Is it yours? How You May Be Affected by Intergenerational Trauma

It can be hard to imagine that something that happened to our great-grandparents or even further back could still impact us today. Generational trauma, the notion that events from the past could stretch across generations and influence us today seems almost unbelievable.

Understanding and breaking the cycle of generational trauma is complex and must be fully understood before trauma treatment begins.  Trauma-informed Accelerated Resolution Therapists recognize the importance of understanding a client’s full background before they move forward with trauma healing.

It’s not just about dealing with our own experiences and memories; it’s also about grappling with our ancestors’ inherited pain and suffering. 

“Trauma is commonly intergenerational, so many of our clients are carrying not only what they have experienced in their own lifespans, but also the legacy of the crushing weight of emotional, relational, and psychological pain that has outstripped former generations’ ability to cope effectively.” – Christie Eastman, MA, LPC, NCC , Master ART Therapist and Trainer

How does trauma become inter-generational?

Trauma can have a “trickle-down” effect. It’s not just an individual experience; it can also spill over and affect the next generation. Studies have shown that trauma can be passed down through genetics, affecting the way our bodies and brains respond to stress. But it’s not just about biology – it’s also about how trauma shapes the environment in which the next generation grows up.

A parent who has experienced any type of trauma may have difficulties in providing a calm demeanor for their children. They could experience trouble with emotional regulation, hypervigilance, and constant stress. If a parent is struggling to cope with their trauma, it can affect their ability to support and nurture their child. Down the line, the child may adjust their behavior to prevent triggering the parent, which can create attachment difficulties and the potential risk of developing their own trauma in the future.


Trauma in a person decontexuaized over time, looks like a personality.Trauma in a family deconxtualized over time, looks like family traits. Trauma in a people decontextualized over time looks like culture and it takes time to slow it down so you can begin to discern what’s what.”Resmaa Menakem

Where does Generational Trauma Come from?

Childhood trauma can extend into adulthood, manifesting in various adverse experiences known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that impact mental health.  ACEs refer to traumatic or stressful events that occur during a person’s childhood. These experiences can include experiences such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, drug addiction in the family, witnessing domestic violence in the family, or a mentally ill person in the home.

Experiencing an ACE can cause problems later in life. Research has shown that the more ACEs a person experiences, the higher their risk for health and social problems, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, chronic diseases, and even early death.

Trauma left untreated can bring about coping methods and mental health issues that repeat the cycle, as children of ACE parents tend to model the same upbringing they learned from their caretakers.



 When systemic denial of rights and opportunities based on race, gender, sexuality, or other factors persists, it can fuel generational trauma by perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage and suffering.

Various forms of oppression exist, spanning from systematic discrimination in society to financial disparities among groups and communities and to instances of physical and emotional abuse. When the people in these groups and communities experience oppression, their belief systems, feelings of safety, and overall well-being are compromised. As families experience oppression as an inescapable “way of life” the cycle feels impossible to break.

Oppression can instill feelings of shame and unworthiness. Constantly being told they are inferior or unworthy can profoundly affect people’s sense of self and capacity to overcome challenges.

Even in cases where caretakers have escaped situations of oppression, these beliefs become so ingrained that they are passed on to their children, contributing to generational trauma.

A horrific event illustrating discrimination and oppression is the USPHS Untreated Syphilis Study at Tuskegee where research began with 600 Black men, 399 of whom had syphilis and 201 who did not.

The men involved were poor sharecroppers promised meals and medical care in exchange for participation. Informed consent was not sought from the participants, and treatment for syphilis was not provided. As a result, many died due to this experiment.

Due to the Tuskegee experiment, many African Americans have passed on their distrust of public health officials and government healthcare.


Lack of opportunity and resources

Lack of opportunities and resources is often a byproduct of oppression. When individuals and communities are denied access to education, employment, healthcare, and other basic needs, it can perpetuate cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement.

When individuals encounter unmet neccessities within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, their concern often shifts to basic survival without the chance to enhance their overall well-being.Beliefs and behaviors passed down from generation to generation are often shaped by environments lacking in resources and safety.

This lack of opportunity can lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. Mental health education, awareness, and resources are often unavailable to the communities who suffer, carrying on the cycle to future generations.

Collective Trauma

 Collective trauma is the psychological and emotional impact of a traumatic event that affects an entire group of people, such as a community, nation, or ethnic group. Examples from history include groups such as Black Americans, Holocaust survivors, and Indigenous communities, among others. 

As an illustration, the systemic racism and discrimination rooted in the legacy of slavery in the United States have led to ongoing trauma for generations of African Americans, perpetuated through families and communities. This collective trauma continues to impact the mental health and well-being of individuals of African descent, highlighting the lasting effects of historical trauma on present-day communities.

Collective trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. This type of trauma can contribute to a cycle of pain and suffering that continues to affect individuals and communities long after the original event has occurred.


In utero exposure

After the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th, Rachel Yehuda, a psychiatry professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, trained professionals to assess and treat pregnant women traumatized by the attacks. Researchers noted that the babies were born smaller, suggesting possible womb trauma. Nine months later, they evaluated 38  mother/child pairs during the wellness visit. Many mothers exhibited PTSD, showing low cortisol levels, a common trait shared by their babies as well.

In utero exposure to trauma, such as stress, abuse, or substance use, can have long-lasting effects on the unborn child. Research has shown that exposure to trauma during pregnancy can impact the baby’s developing brain and nervous system, leading to a heightened risk of mental health issues, behavioral problems, and even physical health issues later in life.


How Generational trauma can be passed down

Learned behaviors, coping mechanisms, and belief systems are passed down through generations. When parents or caregivers have experienced trauma in their own lives, they may unintentionally pass on their unresolved issues to their children through their parenting styles and interactions. This can create a cycle of trauma within families where unhealthy patterns of behavior are perpetuated from one generation to the next.

