Most people are aware the effects of a traumatic experience can last for a long time. What you may not know is that future generations can inherit — sometimes literally — these effects as well. Many families have been impacted by generational trauma, and it’s possible that you are facing the effects of trauma without ever having experienced a traumatic event yourself.
Here’s a thorough guide on what generational trauma is, why it happens, and how we can collectively heal from it.
What is trauma?
Trauma is the term used to describe the adverse emotional and/or psychological response that develops during and after a terrifying or life-threatening event. Trauma is a normal human reaction. The effects of a traumatic experience can be felt both immediately after the event and longer term.
For example, experiencing a natural disaster might bring about feelings of fear, overwhelm, or anxiousness in the moment. Weeks, months, or even years later, a person might continue to have those feelings; the experience can also impact their physical and mental health.
The statistics on trauma and traumatic experiences might surprise you. About 50% of women and 60% of men will experience at least one trauma during their lifetime.
It’s important to note the difference between trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition that’s only diagnosable by a mental health professional. Although around half of men and women will experience at least one trauma, only a small percentage of those people (around 6% of the general population) will develop PTSD.
But with or without PTSD symptoms, the effects of trauma are profound and long-lasting.
Some examples of traumatic events include:
Sexual or physical assault
Motor vehicle accidents
Severe medical conditions, like surgery
What is generational trauma, and can trauma be inherited?
You may have heard the term “generational trauma.” Generational trauma is the psychological, and sometimes physiological, impact of distressing events that are passed down through generations. For example, the grandchildren of a woman who was abused may continue to feel the effects of her traumatic experience, even long after she has passed away.
Research on generational trauma is ongoing, but many studies have examined the generational impact of traumatic historical events.
It’s important to note that although research has focused on collective trauma, individual traumas (like a sexual assault) can also affect a family for generations.
The Holocaust has been the most widely studied mass historical event in terms of its lingering traumatic impact. One study found the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors had significant rates of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), major depressive disorder (MDD), and PTSD.
Indian Residential Schools (IRS)
Research into Indian Residential Schools and their traumatic impact continues to grow. One study found that not only did adult IRS survivors have higher rates of physiological and mental health conditions than Native Americanadults who did not attend, but the children and grandchildren of IRS survivors also had higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
The history of slavery, prejudice, and discrimination in the United States is well-documented, as are the lingering effects in present society that continue to uphold systemic oppression. Numerous studies have looked at the psychological and physiological impact of prolonged exposure to racial discrimination. One study found that racial discrimination, past and present, has led Black Americans to experience anxiety-related trauma responses.
The traumatic effect of fleeing your home in the face of war, extreme poverty, or natural disaster cannot be denied. Because of this, refugee families are among those who often experience generational trauma.
One review found the children of traumatized Middle Eastern refugee parents had higher rates of PTSD, as well as mood and anxiety disorders (even when the children weren’t refugees themselves). Vietnamese refugees’ mental health also had a significant effect on their children’s mental health even decades later.
Depression, anxiety, addiction, and mental health struggles can be traced back to unresolved trauma. Trauma is painful, and it saps your confidence, strength and happiness. Dr. Gregory Jantz shares how certain life events can lead to trauma, along with ways to work towards healing.
There are numerous ways in which the effects of trauma can travel down through generations. These effects can be both biological and environmental.
Trauma and your DNA
Scientific studies have shown us that trauma can, quite literally, be inherited.
The field of epigenetics looks at how behavior and environment affect genes. We now know that our bodies adapt to our environments, and switch genes on and off depending on the circumstances. The fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response is just one example of this concept. In this way, genes that prepare us for specific circumstances are passed down through generations.
If someone in your family’s past experienced a trauma, that environment could switch certain genes on or off. The trauma (and the way their genes react to it) could be encoded into their DNA, creating a sort of lasting genetic impression.
The genes that helped your parents, grandparents, and/or great-grandparents survive traumatic experiences then get passed down through the generations — and might continue to impact you now, despite no additional trauma occurring.
Other effects of trauma on families
Trauma can also affect families through behavior. Without knowing it, older generations can “set the tone” for how younger generations handle concerns down the line.
Difficulty managing emotions
In the face of a traumatic event, it’s not uncommon for a person to experience denial that the trauma happened or minimize its impact to try and cope.
In these instances, a person might choose not to speak of the traumatic events or hide their emotions. Another person might use drugs or alcohol to numb the pain of the trauma. This pattern of behavior might become the model for the family, and create an environment where silence or substance use is the default method for managing emotions.
Difficulty with communication
Trauma can also create difficulties in communication within families. If the traumatic event has been swept under the rug or families agree not to discuss what happened, subsequent generations might develop a passive or submissive communication style. They might receive the subliminal message they should not express their feelings or desires.
Shame and deficits to self-esteem
Shame and self-blame can often come with traumatic events. This shame response can have lasting impacts on the family, especially on the parent-child dynamic. If a parent has an especially difficult time coping with the aftereffects of a traumatic event, they may become overprotective to try and keep their children or grandchildren from experiencing a similar event.
On the other hand, a parent who has emotionally detached themselves from a traumatic event may develop a strong intolerance for “weakness” in their children and others. Additionally, a parent may negatively impact their children’s self-esteem by downplaying their children’s experiences when held up next to their own traumas.
Knowing traumatic events can change the genetic landscape of a person and be passed down to later generations, it should come as no surprise that generational trauma can also show up in the form of health concerns.
One study found that psychological anguish and cardiovascular disease were among the long-term health consequences of the Japanese-American internment. Another study found that race-based traumatic stress negatively impacted cardiovascular functioning, immune health, and sleep.
The health effects of generational trauma can cause a predisposition to disease or higher disease risk, impacting the well-being of generations of people.
How to heal generational trauma
The first step in healing generational trauma like racial/ethnic trauma is to prevent mass historical and cultural events from occurring.
Apart from this, healing from generational trauma looks different for everyone. For some, healing might look like openly discussing painful events or histories with parents or grandparents; others may find healing in helping others or doing advocacy work. Some may decide to seek treatment in the form of therapy.
PTSD and trauma, generational or otherwise, can benefit from mental health interventions and certain types of therapy.
Effective therapies for PTSD include:
Internal family systems (IFS)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
PTSD and trauma treatment at The Center ● A Place of HOPE
Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...
Flashbacks are a common symptom of people suffering from PTSD. They are quite frightening for the individual suffering them, as well as the loved ones of the sufferer. A Place of Hope created this guide to give you methods for coping with flashbacks. First, we need to define a flashback....
A number of our clients come to The Center with chronic pain that has persisted for years. This is often referred to as Fibromyalgia. The client has tried pain medications, diets, stretching, physical therapy, massages, and more. Nothing has seemed to work. But after we begin treatment using the whole...
In this article, we will be looking at trauma in detail – what it is, how it happens, the impact of trauma on individuals, and who is at risk. Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) will be explained in an easy to understand way, with a description of how it...