The Lingering Impact: Navigating the Legacy of Trauma

Traumatic experiences often leave a lasting psychological and somatic impact that is often invisible and difficult to explain, yet impacts everyday life. When we cannot cope, the mechanism that ensures our survival kicks in, and a cascade of physical reactions is set in motion, altering pain perception, memory, essential organ function, hearing, and various other areas of the body and brain.

This is a temporary change in state that prepares the body to respond to the perceived threat. However, if the energy generated from the reaction is not discharged, then it lingers in the body until it is processed, impacting a wide range of daily functions, from digestion to intuition.

The Past Experienced In The Present

For trauma survivors, the past isn’t just a memory: it’s an ongoing presence in their lives. Triggers—whether sights, sounds, smells, or even feelings—can transport survivors back to the traumatic event, reactivating intense emotions and physical sensations that feel as overwhelming and distressing as they did at the time of the event.

The past infiltrates the present, distorting perceptions of safety and threat, relationships, somatic experiences and emotional processing. Flashbacks blur the line between then and now, making it challenging to differentiate between past trauma and current reality.

Lingering Physical Effects

For many, the aftermath of trauma results in chronic physical effects, further intertwining the past with the present in a complex, often invisible web.

A recent study reported that after considering factors like age, gender, smoking, weight, blood pressure, mood, and alcohol habits, individuals with a history of trauma were found to have increased chances of experiencing angina, heart failure, stroke, bronchitis, asthma, kidney issues, and joint pain compared to those without trauma history.[1] This serves as clear evidence that trauma exposure affects the body in a myriad of ways.

Chronic pain, headaches, and digestive issues can serve as constant reminders of past trauma, exacerbating feelings of distress and powerlessness. Moreover, sleep disturbances from trauma-related nightmares or insomnia disrupt restorative rest, perpetuating a cycle of fatigue and emotional instability.

Hyperarousal and hypervigilance keep the body in a perpetual state of alertness, exhausting the body and mind. These physical manifestations not only reflect the deep imprint of trauma on the body but also impede the journey toward healing.

Lingering Emotional Effects

The lingering emotional effects of trauma can profoundly impact an individual’s well-being, often persisting long after the traumatic event has occurred. Feelings of fear, anxiety, and hypervigilance can become ingrained, leading to difficulties in trusting others, forming relationships, and feeling safe. Persistent feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness may accompany intrusive memories and nightmares, further exacerbating emotional distress.

On the other hand, survivors may disconnect from their emotions, experiencing emotional numbness, and resort to zoning out, or dissociation, to escape overwhelming feelings. While these coping strategies may offer temporary relief, they can hinder long-term emotional healing and meaningful interpersonal connection.[2]

Variations in The Legacy of Trauma

Research shows that the effects of trauma on mental and psychological health are not fixed, meaning there is no one-size-fits-all predictor of trauma symptoms and long-term health effects. The legacy of trauma varies between sexes, ages, and various other markers, and the reasons for this could be both biological and environmental.

For instance, males are more likely to experience non-sexual assault and combat-related trauma, while females are more prone to sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse.[3] Although females generally report lower rates of trauma exposure, they are twice as likely as males to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[4] How these traumatic experiences impact our biology in the long term is still not fully understood. One possible explanation involves epigenetic modifications during critical periods of development.

Epigenetics and Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma refers to the passing down of genetic information related to traumatic events from one generation to the next. It can lead to symptoms and psychological effects similar to those experienced by previous generations. Various factors can cause intergenerational trauma, including historical events like colonisation, slavery, wars, and systemic racism.

Growing evidence suggests that trauma exposure can transmit specific genetic information across generations through epigenetic mechanisms, particularly DNA methylation alteration. Epigenetics, the study of how life experiences influence gene expression without altering the DNA sequence itself, explains this phenomenon.

Trauma can imprint chemical marks on genes, modifying their expression without changing their genetic code.[5] This alteration impacts various genes involved in stress response, metabolism, and other vital functions,[6] highlighting the profound interplay between environmental experiences, genetic inheritance, and long-term health outcomes.

The Lasting Impact of Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma’s impact is profound and far-reaching, extending beyond individual psychological well-being to affect entire communities and societies. At its core, it perpetuates cycles of suffering, shaping familial dynamics, cultural norms, and social structures.

Within families, intergenerational trauma disrupts attachment bonds and parenting practices, leading to difficulties in communication, emotional regulation, and interpersonal relationships. Children may inherit unhealthy coping mechanisms and maladaptive behaviours from their traumatised ancestors, continuing destructive patterns of dysfunction and distress. One example of this can be seen in the higher rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts in Aboriginal Canadians whose parents and grandparents were in the abusive residential school system.[7]

On a larger scale, intergenerational trauma contributes to societal inequalities and systemic injustices. Historical traumas such as colonisation, slavery, and genocide have lasting effects on marginalised communities, perpetuating cycles of poverty, violence, and discrimination. Structural racism, economic disparities, and unequal access to resources further exacerbate the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

Moreover, intergenerational trauma can undermine collective identity and cultural resilience. Indigenous peoples, for example, continue to grapple with the legacy of colonialism, including the loss of land, language, and cultural practices. The loss of cultural continuity perpetuates feelings of disconnection, alienation, and cultural shame.

Understanding the Legacy of Trauma For Recovery and Healing

Understanding the legacy of trauma, both physical and emotional, is crucial for recovery and healing. Recognising how past experiences shape present behaviours and emotions fosters self-awareness and compassion, and developing a deeper understanding of the complex effects that overwhelming and threatening situations can have helps to alleviate the shame, guilt, and confusion that many survivors develop as a result of the distress and confusion of their symptoms.

It is an essential part of healing to understand the ways the body and mind cope with being trapped in the incomplete act of escape, and how this legacy might have been shaped by environment, genetics and a variety of other factors we had no control of.


[1] Spitzer, Carsten MD; Barnow, Sven PhD; Völzke, Henry MD; John, Ulrich PhD; Freyberger, Harald J. MD; Grabe, Hans Joergen MD. Trauma, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and Physical Illness: Findings from the General Population. Psychosomatic Medicine 71(9):p 1012-1017, November 2009. | DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181bc76b5

[2] Wastell, Colin A. B.Sc., Ph.D.1. EXPOSURE TO TRAUMA: THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF SUPPRESSING EMOTIONAL REACTIONS. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 190(12):p 839-845, December 2002.

[3] Dalvie, S., & Daskalakis, N. P. (2021). The biological effects of trauma. Complex Psychiatry, 7(1–2), 16–18.

[4] Tolin, D. F., & Foa, E. B. (2008). Sex differences in trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder: A quantitative review of 25 years of research. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, S(1), 37–85.

[5]  Youssef, N. A., Lockwood, L., Su, S., Hao, G., & Rutten, B. P. F. (2018). The Effects of Trauma, with or without PTSD, on the Transgenerational DNA Methylation Alterations in Human Offsprings. Brain sciences, 8(5), 83.

[6] Can trauma be passed down from one generation to the next? – psycom. Retrieved February 8, 2024, from

[7]  Bezo, B., & Maggi, S. (2015). Living in “survival mode:” Intergenerational transmission of trauma from the Holodomor genocide of 1932-1933 in Ukraine. Social science & medicine (1982), 134, 87–94.