Epigenetic Trauma: Can Trauma Be Passed Down Genetically?

July 3, 2024

Written by Colter Bloxom, LPC

Colter is a licensed psychotherapist and the owner and founder of Thrive Therapy. He specializes in the treatment of anxiety, OCD, pornography addiction, identity issues, and more.

Epigenetic Trauma: Can Trauma Be Passed Down Genetically?

When you think about trauma, you probably think about its immediate psychological and emotional impacts – like a person developing PTSD after an assault. But emerging research suggests that trauma can have long-lasting effects that extend beyond the individual themselves, and may even impact future generations. 

This phenomenon, often referred to as "epigenetic trauma” or "inherited trauma," raises some interesting questions about the mechanisms through which trauma is passed down.

But is “genetic trauma” a real thing? Can trauma be passed down genetically to future generations, and how? In this blog, I’ll break it all down in a way that’s easy to understand.

Is trauma genetic?

First, let’s answer the most important question: is trauma genetic? 

Even though it might be frustrating, the only real answer to this question is: “Not exactly – but we’re not really sure yet.” The causes of trauma are so complex, and scientists are still trying to understand it all. 

For example, we know that even though the vast majority of people experience at least one potentially traumatic event in their lifetimes, only around 5% of us go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How can we explain this gap?

Some of the explanation behind why some people seem to be more vulnerable to the effects of trauma might lie in our genetics. 

Scientists have found a genetic variant that may be associated with resilience, which is your ability to bounce back after trauma and hardships. And twin studies have found the hereditability of PTSD to be between 30 and 70%, although that doesn’t necessarily prove that trauma is genetic.

Like almost every other mental health condition, trauma is caused by both biological and environmental factors. Genetics may be able to influence how we respond after a trauma, but to experience PTSD, we typically need to experience a traumatic event first. 

How trauma can be passed down genetically

But research also shows that we may also inherit trauma from our parents and even more distant ancestors, even if we didn’t experience the traumatic event ourselves. This is often called intergenerational trauma.

To be clear, we do not genetically inherit trauma in the same way that we might inherit blue eyes or curly hair. Like I keep saying, trauma is complex. It isn’t like there’s a “trauma gene” that you inherit from your parents.

Epigenetic trauma

To fully understand how trauma can be inherited, it’s important to understand the differences between genetics and epigenetics.

Genetics is the study of the actual DNA sequence, which is kind of like a blueprint. For example, the study I referenced above found that there could be an actual gene in our DNA sequence that is linked with resilience against trauma.

Epigenetics, on the other hand, is the study of how our environment and life events – including traumatic events – influence gene expression. Epigenetics doesn’t involve changes to the DNA sequence itself, but can change which genes are active or inactive.

For example, you might be genetically predisposed to a mental health disorder like depression. But epigenetic changes – the way the events in your life influence gene expression – are going to be key in whether or not you really develop depression symptoms. The gene is there, but it’s not necessarily “on.”

Research has found that epigenetics may play a role in the way we respond to stress and cope after a traumatic event. Some human and animal studies have found that the epigenetic changes that are caused by trauma can be passed down to offspring through a process called DNA methylation. It's possible that the trauma that was experienced by your ancestors can affect your stress response and vulnerability to trauma.

We need more research to be able to say anything for sure or to understand exactly how it works, but traumatic stress does appear to cause epigenetic changes.

Parental stress

Another way that trauma can affect gene expression (epigenetics) for subsequent generations is through parental stress. After 9/11, researchers found traces of low cortisol – a biological marker of PTSD – in the unborn fetuses of pregnant mothers who were in the area when the Twin Towers fell. The same research team had also earlier found that the children of Holocaust survivors also had low cortisol and signs of PTSD.

This shows that trauma and PTSD may leave biological marks on offspring even before they’re born. In other words, if your biological mother had PTSD while pregnant with you, then you may have been born with the biologial traces of trauma. Your DNA wasn’t altered by trauma, but you still may have “inherited” trauma in some way.

Other ways trauma can be inherited

We still don’t have very much evidence about the genetics of trauma, but that doesn’t mean that trauma isn’t passed down through families. Research does show that trauma is inherited, just maybe not necessarily through your genes.

And the effects of inherited trauma – genetic or not – are very real. Intergenerational trauma can deeply affect families and individuals.

You could have also inherited trauma from your parents through:

  • The effects of PTSD on parenting styles: Your parent might have shown hypervigilance, emotional numbing, overprotectiveness, or unpredictability, which likely created a stressful upbringing for you.
  • Implicit or explicit expectations of children due to trauma: Your parents might have unrealistic or demanding expectations of you shaped by their own traumatic experiences – for example, your parent might demand that you “continue the family line”
  • Parental substance use: Substance abuse can be a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma, which could have created a chaotic and unsafe home environment and sometimes even neglect and abuse.
  • Modeling of coping mechanisms: Traumatized parents might model maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as avoidance or aggression, which you might have unknowingly adopted.
  • Household instability and economic stress: Trauma can affect a parent's ability to maintain stable employment or housing, which may have led to economic hardships and unstable living conditions that impacted you.
  • Intergenerational transmission of trauma narratives: You might have been told stories about past traumas from parents and grandparents, which influenced your worldview and sense of identity. Sometimes, older generations refuse to talk about the traumatic event, which can affect you just as much.

How to heal from inherited trauma

No matter how trauma got passed down to you, the most important thing to know is that you can heal from it. Again, trauma doesn’t change your DNA. It isn’t like your eye color – something you can’t change. You can heal from the effects of intergenerational trauma and limit the extent to which they’re passed down to your future children.

Here are some things to keep in mind.

Is trauma genetic?

Acknowledge the effects of trauma

So many of us grow up in families who were affected by trauma but refuse to talk about it. Or you might have been told the stories over and over again, but feel guilty talking about it as something that affects you (rather than something that affected your parents or grandparents).

But we know that trauma can continue to affect people even generations later. Instead of denying the ways in which the past family trauma has affected you, acknowledge and explore it. Validate the emotions you feel about what your family went through and how it affected your life, personally.

Intentionally break old patterns

Once you start to come face-to-face with how inherited trauma has affected your family, you may start to notice all of the details and signs that point toward the effects of trauma. For example, you might notice that your parent shuts down when talking about difficult topics because going through trauma made them feel that it’s unsafe to share.

Try to be mindful of these behaviors, and intentionally break the pattern. Notice when the behaviors that your family has modeled for you are unhealthy and influenced by trauma. Learn how to do things differently.

Set compassionate boundaries

When healing intergenerational trauma, it’s important to be compassionate – with both your family members and yourself. You can have empathy for your family’s experiences while maintaining healthy boundaries.

For example, the trauma that your parent has been through may have caused them to be hurtful and even abusive towards you. You can have empathy for how their trauma has led them to behave this way while still protecting and having compassion for yourself.

Work with a therapist

Trauma is a tricky thing to navigate on your own. Sometimes, when you start confronting it – especially if it’s been buried for a long time – you can start to feel worse before you feel better.

This is why it’s so important to work with a mental health therapist to heal from trauma. The right therapist can help you get to the root of intergenerational trauma, untangle complex family dynamics, and heal from the myriad ways in which this has affected you.

If you inherited trauma, you’ve probably been living with the effects of it for your whole life. But life doesn’t need to be this way — you can heal and reclaim your life from your family’s past.

At Thrive, our expert team of therapists offers individual trauma therapy, group therapy (including our popular Trauma 101 and Trauma 202 groups), and an intensive outpatient program for PTSD when you need more support.

Get in touch with us by filling out our online form, and one of our team members will get back to you within 48 hours.

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