Learned Behaviors

Generational trauma can lead to learned behaviors being passed down through family lines as individuals pick up coping mechanisms and ways of interacting with the world from previous generations. As a result, patterns of behavior and thought may not necessarily be conducive to mental and emotional well-being.


Higher Risk of Mental Illness and Addiction

Mental illness and addiction can be passed down through generations as a result of generational trauma. According to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the impact of violence and abuse experienced by one generation can have lasting effects on the mental health of their children. The researchers found that the children of women who had experienced severe child abuse were 1.7 times more likely to experience depression and 2.5 times more likely to suffer from chronic depression compared to children of mothers who had not endured such abuse. These numbers demonstrate how trauma can have a significant impact on the mental well-being of future generations, leading to a higher risk of mental illness and addiction.


Epigenetic Changes

Epigenetic changes are a byproduct of generational trauma that gets passed down through changes in gene expression. For example, a study by Rachel Yehuda, director of the Center for Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Trauma Research at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that grandchildren of Holocaust survivors had altered levels of the stress hormone cortisol, showing the impact of trauma on future generations. 

Additionally, research has shown that trauma can lead to changes in DNA methylation, which can result in increased vulnerability to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

 These changes in gene expression can have profound effects on physical health as well, potentially increasing the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Overall, epigenetic changes serve as a powerful reminder of the long-lasting impact of trauma on both our bodies and our future generations.


“The most apparent route runs through parental behavior, but influences during gestation and even changes in eggs and sperm may also play a role. And all these channels seem to involve epigenetics: alterations in the way that genes function. Epigenetics potentially explains why effects of trauma may endure long after the immediate threat is gone, and it is also implicated in the diverse pathways by which trauma is transmitted to future generations. The implications of these findings may seem dire, suggesting that parental trauma predisposes offspring to be vulnerable to mental health conditions. But there is some evidence that the epigenetic response may serve as an adaptation that might help the children of traumatized parents cope with similar adversities. Or could both outcomes be possible?” – Rachel Yehuda, How Parents’ Trauma Leaves Biological Traces in Children

Physical Health

Generational trauma can have a significant impact on physical health, leading to a range of health issues that get passed down from one generation to the next. An increased risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and even a compromised immune system are some of the ways generational trauma can manifest.

These physical health issues are often a result of the ongoing stress and coping mechanisms that are transmitted across generations, ultimately affecting the body’s ability to function optimally.


Breaking the Cycle: Coping With Generational Trauma

It can be challenging to break cycles in families who are experiencing generational trauma. Belief systems and behaviors are so rooted in ourselves that they seem to say, “This is life, and there is no other way.”

Exploring the origins of “Where does this come from?” requires time and patience as layers are gradually uncovered.

How do we begin to make changes in these passed-down systems?


Hear the story and build awareness:

When dealing with any sort of potential generational trauma, the first question to ask is, “Is trauma mine or someone else’s?”

Talking about trauma with families in a safe and secure environment can shed awareness on how it unfolds in the present. Learn about the source of your trauma. Examine where your belief systems come from. If you have a belief that states, “I’m not good enough,” ask yourself where this belief comes from. Upon closer look, can this be traced back to your parent’s or grandparents’ consistent criticisms and absence of affection or encouragement? Where does this belief stem from, and why has it been adopted?

Reframe the belief:

After you realize where these belief systems have come from, rewrite the belief into something more self-compassionate.

For example, if you hear a familiar internal voice that says, “You’re worthless,” respond gently to yourself, “This belief is not mine; this is a story that has been passed down to me, and I choose to let it go. I am doing the best I can.”

Break the Cycle

Reframing past beliefs stemming from generational trauma is an essential part of breaking the cycle. As you reframe this narrative for yourself, you can consciously refuse to pass it along. Becoming versed in mindfully addressing painful trauma stories and consciously adopting positive parenting with your children will discontinue the cycle.

Address it with your body:

Since generational trauma is stored in the body, employing mind-body therapy can help get in touch with and move the trauma stored in the body. Yoga, art therapy, dance, theater, and other expressive therapies help retell and change how the story is stored.


Professional treatment for generational trauma

If you’re dealing with generational trauma, it’s crucial to seek out a therapist who is well-versed in trauma-informed care. Finding someone who understands the impact of trauma on individuals and communities can provide a safe and supportive environment for healing.


One of the first things to look for in a trauma-informed therapist is their ability to assess your background and experiences thoroughly. A thorough intake and assessment helps them understand the unique challenges you may be facing due to generational trauma and allows them to tailor their approach to meet your needs best.

A trauma-informed therapist should also possess knowledge about the intergenerational transmission of trauma and demonstrate sensitivity to cultural and historical factors that might contribute to such trauma.

In addition to having a deep understanding of generational trauma, a trauma-informed therapist should be skilled in a variety of treatment modalities that can help you process and heal from your experiences. One such modality that has shown promise in addressing generational trauma is Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART).

ART is a type of therapy that focuses on addressing memories and beliefs that are causing distress and works to desensitize the emotions stored in the body.

ART uses image rescripting to create new stories to rewrite the limiting beliefs and stories passed down to you. As it works to erase negative body sensations, ART facilitates communication with the body parts where trauma resides, thereby dismantling the grip of generational trauma and ultimately breaking the cycle for good.

Find an ART-trained therapist near you.



How does trauma spill from one generation to the next?

​​Generational Trauma: Breaking the Cycle of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Tuskegee Study – Timeline – CDC – OS.

How Parents’ Trauma Leaves Biological Traces in Children | Scientific American

How does trauma spill from one generation to the next?