Traumatic experiences can take many forms.
You might, for instance, find yourself facing long-term emotional distress after discovering a partner’s infidelity, losing your sibling in a car accident, or coping with the sudden illness and death of a beloved pet.
Yet certain types of trauma can have a far more profound impact. Major, large-scale traumatic events often don’t affect only those who survive them. The toll of these experiences can reverberate across generations.
Experts refer to this as intergenerational trauma, or secondary traumatization. You might also come across the term historical trauma, which describes intergenerational trauma that stems from oppression related to culture, race, or ethnicity.
Trauma passed down through generations can ripple through multiple areas of life, not just for the survivors, but also for descendants not yet born at the time of the original trauma.
Intergenerational trauma might affect:
- relationships with family members and romantic partners
- sense of self or personal identity
- communication patterns
- parenting styles
- overall mental health and well-being
Though intergenerational trauma can have deep, complex, and far-reaching effects, it’s possible to heal — not to mention minimize your chances of continuing the cycle.
You’ll find more details on intergenerational trauma below, including key signs, causes, and tips for getting support.
Researchers first began to explore intergenerational trauma after observing its effects on the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II.
Experts now recognize a wider range of circumstances that can lead to historical or intergenerational trauma, including:
- cultural genocide, such as the loss of language, culture, and traditions experienced by the Indigenous peoples of North and South America
- forced migration, including the recently forced displacement of millions in Syria, Myanmar, and Ethiopia
- separation of children from family members, including forced attendance at Indian residential schools and the more recent separation of children and parents at the United States-Mexico border
- famine and natural disasters
- indoctrination into a cult or abusive and controlling religious organization
- global or national crises, like the Great Depression
- genocide and ethnic cleansing, including the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and the Cambodian genocide
- experiencing or witnessing verbal and physical violence, sexual abuse, or emotional neglect
- the death, incarceration, or other loss of a parent
- systemic racism, discrimination, or oppression
- long-term financial hardship or poverty
This list doesn’t include all potential causes of trauma. But if your parents or grandparents experienced any adverse events, especially throughout childhood, the aftereffects may linger within the family dynamic.
Torres, who specializes in working with first-generation individuals to address intergenerational trauma through the use of relational and somatic therapy, goes on to say that traumatization can stem from abuse or neglect both in and out of the home.
“Historical context is everything,” she says. “You might not be someone who considers yourself a victim of trauma. But what is the history of your parents, grandparents, and relatives’ people, within the United States or abroad? Did they experience discrimination or abuse on a larger scale that impeded their well-being?”
What’s more, the signs and symptoms of trauma can also vary widely from person to person and family to family.
“Some people become so accustomed to living with the impact of generational trauma in a family that accepts it as ‘normal,’ the trauma becomes normalized and symptoms appear ‘normal’ to them,” says Canh Tran, LICSW, a trauma therapist in Seattle, WA.
“Our families, society, and culture shape our environment, so this is key,” says Tran. He goes on to explain that this normalization of trauma symptoms can lead you to begin accepting it as “normal” yourself.
Some common signs and symptoms might include:
- dissociation and depersonalization, or a sense of disconnection and detachment from your body and feelings
- emotional numbness, or difficulty experiencing and expressing emotions
- difficulty connecting with others, establishing trust, and forming relationships
- feelings of isolation and withdrawal
- feelings of shame, guilt, or low self-esteem
- a sense of helplessness or vulnerability
- difficulty establishing personal identity
- trouble regulating your mood and emotions
- a tendency to avoid certain people, places, or things
- substance use, especially to help manage mood or emotional symptoms
- intrusive thoughts
- a diminished sense of security and safety in everyday life
- feelings of anxiety and depression
- a heightened response to stress
- thoughts of suicide, death, or dying
Need support now?
If you’re having persistent thoughts of death or suicide, you might not know how to talk about them, or who you can safely tell.
But you’re not alone, and you can get free, confidential support 24/7 by connecting with a crisis helpline:
- For phone support. Call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
- For text support. Text “HOME” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
- For more resources. Find more options for compassionate crisis support in our guide to suicide prevention resources.
Signs of traumatization can also show up for the members of your family who lived through the initial trauma. They might:
- have difficulty discussing the trauma, or deny it outright
- minimize the traumatic experience (“It wasn’t so bad. Other people had it worse.”)
- have trouble expressing emotions and communicating
- use alcohol and other substances to numb or cope with unwanted feelings
- raise their voice or become angry easily
- have either an overly harsh or mostly uninvolved parenting style
These patterns can appear in your own behavior, though you might not always consciously recognize these effects.
Examples to consider
Maybe you’ve always witnessed family members using alcohol to:
- navigate tense situations
- ease uncomfortable emotions
- destress after a difficult day
It’s only natural you might find yourself turning to alcohol for the same reasons, simply because your family modeled that behavior.
Or, perhaps no one in your family shares their feelings or shows love and approval. You might never learn how to share emotions and affection — but this might not feel unusual, since that’s what you learned growing up.
Maybe your parents remained distant or detached, even when you did try to show your love or earn their approval. As a result, you might:
- begin to feel unsafe expressing your feelings to others
- consistently fear rejection
- avoid forming attachments and becoming close to others
On the other hand, when you have some awareness of the impact of your family’s trauma, you might resolve to do things differently but end up erring on the side of overcompensation.
If you grew up in a household where you had little money for basic necessities, much less toys and outings, you might indulge your own child by:
- frequently taking them to restaurants
- going on expensive trips and vacations
- buying them everything they ask for (and plenty of things they don’t ask for)
Or perhaps your parents’ inability to express love felt so devastating that you constantly tell your partner and children how much you love them — to the point where it leaves them a little uncomfortable.
