Trauma and Epigenetics

Estimated reading time: 23 minute(s)

There is no denying that trauma has more recently become a global issue. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 70 percent of people, or even more, will undergo a traumatic experience at some point in life. Other similar research studies done indicate this number to be at least 50 percent. While trauma can exist in multiple forms, a relatively lesser-known type of this issue, called intergenerational trauma, has been silently affecting many for years.

Read Also About Trauma Triggers

Also known as transgenerational or generational trauma, intergenerational trauma has shocked the world by introducing a potential link between trauma and epigenetics. It indicates that trauma experienced by one generation can be passed down to the subsequent generations, like many other physical and mental illnesses.

Is trauma passed down genetically? There has been a growing interest in finding an answer to this question. While relevant research is still underway, many experts have come to the conclusion that it can be a possibility. However, it is still unclear whether this passing down is only related to epigenetics or has some psychological impact.

Trauma and Epigenetics: The Concept of Inherited Trauma

Genetic trauma or inherited trauma describes the effects of a traumatic event that a person inherits from their older generations. While an increasing number of people worldwide has picked up the term, many experts still consider avoiding it as there is not much evidence regarding the potential of trauma to be genetically or epigenetically inherited.

Epigenetics, on the other hand, describes a study of how certain events that happen to a person and impact their behavior, including traumatic experiences and responses, can change how their genes work. While these changes do not impact the DNA sequence, they may affect how the body may read the DNA. Despite a lack of evidence between trauma and epigenetics, the effects of a traumatic event on the following generations can be significant, even without being inherited.

How Parents Pass Down Trauma: Potential Mechanisms

Everyone agrees that trauma can change a person. However, what not many understand or think about is how it can impact the following generations. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition well-rooted in traumatic experiences, is a good example to discuss in terms of trauma and epigenetics. While it is known that PTSD occurs in people who personally experience trauma, certain twin studies have shown that it carries a heritability of 30 to 70 percent.

So how can someone pass down trauma to the following generations?

DNA Changes

A study performed in 2018 focused on epigenetics and intergenerational trauma, concluding that trauma can impact gene function and DNA. While these effects can be a potential way trauma passes down from generation to generation, more research is needed to clarify it.

Stress During Pregnancy

Research believes that the stress one encounters during pregnancy is one of the many ways a mother may pass intergenerational trauma to her baby. Additional research also confirms that parental stress during pregnancy can lead to the development of psychiatric disorders in children, including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Non-Biological Ways

Following are some non-biological ways in which a person may pass trauma to the subsequent generations: 

  • Letters or heirlooms
  • Family stories involving trauma
  • Photographs and other sources of memory
  • Dysfunctional dynamics between different family members due to trauma, such as unhealthy attachment styles, parental dissociations, or codependency.

How Genetic Trauma Impacts Health

Scientists believe that trauma can lead to different generational effects, as proven by various studies involving the future generations of Holocaust survivors. These studies have also shown a link between prenatal trauma, anxiety, and PTSD in children. Further studies have also found an association between prenatal trauma and depression, indicating that trauma can be epigenetically transferred from one generation to another. In other words, this means that the trauma experienced by your ancestors may also affect the way your body expresses genes.

Additional work in this field has also shown that any parental stress can put their children at an increased risk of:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Abnormal brain development

Remember that many other factors may also play a role in how much this stress can affect a person’s epigenetics. For instance, sex is one of these factors which may discriminate in terms of how stress changes a person’s DNA. Boys are more likely to get affected by prenatal stress than girls.

Trauma and Epigenetics: The Role of Environment

The word “epigenetics” means how the environment can change your DNA. While some studies indicate that trauma can change your DNA and how the genes respond, what environmental factors trigger this trauma?


Historical violence or oppression against a certain group is a common cause of intergenerational trauma. A common example includes African Americans who experienced intense slavery, and their future generations still experience the effects of their ancestors’ trauma.

Cultural dislocation

Cultural dissociation is when someone leaves their homeland due to persecution or conflict. Such a big movement can trigger feelings of isolation and loss which may be passed down to other generations in the form of trauma.

Intergenerational poverty

Generational trauma may also stem from difficult life circumstances of poverty that make it hard for a person to thrive mentally, emotionally, and financially.

Lack of opportunity

A general lack of opportunity often creates feelings of hopelessness that can be passed down from one generation to another.

In utero exposure

Research suggests that exposing a developing baby to toxic stressors in utero can change the way its DNA develops and responds, causing issues with the structure and function of the brain.

Epigenetics PTSD Treatment and Trauma Healing

Healing trauma is significant, regardless of what triggers it. In case of intergenerational trauma, seeking professional help is necessary. Additionally, consider using the following tips to make the recovery process easier.

Know about your family history

Even if you are not familiar with the trauma history of your family, try to learn about it as much as possible. Consider what your previous generations went through in their lives and try to find out if it has or has not affected you. Following are some times to get started on this:

  • Consider all religious and cultural values of the era your family lived in and consider if they affected your family’s belief system
  • Make a list of all political movements, wars, and major historical events that your ancestors went through, and think about how those events affected your family
  • Enlist the personal history of your ancestors and discuss it with other members of the family to gain any useful psychological insight

Explore positive environments

Any positive or negative environment can impact the brain, changing its core structure and functions. Staying in positive environments can; therefore, affect not only your brain but also the brains of future generations. So always try to expose yourself to positive surroundings with lots of healthy relationships. These efforts will make your life happier and also secure the mental and physical health of future generations.

Acknowledge that post-traumatic growth is possible

Facing trauma can be extremely hard, whether intergenerational or not. However, a traumatic experience coming from your family or origin usually comes with extra challenges. However, always remind yourself that developing resilience and experiencing post-traumatic growth is possible. Keep this factor in mind but do not push yourself toward recovery unless you are completely ready.


How can epigenetic changes affect your health?

Following are some ways in which epigenetic changes can affect a person’s health:

  • Prenatal nutrition: Prenatal behavior and overall environment can significantly impact the epigenetics of a growing fetus
  • Infection: Exposure to genes can change the epigenetics by weakening the immune system
  • Cancer: Certain epigenetic changes may increase the risk of cancer

Why is healing epigenetic trauma so important?

It is crucial to address any kind of trauma, regardless of its origin. If left untreated, epigenetic trauma can lead to the following issues:

  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Sleep irregularities
  • Detachment from thoughts, behaviors, and memories
  • Physical symptoms related to different systems, such as the skin, musculoskeletal system, brain, heart, and lungs
  • Disassociation or depersonalization
  • Substance use disorders
  • Intrusive memories and thoughts
  • Hyperarousal
  • Triggers and flashbacks
  • Self-harm

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