Inheriting Trauma—Exploring Intergenerational Consequences

Inheriting Trauma—Exploring Intergenerational Consequences

The ripples of trauma are like the ripples of tsunamis: they both eventually recede, but not without creating long-lasting damage.  In humans, these ripples are the lived experiences, particularly the traumatic ones, of our ancestors, and it may have contributed to some of our psychological and behavioral dispositions.  Research indicates that trauma can be inherited over multiple generations, so it might be time that we adopted a type of trauma lens as we look for answers to today’s mental health crisis.

The Uniqueness of Trauma and Its Intergenerational Consequences

What makes trauma unique is that it is rooted in how a person experiences an event, and not in the event which occurs.  Trauma happens when an individual experiences a distressing situation that threatens their sense of safety or security (CAMH, 2020).  These events can range from violent to non-violent, but they are best described as a body/mind experience.  Because of this, no two people experience trauma the same way, and so each experience of trauma is as unique as a fingerprint.

It is believed that trauma is inheritable, and that it can be passed down multiple generations and the connection to mental health and overall well-being is undeniable.  One of the first documented examples of inherited trauma occurred in Canada during the mid-1960s.  Children whose parents were Holocaust survivors were being referred to child psychiatrists in disproportionate numbers.  This was happening three times more frequently than the number of children referred from parents who had not encountered trauma during the war.

Inherited trauma can be the result of varying situations, including extreme poverty, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and slavery.  What adds to the mystery is how some individuals seem to sail through life’s adversities almost unaffected, while others appear to be more vulnerable when things go wrong.  Scientists are still exploring these connections and it is believed that they are linked to different gene combinations (Yehuda, 2015).

How Trauma Is Embedded in The Canadian Identity

In 2017 we celebrated Canada’s 150th birthday, approximately five generations removed from the proclamation of Confederation on July 1, 1867.  If we look deeper into those 150 years, many of them were rife with hardships such as famine and war.  Of the immigration waves that happened to create the Canadian fabric throughout those 150 years, many of them were rooted in seeking refuge and the pursuit of a better life, but all of them carried trauma.  This may serve as one explanation to the findings that were put forward by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, that more than 6.7 million Canadians struggle with mental illness and that one in two Canadians have – or have had – a mental illness by the time they reach 40 years of age.

Canada has a rich history of providing hope to hopeless immigrants; a land that has been largely populated by immigrants over time, it continues to provide that shelter to families fleeing warzones.  The current approach to aiding newcomers focuses on ensuring access to the essentials such as shelter, food, and clothes.  This is believed to be the formula for success when diagnosing the immediate needs of any newcomer.  But the problem with it is that it ignores the long-term needs of newcomers.  It seems there is a link between trauma and mental health, and our current approach fails to consider that traumatic experiences may be biologically inheritable (Yehuda, 2015).

The World Health Organization has stated on record that the world is on the verge of a mental health crisis.  Without a comprehensive approach that prioritizes social support networks and simplifies access to services, this crisis will overwhelm us.

The Best-Case Scenario

Even though we live in volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous times, we can breathe a sigh of relief because it is possible to free oneself from the bondage of trauma.  The key is to identify the root of the trauma, often found in one’s family history.  Once identified, it is important to have an experience that is powerful enough to override that trauma response and to keep practicing those feelings.  The purpose of this response is to break the sequence of events that are linked to the trauma by weakening the foundation on which the trauma cycle operates.

It may be that the best way to view traumas is as stories that need exploring.  Through the exploration of these stories one can bring an end to the story of trauma, and so then can begin to write new stories of oneself.

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (Ed).  (2020) The Crisis Is Real.  Retrieved from
The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (Ed). (2020) Trauma. Retrieved from
Wolynn, M.  (2016).  It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle.  Penguin Life.
Yehuda, R., 2020. Holocaust Exposure Induced Intergenerational Effects On FKBP5 Methylation. The Biological Psychiatry Journal. Retrieved from
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