What is Transgenerational Trauma?

Can trauma be handed down through generations? And can it be healed?

Transgenerational (aka intergenerational) trauma has been a hot topic in therapy circles over the last 20 years and informed by great studies. By definition, it is the psychological and physiological effects that the trauma experienced by people has on subsequent generations.

The research suggests it is quite possible that your grandparents’ trauma can become yours not only through the affects of behaviour but also through adaptations to genes.

The idea that a person’s experiences can affect their biology and that it gets passed down to subsequent generations is backed by illuminating studies on animals and some smaller human studies which show that exposure to stressors like immense stress or cold can trigger metabolic changes in subsequent generations.

The physiological markers of transgenerational trauma have shown up in the offspring of Holocaust survivors, 9/11 survivors and children in utero during the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. 

  • Children in utero during the Dutch Famine were heavier than average and presented with higher “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels as adults.
  • Dr. Rachel Yehuda, Professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, NYC, determined in a 2015 study on the children of 40 Holocaust survivors that epigenetic changes had altered a gene linked to their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, thereby lowering it. 
  • Unusually low levels of cortisol were also found in the offspring of women who were pregnant at the time of the 9/11 attacks and had experienced PTSD. As nine-month olds they were more likely to be unusually anxious and afraid of strangers.

“Now it looked like trauma could leave a trace in offspring even before they are born,” said Prof Yehuda.

“There are multiple pathways that trauma gets handed down. The most apparent route runs through parental behavior, but influences during gestation and even changes in eggs and sperm may also play a role. And all these channels seem to involve epigenetics: alterations in the way that genes function.”

Dr Yehuda recounts a story of a man named Joseph with a severe stress response: Joseph lived each day with a vague sense that something terrible was going to happen and that he might need to flee or fight for his life. His parents survived the Holocaust. His father woke the family with shrieks of terror from his nightmares. His mother spoke endlessly about the war.

Dr Yehuda interviewed many offspring of Holocaust survivors who suffered from anxiety, grief, guilt, dysfunctional relationships and intrusions of Holocaust-related imagery. Further, many Holocaust offspring also had low cortisol levels if their parents had PTSD.

So how does this information help us understand ourselves in relation to transgenerational trauma?

The more you know about traumatic events in your family line, behaviours and emotional predispositions, the more awareness you create around your own patterns and reactivity. 

 Understanding emotional patterns and what happened to our parents, grandparents and ancestral line, is an important piece in our own healing puzzle. Research even shows that knowing your family story enhances emotional health and resilience. 

Take time to notice the influences on you from your own past.

Where did you pick up your rigidity or sensitivity? Or how far back do your beliefs about the world being unsafe go? Your difficult relationship with money? We are literally shaped by our family history. If we are stressed and anxious as a result, we can be impacted physically by the over production of stress hormones in our bodies over time. When you are aware of it, you can decide to unravel it, release and change it, thanks to the same wonder of epigenetic change. 

Epigenetics is an area of scientific research that shows how environmental influences affect the expression of genes. A study showed that tapping for an hour changed the expression of 72 genes.

We all exhibit behaviours passed down in families. Clinical psychologist, Dr Arielle Schwartz says: “Parents will often say “I don’t want to hover over my children like my mother did and I’m doing it anyway” or “I don’t want to yell at my kids the way my father did but I find myself saying the same words sometimes!”  Why do we repeat painful emotional and behavioural patterns across generations? According to neuroscience, we all have implicit memory systems that hold our experiences of the past in the form of images, sensations, and emotions. The facial expressions, voice tone, and how you felt in your body as a child are readily accessible as you parent your child across similar situations and developmental stages.”  

Spiritual teacher and author, Thomas Hübl, views trauma on an even bigger stage – collective trauma. “We are born into a pre-traumatised world and the fragmentation of former generations through our ancestors and cultures…We see it in parents, teachers, society, politics, education, health, but it hasn’t been named and it has been normalised. And it’s easy to say that’s how life is…People yelling at each other, abuse, racism, anti-semitism; so many symptoms.”

How to heal is the million dollar question. Yes, it is possible!

Understanding where our trauma originates from is liberating but it’s embedded in us, and until we take an honest look at how it affects us and how it shows up in our lives, it persists. When we are ready and committed to change, we can start the work which will set us on an exciting new path to physical and emotional freedom.

This involves:

Making peace with painful parts of our history. 

Releasing familial/ transgenerational trauma.  

Making peace with those who wronged us. 

Reconnecting to ourselves.

Radical acceptance for what we can’t change and don’t have control over.

Taking back agency and self empowerment.

Creating homeostasis in the body/ nervous system.

Writing a new story and forging a new life track.

Living more fully in the present moment, unattached to the pull of past negatives.

I believe this is the ultimate journey we take in a lifetime. Reconnecting to our truth and finding our way back to our authentic selves. It’s a bold journey to wholeness, and the one we must take. And keep taking. Of course life will continue to happen, but there will be access to new levels of freedom, choice, peace, connection, compassion, softness, purpose, vitality, unexpected signs to keep you going, joy and love.


Your greatest supporter through change.

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