Trauma is a complex phenomenon that can have far-reaching effects on individuals, families, and entire communities. Typically, people think of trauma as something that happens to a single person; however, trauma can also be transmitted across generations, perpetuating cycles of pain and suffering that can last for decades.
Intergenerational trauma refers to the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next. It can occur through various mechanisms, including socialisation, cultural norms and practices, and even biological factors. It can also impact how individuals and communities perceive themselves and their place in the world, affecting their sense of identity, culture, and belonging.
What Is Intergenerational Trauma?
Intergenerational trauma is a phenomenon where the effects of trauma are passed down from generation to generation. This can occur in many ways, including transmitting cultural practices, beliefs, and values or brain structure and function changes passed down through genetics.
Anyone can experience intergenerational trauma. People from marginalised groups, or lower socioeconomic backgrounds, may be affected more than others due to prejudice.
One way intergenerational trauma can occur is through direct exposure to traumatic events like war, genocide, or natural disasters. Individuals who have experienced these types of traumatic events may be more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression. They may pass these symptoms on to their children through their behaviour or genes.
Histories of violence, child abuse, or neglect can also influence how people pass down intergenerational trauma. This could come in the form of trauma responses – for example, someone whose parents experience dissociative episodes due to their past trauma may grow up with an avoidant attachment style that affects their relationships with their children later in life.
Intergenerational Trauma v. Historical Trauma
Intergenerational and historical trauma have a close relationship. This trauma can be passed on through traumatic historical events, such as the legacy of slavery, colonialism, or forced assimilation.
It can affect entire communities, resulting in psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms, including loss or disconnection, anger, shame, and a lack of trust. One study also found that populations who witnessed mass-level trauma such as these had higher levels of disease several generations later. These symptoms can then be passed down from generation to generation, creating a cycle of trauma that can be difficult to break.
Epigenetics and Intergenerational Trauma
Epigenetics examines how behaviours and the environment influence our genes. These genetic changes can be influenced by trauma and affect people’s health, including weakening the immune system and increasing the risk of cancer. These changes do not involve changes to the DNA itself but how DNA is regulated.
Several studies have focused on how past experiences can affect epigenetics. One found a consistent correlation between prenatal exposure to famine and diabetes, schizophrenia, and body mass index (BMI). An American study from 2018 looked at the male offspring of Civil War soldiers who spent time as prisoners of war, finding that they were more likely to die before age 45. Sons born before the war did not have this decreased life expectancy, and the researchers hypothesised that there was an epigenetic effect on the Y chromosome. This specific study acknowledged that paternal stress and trauma could influence epigenetic changes.
The Impact of Intergenerational Trauma
Intergenerational trauma has a significant impact on everyone who encounters it. Even if the original traumatic event happened long ago, the results could resonate through the years, affecting future generations.
Trauma presents itself differently in everyone. Some people can struggle to manage their symptoms and are unable or unwilling to seek help, therefore passing on their trauma to offspring.
Intergenerational trauma can impact individuals and communities in many different ways:
- Mental health conditions – The transmission of trauma can lead to mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. These issues can impact individuals across multiple generations, leading to chronic mental health problems requiring ongoing treatment.
- Physical health problems – Trauma can also impact physical health, with intergenerational trauma being associated with a higher risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. A lack of access to healthcare resources due to financial difficulties and other social determinants of health can exacerbate these physical health issues.
- Substance abuse – Intergenerational trauma can also increase the likelihood of substance abuse and addiction. Individuals who have experienced trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their pain. This behaviour can be passed down to their children and grandchildren.
- Relationship difficulties – Children learn how to form healthy relationships from their parents, whether by developing a healthy attachment style or seeing and modelling healthy relationships. However, intergenerational trauma can impact individuals’ ability to form relationships with themselves and others, leading to trust issues and difficulty communicating.
- Intergenerational poverty – Trauma can impact individuals’ access to resources and opportunities, leading to intergenerational poverty. This cycle of poverty is difficult to break, with individuals and families experiencing ongoing economic hardship across generations. This can make it much more difficult for people to access the mental health care they need to treat trauma, thus keeping the cycle of intergenerational trauma in motion.
Acknowledging and understanding the impact of intergenerational trauma on individuals and communities is essential. By doing so, we can develop effective interventions and strategies that promote healing and resilience. This may include increasing access to mental health resources, building supportive networks, and addressing systemic issues perpetuating trauma.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Sotero, Michelle (2006). “A Conceptual Model of Historical Trauma: Implications for Public Health Practice and Research”. Journal of Health Disparities Research. 1 (1): 93–108.
 Costa D, Yetter N, DeSomer H. Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among US Civil War ex-POWs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018;115(44):11215-11220. doi:10.1073/pnas.1803630115