Researchers are studying how ancestral trauma might be ‘‘passed down’’ to future generations, through genetics and other means.

Can trauma be passed down via genetics? That’s a question heavily debated by the scientific community.

There’s a growing interest in the question of whether trauma experienced by our parents and grandparents may impact our mental health.

But it’s not clear yet if that impact is biological, psychological, or both.

Genetic trauma refers to the effects of trauma that some say we inherit from previous generations.

While “genetic trauma” is a term people search for online and use in everyday conversation, many experts avoid the term.

Tracy L. Bale, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, says, “We don’t have much evidence that trauma is genetically — or epigenetically, more precisely — inherited.”

Epigenetics is the study of how the events that happen to you and your behaviors — such as traumatic events and trauma responses — can change the way your genes work. These changes don’t affect your DNA sequence, but they can affect how your body reads that DNA.

But even if there isn’t direct genetic evidence, Bale notes that the “effects [of trauma] on the next generation can be important without being inherited.”

It’s no secret that trauma can change us. What’s less understood or talked about is how it impacts the next generation.

Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is usually linked with personally experiencing trauma, some twin studies have estimated that the heritability of PTSD is between 30% and 70%. This suggests that some aspects of trauma may be inherited.

A study from 2018 explored the notion that trauma may be passed down through epigenetic mechanisms, possibly impacting DNA and gene function, but it concluded that more research is needed.

While experts are still researching the biological factors of inherited trauma, research does offer us a view into how trauma from generations past can impact future generations.

Here are some ways trauma can impact generations:

Research from 2019 found that stress during pregnancy is one way intergenerational trauma can be passed down. Parental stress during pregnancy is associated with children who have:

Some nonbiological ways trauma can be passed down between generations include:

  • dysfunctional dynamics between you and your family members that result from trauma, such as codependency, unhealthy attachment styles, or parental dissociation
  • family stories of traumatic events
  • memories and photographs
  • letters or heirlooms

The history of genetic trauma research

Researchers first discovered the generational impact of trauma on the children of people who lived through the Dutch famine (the “Hunger Winter”) during World War II.

Several studies conducted in the 1970s found that the children of pregnant women during this famine were more prone to higher-than-average body mass and diabetes, thus forming the basis for future research on intergenerational, or transgenerational, trauma.

When researchers from Columbia University studied the death records of children of the Dutch famine for a 2013 study, they found that prenatal famine was linked to lower mortality.

Scientists also found that trauma can have a generational impact when they studied the children of Holocaust survivors, as one 2015 study found.

The study mentioned an association between prenatal trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety in children.

A 2018 review suggests a link between intergenerational trauma and depression, too. They found evidence that trauma can be passed between generations epigenetically, which means that trauma experienced by an ancestor might affect the way your genes are expressed.

Bale’s extensive work shows that parental stress can impact the following factors in children:

  • risk for obesity
  • risk for diabetes
  • brain development

She says effects can vary based on the sex of the baby. “Prenatal stress seems to affect boys more, and postnatal affects girls more. This may have to do with the protective effects of the female placenta during gestation.”

“Healing trauma is so important, but not easy to do, and certainly something we don’t understand at the biological level. A lot of work still to be done here,” Bale says.

While more research is needed, below are some paths toward healing to consider.

Discover your family history

Even if you don’t know about the trauma history of your lineage, learning about your family history might help you consider how what your family went through in their lifetimes may or may not have affected you.

Here are some research ideas to get you started:

  • List the wars, political movements, and other major historical events that your ancestors lived through and consider the ways those events shaped your family.
  • Consider the cultural and religious values of certain eras that may have influenced your family’s belief system.
  • Make a list of the personal history your ancestors endured and perhaps discuss it with living family members if there is mutual openness and safety. Studying that list may lead to psychological insight.

Explore positive environments

Both positive and negative environments impact our brain. Thanks to neuroplasticity, our brain can change.

Research from 2016 found that enriching our environments may impact us and future generations. The study, published in Nature, found that the offspring of mice are impacted by both positive and negative experiences of their parents.

Try to expose and immerse yourself in positive surroundings and healthy relationships where your needs can be met. There’s a good chance these efforts might impact your future children.

Know resilience and post-traumatic growth are possible

Facing any form of trauma is incredibly hard, and perhaps especially so when the trauma derives from your family of origin.

No one can be expected to demonstrate growth or recovery before they are ready, especially in the face of trauma spurred on by systemic racism or socioeconomic status. Some might find it helpful to consider the scientific basis for post-traumatic growth and resilience as they sort out how previous generations have impacted them.

The field of inherited trauma research is one to watch. Generally, drawing links between the past and present can help us better understand the human condition.

While the scientific community catches up with interest in inherited trauma, there is room for individuals to explore how their family lineage and ancestral experiences may have impacted them.

Discussing the generational impact of trauma is likely best done so with the help of a trusted therapist. If you’re looking for a therapist, consider checking out Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource.