trauma, speak with one of our compassionate staff. Together, we can create a custom care plan to address your symptoms and improve your life. Our integrative methods, and cutting-edge treatments have helped patients like you feel better. 


Book an appointment online, or call us via the link on our homepage




 Pettersson E, Lichtenstein P, Larsson H, Song J; Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Working Group of the iPSYCH-Broad-PGC Consortium, Autism Spectrum Disorder Working Group of the iPSYCH-Broad-PGC Consortium, Bipolar Disorder Working Group of the PGC, Eating Disorder Working Group of the PGC, Major Depressive Disorder Working Group of the PGC, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and Tourette Syndrome Working Group of the PGC, Schizophrenia CLOZUK, Substance Use Disorder Working Group of the PGC, Agrawal A, Børglum AD, Bulik CM, Daly MJ, Davis LK, Demontis D, Edenberg HJ, Grove J, Gelernter J, Neale BM, Pardiñas AF, Stahl E, Walters JTR, Walters R, Sullivan PF, Posthuma D, Polderman TJC. Genetic influences on eight psychiatric disorders based on family data of 4 408 646 full and half-siblings, and genetic data of 333 748 cases and controls. Psychol Med. 2019 May;49(7):1166-1173. doi: 10.1017/S0033291718002039. Epub 2018 Sep 17. Erratum in: Psychol Med. 2019 Jan;49(2):351. PMID: 30221610; PMCID: PMC6421104.

2) Bohacek J, Mansuy IM. Epigenetic inheritance of disease and disease risk. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2013 Jan;38(1):220-36. doi: 10.1038/npp.2012.110. Epub 2012 Jul 11. PMID: 22781843; PMCID: PMC3521963.

3)Yehuda R, Lehrner A. Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry. 2018 Oct;17(3):243-257. doi: 10.1002/wps.20568. PMID: 30192087; PMCID: PMC6127768.

4)Zietlow, A.-L., Nonnenmacher, N., Reck, C., Ditzen, B., & Müller, M. (2019). Emotional stress during pregnancy – associations with maternal anxiety disorders, infant cortisol reactivity, and mother–child interaction at pre-school age. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02179

5) Papadopoulou, Z., Vlaikou, A.-M., Theodoridou, D., Markopoulos, G. S., Tsoni, K., Agakidou, E., Drosou-Agakidou, V., Turck, C. W., Filiou, M. D., & Syrrou, M. (2019). Stressful newborn memories: Pre-conceptual, in utero, and postnatal events. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00220

6) Jiang, S., Postovit, L., Cattaneo, A., Binder, E. B., & Aitchison, K. J. (2019). Epigenetic modifications in stress response genes associated with childhood trauma. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00808

7) U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021, June 11). What is epigenetics?: Medlineplus Genetics. MedlinePlus. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/howgeneswork/epigenome/#:~:text=A%20common%20type%20of%20epigenetic,atoms)%20to%20DNA%20building%20blocks.

8) Sibrava NJ, Bjornsson AS, Pérez Benítez ACI, Moitra E, Weisberg RB, Keller MB. Posttraumatic stress disorder in African American and Latinx adults: Clinical course and the role of racial and ethnic discrimination. Am Psychol. 2019 Jan;74(1):101-116. doi: 10.1037/amp0000339. PMID: 30652903; PMCID: PMC6338337.

9) Klarić M, Francisković T, Klarić B, Kvesić A, Kastelan A, Graovac M, Lisica ID. Psychological problems in children of war veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder in Bosnia and Herzegovina: cross-sectional study. Croat Med J. 2008 Aug;49(4):491-8. doi: 10.3325/cmj.2008.4.491. PMID: 18716996; PMCID: PMC2525831.

10) Davidson J, Smith R, Kudler H. Familial psychiatric illness in chronic posttraumatic stress disorder. Compr Psychiatry. 1989 Jul-Aug;30(4):339-45. doi: 10.1016/0010-440x(89)90059-x. PMID: 2758806.

11) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008, November 4). Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-use-disorder/genetics-alcohol-use-disorder