What Is Generational Trauma?

Experts are learning more about who is vulnerable to generational trauma and how it manifests in families and communities.

Much like traditions, heirlooms, hair color, and secret family recipes get passed down through families, people can also inherit trauma. Generational trauma—known as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma—is a cycle of trauma that passes through families.

Generational trauma occurs through biological, environmental, psychological, and social means. For example, some evidence suggests that generational trauma can happen in the uterus—for example, a fetus being exposed to chemicals involved in maternal stress that impact future development.

Epigenetic changes, or shifts in a person's DNA due to a traumatic experience, cause generational trauma, too.

More research is needed to fully uncover the impact of generational trauma and how it presents itself. Read on to learn what researchers know about how the cycle of trauma continues through generations.

Generational trauma , woman posing montage
Nick Dolding / Getty Images

Understanding Generational Trauma

Trauma is a response to a devastating event, resulting in adverse physical and emotional outcomes. Traumatic events may include abuse, discrimination, natural disasters, racism, and war.

Generational trauma is trauma that extends from one generation to the next. It begins when a group experiences a traumatic event that causes economic, cultural, and familial distress. In response, people belonging to that group develop physical or psychological symptoms.

People who experience trauma may develop health conditions like:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Then, subsequent generations may inherit trauma and those health conditions through factors like discrimination and prejudice.

"It can be silent, covert, and undefined, surfacing through nuances and inadvertently taught or implied throughout someone's life from an early age onward," Melanie English, PhD, a clinical psychologist and parenting evaluator, told Health. 

Examples of Generational Trauma

Historical examples of groups affected by generational trauma include Black Americans, Holocaust survivors, and Indigenous communities, among others.

Black Americans

An article published in 2020 looked at epigenetic changes due to chronic stress and nutritional deficiencies of Black Americans during slavery in the United States. The author found that those changes have led to poor physical and mental health outcomes among Black Americans.

For example, research has found that generational trauma contributes to a high risk for anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure among Black Americans. The cycle of generational trauma persists due to structural racism, which contributes to economic and health disparities between Black and White Americans.

Holocaust Survivors

In 1966, Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff and colleagues were some of the first to recognize the concept of generational trauma. The research team recorded high rates of psychological distress among children of people who survived the Holocaust.

A survey published in 2017 of 190 adult children of Holocaust survivors found that about 18% reported having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Among those, nearly 14% reported having depression, and 7% reported having PTSD.

Some evidence suggests that epigenetic changes may cause generational trauma among families affected by the Holocaust. A study published in 2016 found that Holocaust survivors and their children were more likely to have changes in their FKBP5 gene than others. FKBP5 is a stress gene that links to anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Indigenous Communities 

Indigenous communities have experienced generational trauma from the loss of culture, land, and population.

Trauma persists due to discrimination and prejudice against Indigenous communities. In a study published in 2019, researchers found that 15% of Indigenous people reported not seeking healthcare services due to discrimination in medical settings.

As a result, some evidence suggests that Indigenous communities are likelier to have poor mental and physical health outcomes than others due to generational trauma.

Generational Trauma Signs and Symptoms

Research has found that the signs and symptoms of generational trauma may include:

  • A lack of self‐worth
  • Anxiety
  • Depersonalization, or feeling detached from yourself and your surroundings
  • Depression
  • Emotional numbness
  • Impaired life skills (e.g., critical thinking, decision-making, or managing your time)
  • PTSD symptoms (e.g., feeling socially isolated, having negative thoughts, or losing interest in hobbies) 

Some evidence suggests that generational trauma might affect the immune system. A study published in 2021 looked at genes related to immune health among the children of Holocaust survivors. The researchers found that some of those genes were less active than average. As a result, the participants had low innate immunity, which is the immunity you are born with.

"It may lead to a dysfunctional immune system—one that's either too active or not active enough," said Dr. DeSilva. "This can result in more autoimmune diseases or a greater propensity for illness."

What Causes Generational Trauma?

Generational trauma begins when a group collectively experiences a horrific event, such as abuse, discrimination, natural disasters, racism, and war. Those events may lead to anxiety, depression, and PTSD among the people directly affected by their effects. Then, those people may pass on their trauma to their offspring, and so on. 

One way that trauma passes down generations is through epigenetic changes. The theory is that trauma changes how your genes work. Then, those changes pass down to your children.

"Trauma affects genetic processes, leading to traumatic reactivity being heightened in populations who experience a great deal of trauma," Gayani DeSilva, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of "A Psychiatrist's Guide," told Health.

