What It Means When You Have Generational Trauma

When you are born, you inherit your parents' physical features and genetics. In fact, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) says you even inherit some of their intellectual potential. But you can also inherit traumas passed down through generations from your parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. According to the Office for Institutional Equity (OIE) at Duke University, what many people call a "generational curse" is actually a pattern of behaviors around dealing with trauma that is passed down through family lines. 

According to Health, a new field of research called epigenetics aims to discover how exposure to stress chemicals, like cortisol, can trigger changes in fetal development and gene expression in the womb. In fact, a 2018 study in World Psychiatry noted that trauma can affect DNA function and gene transmission in offspring. The concept of generational trauma first developed in the mid-1960s, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). As a result, researchers studied high rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Holocaust survivors and their children. 

Keep in mind, generational trauma goes beyond psychological ramifications to impact individuals on a cellular level (per Health). "Trauma affects genetic processes, leading to traumatic reactivity being heightened in populations who experience a great deal of trauma," explains child and adolescent psychiatrist and author Dr. Gayani DeSilva. But not all descendants of families who endured extreme trauma show abnormal psychological distress. For those who do, however, it can help to know what it means when you have generational trauma.

Healing generational trauma comes through acknowledgement and grieving

Anyone can experience generational trauma, but children born into populations that have endured systematic oppression, poverty, violence, and racism are particularly at risk (per Health). While epigenetics is fairly new, the observation of intergenerational trauma is not. Integrative healing therapist and Métis-Cree, Elder Kerrie Moore, says, "Our Elders have always said, 'What we do today will affect the next seven generations.' Repetitive traumas that happened to our ancestors, as many as seven generations before, can be passed down to our children" (via the University of Calgary). And Moore says even people currently living in a "non-trauma environment" can experience intergenerational trauma. 

In fact, in a 2015 study, descendants from 15 Ukrainians families who endured mass starvation during the 1932-1933 Holodomor under Stalin found that three generations later, descendants still displayed markers of related traumas. Transgenerational impacts included shame, anxiety, food hoarding, overeating, authoritarian parenting styles, mistrust, and parental emotional neediness. Brent Bezo, the study co-author, says, "Each generation seemed to kind of learn from the previous one, with survivors telling children, 'Don't trust others, don't trust the world'" (via APA).

However, there is hope for those living with generational trauma. Moore tells the University of Calgary that healing begins by acknowledging ancestral traumas and allowing the grieving process to occur. "Our environments and genetics play an equal role in trauma development and healing. Our ancestors also passed down their healing memories and behaviours," notes Moore.