The key to understanding intergenerational trauma lies in the nature of trauma responses themselves.
When you experience a traumatic or stressful event, your brain and body work to protect you through one of four main responses:
- fight, or standing up to the threat
- flight, or fleeing from the threat
- freeze, or stopping in your tracks and waiting to determine the best response
- fawn, or attempting to soothe and appease the source of the threat
Repeated or ongoing exposure to trauma — whether that means you continue to face the same trauma, or different traumas again and again — can leave you “stuck” in this response. Your body wants you to get through the event safely, so it remains on guard for danger.
But this state of hypervigilance, or constant high alert for possible threats, can have some pretty big consequences. It can have a long lasting impact on your overall physical and mental health and well-being, for one. But it can also affect your very biology by triggering changes in the expression of certain genes.
The role of epigenetics
Research in a field known as epigenetics explores the ways these heritable changes to DNA affect the activity and function of your genes. These changes don’t alter the sequence of the nucleotides in your DNA. In other words, they don’t change the DNA molecule itself, but they can alter which genes activate and deactivate.
Where does the “intergenerational” aspect come in? Well, some of these changes don’t just modify your genes. They lie in your genetic code and shape the genes you eventually pass on to your children.
In short, you don’t have to experience any direct threat to your health and safety. Your genes carry the knowledge of what your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived through, regardless.
Of course, other effects of trauma can also play a major role.
It helps to remember that people respond to trauma in different ways. They can then teach those responses, consciously or unconsciously, to their own children.
For instance, if your grandmother experienced abuse and neglect from one parent, she might have learned to:
- suppress her own needs and desires
- avoid drawing attention to herself
- do whatever she could to keep that parent happy
- apologize immediately when encountering disapproval from someone else
She might have passed on those behaviors and responses when she became a parent, whether her partner was abusive or not. Your mother, then, learned to avoid upsetting her father or asking for things she wanted. As you grew up, you learned similar behaviors from your mother.
Trauma can also affect how you communicate.
A parent who suppresses the memory of painful experiences by refusing to talk to them can inadvertently teach you to bottle up unwanted or distressing emotions. When you reach adulthood, you might have a hard time communicating your feelings or talking about unpleasant situations.
Trauma, whether you experience it directly or vicariously, can show up in many areas of daily life.
According to Tran, you might:
- find it hard to get out of bed, no matter how much sleep you get
- have trouble sleeping, or be afraid to sleep, because you’re having nightmares
- notice your old ways of coping no longer work effectively
- use substances to numb discomfort and pain
- notice increased rage, anger, irritability, sadness, grief, and loneliness, when before you never really felt or processed emotions
- don’t feel anything at all because you’re so disconnected from yourself
- find yourself ruminating frequently on critical, demanding, and shaming thoughts
- experience physical symptoms like headaches, migraine, stomachaches, hot body temperature, and shakiness
As a result of these symptoms, you might begin to avoid your family and friends, have trouble at school or work, or find it difficult to even leave your house.
These effects can persist, but they might also subside and return over time. Eventually, they can begin to affect your day-to-day function, quality of life, and relationships with others.
“Relationships shape the quality of our lives. When our relationship with others and ourselves begin to disconnect and weaken to the point of isolation and withdrawal, this can be a sign to seek help,” Tran emphasizes.
Environmental and relational experiences in early childhood can affect lifelong learning, memory, emotions, and behavior. Epigenetic changes can also play a part in a number of health and mental health conditions, including:
- heart disease
- autoimmune conditions
- substance use disorders
“Essentially, chronic or ongoing stress can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress,” Tran says.
Once you begin to recognize the signs of intergenerational trauma in your own life and behavior, you might wonder what steps you can take to keep history from repeating itself.
Acknowledging the signs and symptoms is an important place to start. Once you name and accept these experiences, you can begin addressing them.
“It’s crucial to tend to emotional ailments just as you would a physical wound. The task can be daunting, but the outcome can offer a tremendous amount of relief,” Torres says.
If you’re working through intergenerational trauma, connecting with a mental health professional can have benefit.
A trauma-informed therapist can help you begin to heal by:
- listening to your experiences
- sharing insight into trauma responses
- offering guidance with identifying possible coping skills and sources of support
Therapy that doesn’t address intergenerational trauma directly can still teach helpful skills, including strategies for communicating, processing emotions, and navigating relationship challenges. But when therapy doesn’t explore your personal history, it may not prove as effective for healing trauma.
“A trauma-informed and resilience lens is crucial,” Tran emphasizes. “It’s moving from, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ to ‘How have you learned to survive?’ and eventually ‘What can we do to support your healing moving forward?’”
“Therapy is only one way, but not the only way to heal from the impacts and legacies of trauma,” he explains. “Reconnecting to your cultural wisdoms and knowledge is one step. What did your grandparents do to heal? What about your great-grandparents?”
He offers examples like:
- dance and other movement
- storytelling, art, and writing
- religion and spirituality
- other healing methods like reiki, qi gong, acupuncture, bodywork, massage, and healing circles
Both Torres and Tran emphasize the importance of including trusted loved ones, support groups, or supportive professionals in your healing work.
For more insight and guidance on steps forward, Tran recommends:
- Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing by Suzanne Methot
- My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
You may not be able to rewrite your genes or change your past, but you can certainly take steps to address your personal response to trauma and begin to heal.
If you can navigate distressing and unwanted experiences in more productive ways, you can later share these important skills with any children you have.
Even if financial barriers keep you from accessing mental health support, you still have options, including:
In search of tips for finding the right culturally competent therapist? Our guide can help.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healinggeeks and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.