Epigenetic changes are different than genetic changes, which alter your DNA. DNA is like a set of instructions for your body. Genetic changes can change what those instructions say. 

In contrast, epigenetic changes change how your body reads your DNA, known as gene expression. Epigenetic changes may turn specific genes “on” or “off.” People with generational trauma may have certain genes that are not expressed as usual, which increases their risk for certain illnesses like anxiety and depression.

Still, it is hard to pinpoint exactly why certain genes express differently in people who have family members with trauma. Other ways that people inherit trauma from their ancestors is through factors such as discrimination and prejudice.

Risk Factors

Everyone is susceptible to generational trauma. Events that can result in generational trauma include:

  • Adverse experiences during childhood 
  • Discrimination
  • Natural disaster
  • Racism
  • Sexual abuse
  • War

There are specific groups of people who are vulnerable due to their histories. Specifically, ethnic and racial minorities have a higher risk of generational trauma than White people.  

"Being systematically exploited, enduring repeated and continual abuse, racism, and poverty are all traumatic enough to cause genetic changes," said Dr. DeSilva.

How Is Generational Trauma Diagnosed?

There is no specific diagnosis of generational trauma, according to the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition" (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is the standard mental healthcare providers use to diagnose mental health conditions. Still, the phenomenon is well-accepted among experts.

"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," said English. "This kind of wiring impacts personalities, relationships, parenting, communication, and views of the world."

Although there is no test to diagnose generational trauma, a healthcare provider can use a mental health screening to check for mental illnesses if your family has a history of trauma. A mental health screening involves a set of questions about your appetite, feelings, mood, sleep, and other behaviors. 

You might fill out a questionnaire or talk to a healthcare provider about your responses. It's important to answer honestly to diagnose your condition accurately.

A healthcare provider may refer you to someone who specializes in mental health, like a psychologist or psychiatrist, if you show signs of mental illness. A mental healthcare provider can ask further questions to diagnose mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, or PTSD. 

Treatments for Generational Trauma

No easy answers exist, but healing from generational trauma may include:

  • Accepting the trauma, its effects, and how you may treat it
  • Pinpointing signs and symptoms that may relate to the trauma
  • Resisting environments that worsen the effects of the trauma

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, helps lessen or resolve the effects of generational trauma. Talk therapy enables you to recognize the trauma and how it affects you. 

Based on your experiences, a mental healthcare provider can advise coping strategies. For example, they may recommend breathing exercises and meditation to alleviate anxiety symptoms. Talk therapy may involve individual or family therapy. 

Disparities in access to mental healthcare exist for many racial and ethnic minorities affected by generational trauma. As a result, many of those people are less likely to seek or receive adequate treatment for mental illnesses.

In some cases, therapy may focus on traditional methods unique to different cultures to foster a group's identity. Culturally competent mental healthcare recognizes and incorporates parts of your beliefs and values to improve your mental health. A culturally competent mental healthcare provider considers your cultural, linguistic, and social needs.

You can find a culturally competent mental healthcare provider who can work well with people from your cultural group. You can start by researching those with the same cultural background.

Here are a few resources for various cultural groups that may help you find a mental health professional:

How To Prevent Generational Trauma

Educating people about generational trauma is an essential tool for ending the cycle. 

A study published in 2022 looked at the effectiveness of a generational trauma card (GTC). The GTC included illustrations explaining how trauma could transfer from generation to generation and affect a person's health. The participants reported a high level of wanting to learn about generational trauma and a likeliness to share what they learned.

The participants noted they would engage in activities to break the cycle of trauma, such as:

  • Dedicating time to process any trauma
  • Joining a support group
  • Utilizing the assistance of a mental health professional

Living With Generational 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," said English. "When we process things and understand them, we can then often find coping mechanisms. When we find coping mechanisms, we can heal, redefine ourselves, and reclaim a part of our life."

Stopping the cycle of ongoing trauma, which may require a huge amount of encouragement and support, is essential.

"Support groups, financial support, housing support, healthcare, education, nutritional support, community resources, spiritual connections, and individual therapy will all need to be addressed for successful cessation of generational trauma," said Dr. DeSilva.

Finding ways to connect to your cultural strengths may help with healing. You may find support in books or films that you relate to, practicing cultural rituals, or talking to loved ones about your culture.

A Quick Review

The effects of generational trauma can include anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Generations of families that have endured years of abuse, neglect, assault, or other forms of trauma, may find it hard to escape the cycle.

There are resources available to people who want to heal, like therapy, education, and support from others. Contact a healthcare provider or mental health specialist for help experiencing generational trauma.

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