Childhood trauma affects your mind, body, and well-being. The study of epigenetics suggests it may also affect your genes.
Intergenerational and historical trauma centers around the idea that the trauma a person experiences can have ripple effects on the next generation.
Examples of trauma that could be intergenerational include ongoing sexual abuse, war, and systemic trauma like racism.
“Trauma doesn’t just impact the individual who endured it, but it impacts future generations as well, and is, in a sense, inherited,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles.
Research on exactly how and to what extent trauma affects your DNA is ongoing, but recent studies suggest there’s a connection between trauma and genetics.
The genetic makeup that you’re born with plays a role in whether you will develop certain mental or physical health conditions, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. The study of epigenetics shows us how your lived experiences and environment can actually change how your DNA and genetic traits are expressed in situations.
Experiencing trauma might alter your genetic makeup — and those changes could be passed down to future generations. In this way, a child might “inherit” trauma responses from a parent, such as a tendency to react to threats with a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.
“Epigenetics could also influence what someone is afraid of, what someone is sensitive to, and how their body functions and develops,” says Lurie.
The researchers found that starving a group of mice caused them to engage in aggressive behavior toward their food. They gave the next generation ample food to eat — but despite having plenty of food, the offspring of the starved mice also showed aggressiveness toward their food.
Epigeneticists also look at how the genes you inherit don’t manifest. Things that run in your family might stay inactive or even be reversible, including trauma.
What is methylation and what does it have to do with epigenetics?
Methylation is a natural, biochemical process. When methyl groups are added to DNA, it can impact how those genes are expressed. Some researchers believe that experiencing trauma can affect your genes through methylation.
If trauma affects your genes, it can have effects on:
- your body’s inflammation process
- your fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses
- your brain chemistry
According to an
An adverse childhood experience (ACE) score is a measure of childhood trauma a person has lived through, such as abuse or neglect from a caregiver or having a parent who has experienced incarceration.
According to the
- heart disease
- other chronic illnesses
- mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression
ACE scores and epigenetics
Having a higher ACE score reflects the trauma you’ve experienced. It may mean you’re more likely to have trouble:
- building and maintaining healthy relationships and boundaries
- with decision-making and focus
- experiencing long-term stability
If you have a higher ACE score, you might be more likely to experience health issues. Health issues can crop up because of a weakened stress response due to the lifelong effects of trauma exposure, says Lurie.
Sharnell Myles, PsyD, a certified clinical trauma professional and Vice President of Embark Behavioral Health, explains that Black people, particularly children, are subject to racial bias regarding their trauma responses.
There’s a common stereotype that Black people are excessively angry when really what they’re experiencing is strong emotions. But we know defensiveness can be a response to trauma, and expressiveness is part of Black culture, says Myles.
Myles adds that underlying factors can account for “overblown” reactions in people who have experienced trauma, especially in marginalized people.
It’s also important to recognize that excessive anger stereotypically ascribed to Black people has been shown to be inaccurate, resulting from racial bias and power dynamics. So excessive anger may be perceived by other individuals, but not actually accurate.
“One of the ways that these trauma-induced epigenetic modifications can occur is via stress response genes. By altering how the genes that respond to stressors function, an individual might develop lowered resilience to any additional trauma faced later in life,” says Lurie.
Experts believe the link between epigenetics and trauma might serve as potential biomarkers for mental and physical health conditions.
This might help provide better support to folks who’ve experienced trauma. It could also help researchers find ways to potentially alter these genetic changes.
“Know that while your parents’ trauma may have impacts on how you were parented and on how you experience the world, there are also ways to recover from trauma and adverse childhood experiences,” says Lurie.
Whether you’re navigating childhood trauma or trauma from being parented by someone with their own trauma, dealing with the effects can be challenging. But it’s possible to heal.
A 2019 clinical trial involving 39 English-speaking adults and a 6-week expressive writing program suggests creative expression, meditation, and mindfulness might help reduce depression symptoms and increase resilience in people with a history of trauma.
Creating supportive social environments can be challenging, especially if you’ve experienced trauma. But you might find it helpful to lean on others for support. Consider:
- working on setting boundaries
- finding community in different places, including online
- looking into accessible therapy options, including group therapy
You might also find it helpful to look for a therapist who regularly works with people from your specific cultural background or gender identity.
“Psychotherapy can be very effective in treating mental health challenges, including those that may be caused or exacerbated by adverse childhood experiences. There is hope, and there is help,” says Lurie.