Do You Carry the Trauma of Your Ancestors?

Long structure of the DNA double helix in depth of view.

Do You Carry the Trauma of Your Ancestors?

By Sara Amare

Do you ever wonder how your grandparents or past ancestors reacted during historical events? Well, your DNA might contain more knowledge. Researchers are beginning to study the relationship between intergenerational trauma and genetic expression to answer the question, “Does trauma end at the initial victim?”1

Many scientific studies have examined the victims of major traumatic events. Many focus on psychological trauma, but don’t look into intergenerational impacts. Trauma researchers are just beginning to explore the impact of intergenerational trauma and its genetic expression.1 Intergenerational trauma occurs when trauma experienced in one generation affects the health and well-being of genetically related future generations.4 Identifying these impacts genetically is the field of epigenetics. Epigenetic changes don’t involve alterations of DNA sequences but can cause phenotypic changes. This phenotypic change in the DNA sequence affects how cells read genes.2 The study of the Dutch Hunger Winter case that subjected many pregnant women in the Netherlands to famine, provided a breakthrough in the field of epigenetics. Children of pregnant women who experienced famine carried a specific chemical marker, or an ‘epigenetic signature’, on one of their genes. Researchers later linked this epigenetic signature to differences in health later in life, including higher-than-average body mass. 

Findings from the Dutch Hunger Winter case led to the funding of research for other cases of potential intergenerational trauma such as the descendants of the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia, Rwandan genocide, displacement of American Indians and enslavement of African-Americans. The transgenerational effects from these studies have shown to be not only psychological, but familial, social, cultural, neurobiological and possibly even genetic. As a relatively new field of research, epigenetic studies of intergenerational trauma faces criticism for its validity. Although researchers can make connections between genetic markers and how they translate to physical or social expression, it remains a mystery how these biological and genetic changes can be caused by trauma. Animal studies designed  to fill in gaps in understanding for how epigenetic transmission occurs still don’t explain gaps in understanding of the human mechanisms that result in epigenetic transmission. The loss of culture, values, and way of life and the impact this has on the community and society at large.1,3  

These studies are not the only findings that showcase the validity of intergenerational effects of trauma. Evidence from academic literature also revealed similar effects have been reported in multiple cultures, societies and collective traumatic exposures. The Transgenerational effects of the Rwandan genocide study demonstrated an additional level of evidence beyond overall PTSD severity. It also observed levels of distress in exposed mothers and offspring are driven by the same symptoms, whereas non-exposed mothers and offspring differ by at least one PTSD symptom domain.7 These studies demonstrate that the impact of trauma extends far beyond the individual and their lineage. Individual events can shape the collective experience of an entire generation. There isn’t one person, regardless of where they live, that hasn’t been affected by the current pandemic, COVID-19. This event, along with others like it, have the capacity to fundamentally alter the fabric of our society.6 

Uncovering this field of genetics could change the way we support victims and their future generations to come. If we know the health differences to expect for their offspring we can start screenings, programs, and other preventative measures that can lead to healthier lives and longer survival rates.5  Psycotherapist and co-founder and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children in New York, Yael Danieli, PhD, believes “Continuing to explore intergenerational effects can help the field better understand and treat psychological pain at its roots”.1 These preventative measures can extend farther than to just dozens or thousands of individuals, but entire nations. If events such as COVID-19 and The Great Depression have taught us anything it’s that events that impact millions, change the way we interact in society.


  4. Sangalang, Cindy C, and Cindy Vang. “Intergenerational Trauma in Refugee Families: A Systematic Review.” Journal of immigrant and minority health vol. 19,3 (2017): 745-754. doi:10.1007/s10903-016-0499-7
  5. Lee, Sandra, et al. “Early Detection of Disease and Scheduling of Screening Examinations.” Statistical Methods in Medical Research, vol. 13, no. 6, Dec. 2004, pp. 443–456, doi:10.1191/0962280204sm377ra
  6. Rachel Yehuda, Amy Lehrner, Linda M Bierer, The public reception of putative epigenetic mechanisms in the transgenerational effects of trauma, Environmental Epigenetics, Volume 4, Issue 2, April 2018, dvy018,
  7. Rudahindwa S., Mutesa L., Rutembesa E., Mutabaruka J., Qu A., Wildman D. E., Jansen S., Uddin M. Transgenerational effects of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda: A post-traumatic stress disorder symptom domain analysis [version 2; peer review: 1 approved, 1 approved with reservations]. AAS Open Res 2020, 1:10 (


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