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  • Writer's pictureRoxanna Strumwasser

Let's talk about intergenerational trauma.

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

What is intergenerational trauma?

A phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a traumatic event may show adverse emotional and behavioral reactions to the event that they have not experienced themselves (American Psychological Association).

Essentially, when the effects of trauma are passed down between generations.

When we experience trauma, our DNA responds by activating genes necessary for survival (i.e., fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) to prepare us for potentially dangerous situations in the future. If your parents or grandparents experienced trauma, their DNA coded itself to protect them, which then gets passed down for multiple generations.

Your parents or grandparents may have experienced:

  • War

  • Poverty

  • Famine

  • Genocide

  • Immigration

  • Domestic abuse

  • Physical abuse

  • Sexual abuse

  • Neglect

  • Racism

  • Sexism

Clinical studies revealing effects of epigenetics & intergenerational trauma:

1.) In a 2014 study, researchers blew cherry blossom scent through the cages of mice while simultaneously zapping their feet. After multiple trials, the mice began to associate the cherry blossom scent with pain.

Researchers found that both the children and grandchildren of these mice exhibited heightened sensitivity (were jumpy, nervous, and fearful) to the cherry blossom scent despite never actually undergoing the traumatic experience. They went further to rule out that this behavior was learned by raising these children and grandchildren with unrelated mice, proofing that this fear response was inherited genetically.

2.) In 2016, neuroscientists conducted a genetic study examining the genes of Holocaust survivors who had either witnessed or experienced torture, been interned at a Nazi concentration camp, or had to hide during the war. The study revealed that the trauma experienced prior to the conception of their children actually altered the DNA in the survivors’ offspring’s genetic code. This demonstrated the passing down of the effects of stress and trauma from one generation to the next.

Potential responses to intergenerational trauma:

  • Anxiety

  • Heightened sensitivity to stress

  • Hypervigilance

  • Denial

  • Memory Loss

  • Depression

  • Shame

  • Guilt

  • Difficulty with self-regulation

  • Intrusive thoughts

  • Low self-esteem

  • Chronic Illness

  • Substance abuse

  • Suicidal ideation

How can we heal the wounds of intergenerational trauma?

  • Start an honest conversation about your family’s lived experience and how it has impacted your life.

  • Build compassion and understanding for your family’s traumatic experiences.

  • Analyze the patterns of ineffective coping skills, attitudes, or symptoms that you may be repeating.

  • Consider the life you want for yourself and your own family.

  • Work every day to change your narrative and break the generational cycles that are harmful to you.


(2019). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). Washington, DC. : American Psychological Association.

Dias, B. G., & Ressler, K. J. (2014). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature neuroscience, 17(1), 89–96.

Marschall, P. D. (2022). Intergenerational trauma: What you need to know. Verywell Mind. From

Yehuda, R., Daskalakis, N. P., Bierer, L. M., Bader, H. N., Klengel, T., Holsboer, F., & Binder, E. B. (2016). Holocaust Exposure Induced Intergenerational Effects on FKBP5 Methylation. Biological psychiatry, 80(5), 372–380.


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