Understanding Genetic Trauma: How Trauma Can Be Passed Down Through Generations

Trauma is often perceived as an individual experience, one that affects the person directly involved in the traumatic event. However, recent research has shown that the impact of trauma can transcend personal experience and be passed down through generations. This phenomenon, known as genetic or intergenerational trauma, suggests that the repercussions of traumatic experiences can affect not only those who experience them firsthand but also their descendants.

What is Genetic Trauma?

Genetic trauma refers to the concept that trauma can be inherited through genetic changes. This idea is grounded in the field of epigenetics which studies how behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work. Unlike genetic changes which alter the DNA sequence, epigenetic changes affect gene activity and expression without changing the DNA sequence itself. These changes can be influenced by various factors, including stress and trauma.

How Can Trauma Be Passed Down?

The mechanism behind genetic trauma involves changes in gene expression that are triggered by traumatic experiences. When a person undergoes trauma, their body responds by activating certain stress-related pathways. These pathways can lead to changes in the way genes are expressed, effectively turning some genes on or off.

One key way this occurs is through epigenetic markers, such as DNA methylation. DNA methylation is a process that can silence genes or reduce their expression. For instance, if a traumatic event triggers excessive stress, this can lead to increased methylation of genes involved in stress responses. These epigenetic changes can then be passed down to offspring, influencing their stress responses and potentially making them more susceptible to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

Evidence Supporting Genetic Trauma

Several studies have provided evidence supporting the concept of genetic trauma. Notably, research on the descendants of Holocaust survivors has shown that they exhibit altered stress hormone profiles and increased vulnerability to stress-related disorders. Similarly, studies on the descendants of individuals who experienced severe famine or abuse have revealed changes in gene expression related to stress and metabolism.

For example, a landmark study on the Dutch Hunger Winter, a famine that occurred during World War II, found that children conceived during the famine had different patterns of DNA methylation compared to those conceived before or after the famine. These epigenetic changes were linked to an increased risk of various health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The Impact of Genetic Trauma

The effects of genetic trauma can manifest in various ways, affecting physical, emotional and psychological health. Offspring of trauma survivors may experience higher levels of stress hormones, increased anxiety and a heightened risk of mental health disorders. Additionally, these individuals might have altered immune responses, making them more susceptible to illnesses.

Moreover, genetic trauma can influence behaviour and coping mechanisms. For instance, descendants of trauma survivors might develop maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance abuse, to manage their heightened stress levels. This perpetuates a cycle of trauma and maladaptive behaviour across generations.

Addressing Genetic Trauma

Understanding genetic trauma highlights the importance of addressing trauma not only at the individual level but also within families and communities. Therapeutic approaches such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and family therapy can help break the cycle of trauma. These interventions aim to heal the emotional wounds of trauma survivors and their descendants, promoting healthier coping mechanisms and resilience.

Moreover, public health initiatives should focus on preventing trauma and providing support to those affected by it. This includes creating supportive environments, offering mental health services and addressing social determinants of health that contribute to trauma.


Genetic trauma underscores the profound and lasting impact of traumatic experiences. By recognising that trauma can be inherited and addressing it through comprehensive and compassionate approaches, we can help mitigate its effects on future generations. The study of genetic trauma is a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness of human experiences and the importance of fostering resilience and healing across generations.