Intergenerational trauma has become a buzzword in online mental health spaces, popping up in cultural dialogues, on social media and in popular books like It Didn’t Start With You.
Although there are many words for it — ancestral, historical, intergenerational — at its core, the concept suggests that trauma can be passed down through generations. Even if a descendant didn’t directly experience an adverse event, like the Holocaust, they still might experience the impacts of it, says Anissa Howard, a Michigan-based therapist with Birmingham Maple Clinic.
It’s not just a theory either: Multiple landmark studies support the existence of inherited trauma. One 2014 research review looked at the effects of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, which subjected Aboriginal children to horrific abuse and neglect. Descendants of former students were more likely to experience distressing physical and psychological conditions than those whose forebears had avoided the IRS system.
While this study is compelling, the research on ancestral trauma overall is still in its infancy — so much so that it hasn’t yet made it into the DSM-5, the mental health diagnosis manual. Some critics even claim it’s a sham. “These are, in fact, extraordinary claims, and they are being advanced on less than ordinary evidence,” Kevin Mitchell, an associate professor of genetics and neurology at Trinity College, Dublin, told the New York Times.
Still, some practitioners, like Austin, Texas-based therapist Sara Sloan, discuss inherited trauma with patients to gain an understanding of patterns, health and patient behavior when there is no other answer.
Where did the idea of intergenerational trauma originate?
Many of the studies on ancestral trauma look at the descendants of populations who experienced mass traumatic events, like genocide, chattel slavery or war. In other instances, they’ve focused on the descendants of people who have been repeatedly marginalized, like Indigenous populations.
Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Vivian M. Rakoff conducted some of the earliest research in the field in 1966. He and his colleagues found elevated rates of psychological distress in children of Holocaust survivors. All three were born after the Holocaust, but two went on to attempt suicide. (Critics have questioned that study’s small sample size.) A 2018 study may stand on firmer ground: It found that the male children of men abused in prisoner-of-war camps during the American Civil War were likely to die earlier than peers without that ancestral experience.
“Transmission from father to son to male-line grandson suggests Y chromosome [was affected],” says Dora Costa, a UCLA economics professor who authored the study. “Why it would happen on the Y chromosome, I don’t know.”
What are the symptoms of intergenerational trauma? How might they differ and/or look similar to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?
Descendants might experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, like increased stress and behavioral issues, but don’t have a specific reason to blame in their own lives, Sloan says.
West Virginia craniosacral therapist Patricia Rogers says generally, symptoms may include:
- Constant fear
- Elevated heart rate
- Rapid or shallow breathing
- Digestive problems
How exactly does ‘passing down’ trauma work?
Researchers still don’t understand how trauma might pass from one generation to another, though they have a few theories. The most common hypothesis is that people who experience trauma can pass the physiological damage it causes through their genes. Others speculate that people may pass down the effects of trauma simply through the way they raise their children.
Both could be possible.
If you think of DNA as a code, each gene represents a different instruction. Environmental changes, like traumatic events, cannot change the way the code is written, but they can chemically switch certain genes on or off, changing the way instructions are translated. These changes can be passed down from generation to generation.
The study of these changes in gene function is called epigenetics. For example, lifestyle changes can’t erase the fact that diabetes runs in your family. But a 2019 study of epigenetics and type 2 diabetes found that lifestyle changes can help turn off genes that could increase susceptibility to developing diabetes.
As for nurture, it’s not inconceivable that the experiences of war prisoners or Holocaust survivors affected their parenting. In fact, Rakoff coauthored a a 1971 study which found that Holocaust survivors had more difficulty exhibiting self-control and parenting their children.
“How epigenetic? I don’t know,” Sloan says. “How much is familial and bred in through nurture? I think it’s a combination. I don’t think it’s ever just one.”
What are some current methods of treatment?
Since no one lives a trauma-free life, inherited trauma may be more widespread than previously imagined, Sloan says.
She brings up family history using genograms, or a visual display of a person’s lineage, into therapy sessions with clients. That said, given the scarcity of published and peer-reviewed research on inherited trauma right now, the field continues to treat symptoms like depression and anxiety as it usually would — with CBT and other forms of talk therapy.
Some mental health practitioners do look beyond talk therapy and medications for treatment options. Craniosacral therapy, for example, seeks “a restoration of autonomic balance,” Rogers says. CST is similar to massage, in that it uses a light touch to relieve tension near and around the central nervous system. A 2020 study found that CST effectively treated severe trauma when combined with psychotherapy.
Another therapeutic approach is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which has been in use for more than 30 years. A therapist will review a patient’s history and go over coping mechanisms for working with trauma, such as deep breathing.
Then, they’ll target a specific memory or thoughts and ask a patient to focus on it while performing specific eye movements. Since a person experiencing the impacts of ancestral trauma won’t have a memory, Sloan says the practitioner may focus on a feeling, an image, a place, or a memory. They could even focus on a sensation in the body
“The traumatized person needs to be supported in a state of relaxation,” says Rogers, “and they also need to develop a sense that the experience is in the past, so they are aware in the present they are safe.”