Imagine being traumatized by something that didn’t even happen to you. That is the reality for an unknown number of people whose relatives have experienced trauma. A common misconception is that when a traumatizing event happens to someone, it only impacts the life of that individual. What is often not considered is how this trauma will impact their future children, grandchildren, and generations to come. The effects of trauma can last generations and can be transferred through genetics, verbal communication, and cultural norms of oppressed groups.
Leah Warshawski’s grandmother, Sonia, is a Holocaust survivor. Sonia witnessed her mother being taken to the gas chamber to die. Sonia herself was shot in the chest, but miraculously survived to see the end of the war, and her freedom from the concentration camp. Her devastating yet inspiring experience left her with more than just physical wounds. Sonia struggled to connect with her children, often being too judgemental and filled with anxiety at all times. Leah describes her childhood as generally happy, although something was always off as they never discussed their family’s history with the Holocaust. It wasn’t until her adult life that she began experiencing anxiety, a lack of connection with family members, and intense self-judgement. She began to experience symptoms similar to that of her grandmother’s. Digging a little deeper, she realized that what she was dealing with was trauma. However, this trauma was not her own. She was dealing with intergenerational trauma as a third generation Holocaust survivor.
Intergenerational trauma can exist in a variety of different forms and can be experienced by anyone whose family has gone through trauma. Often, intergenerational trauma is displayed by a higher rate of mental illness in the children of those who have experienced trauma. Those who experience intergenerational trauma tend to struggle with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Many individuals living with these types of mental illness may not even know that the cause of their mental health issues is intergenerational trauma, as it can happen without them even knowing their ancestors experienced any kind of trauma. However, in some cases individuals that experience intergenerational trauma become fixated on specific trauma that a family member experienced. Sometimes they even relive it as though they experienced it themselves.
In many instances, intergenerational trauma is passed down verbally. For example, if a parent experienced trauma in a hospital, they may have a fear or distrust of doctors and pass this fear onto their child who later develops a similar fear of doctors. For a parent who grew up or lived in a stressful environment, it is in their nature to continue to live in “survival mode.” This then gets passed down to their children, who have learned these fears from their parents. Oftentimes, a parent believes they are doing their child good by protecting them from the trauma that causes them so much stress. However, their actions can lead a child to feel discomfort and anxiety surrounding similar triggers of their own, thus propagating the trauma in future generations.
Some studies have shown that in addition to verbal communication, intergenerational trauma can be passed down genetically. When a person experiences an extremely stressful or traumatic event, their genes and sex cells can be altered. One study from the University of California showed that children of Holocaust survivors had lower levels of methylation, a stress-receptor. This is not the result of a genetic mutation, but rather a specific expression of a gene similarly among the population of children whose parents experienced trauma. The lack of methylation could be the result of the body’s biological adaptation to being in a stressful environment. Other studies have shown that trauma can directly change the RNA of sperm and therefore the genes of the child. Additionally, studies have shown that trauma that occurs while a mother is pregnant can greatly impact the genetics of their unborn child. However, this science is still relatively new and hard to study. As a result very little is known about the genetic component to intergenerational trauma.
Communication and genetic patterns within a family are often perpetuated by large scale historical trauma. Historical trauma, such as slavery and genocide, has impacted families of color and other oppressed groups throughout the world. Historical trauma is similar to intergenerational trauma as it is trauma passed down from generation to generation. However, historical trauma exists on a much larger scale, often the entire populations and communities experience trauma and intergenerational trauma within their families. Historical trauma is particularly prominent within Blacks, Native Americans, and other minority groups who have experienced large-scale oppression and trauma. For better or worse, many of us carry the experiences of our ancestors within us. The events that have shaped them continue to shape us today.
Carey, Benedict (2018, December 8). Can We Really Inherit Trauma? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/health/mind-epigenetics-genes.html
Coyle, Sue (2017, May). Intergenerational Trauma- Legacies of Loss. Social Work Today. https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051214p18.shtml
DeAngelis, Tori. (2019, February). The Legacy of Trauma. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-trauma
TedX Talks [Username]. (2017, May 9) How do you cope with the trauma you didn’t experience? | Leah Warshawski | TEDxTwinFalls [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkAMHQhabkU