Is Trauma Passed Down in Our DNA?

Is Trauma Passed Down in Our DNA?


Social scientists know that trauma experienced by one generation can affect the children and grandchildren of those who suffered first-hand. The effects of trauma are seen in families of people who lived through the holocaust, or suffered through war, torture, or violent crime. The multigenerational effects have been attributed to the experience of living with a person experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). However, the emerging scientific field of Epigenetics now proposes that there is a genetic component.

Most of us learned in school that the genes we inherit from our parents are passed on to our children, and nothing we can do will change them. Epigenecists say that although we do pass on the exact same chromosomes from parent to child, certain qualities of the chromosomes can be improved or diminished according to our own experiences and choices.

A recent article in Uplift explains the concept of Epigenetics:

We all know the image of a DNA double helix. Imagine now that each of the thirteen rungs in the spiral ladder that makes a chromosome is not simply a rung, but a binary, amino acid on/off switch. You may have received an exact same chromosome that your mother or your father carried, but this chromosome has been changing according to the way you’ve been living your life. Some rungs in the ladder are off where they were once on and vice versa. Your genes are responding to the environment like you are, because like you are, they are alive.

Our DNA exists at the heart of our cells and provide the instructions for new cells to be created, so better quality DNA equals better quality instructions for cells to be created and in turn a happier, healthier body. On the other hand continued degradation of the epigenetic structure of our genes could be leading to lowering of immunity and fertility, and increased susceptibility to cellular mutation.

We all have a level of emotional trauma which we carry from childhood, or from our earlier adult life. Trauma can result from events as serious as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or from seemingly less threatening events such as being teased or excluded from a peer group.

When we are unable to discharge and resolve these painful emotions, our sympathetic nervous system gets stuck in “fight or flight” mode. When our body maintains this state of high alert for an extended period of time, normal functioning is disrupted. The result is extreme chronic stress, or PTSD.

If the person who has directly experienced the trauma continues to carry it through life, the effects of that stress in terms of immense amounts of stress hormones affect the epigenetic quality of the genes. The structure of the genes changes and they are passed to the next generation in an altered condition.

In some cases, as when subsequent generations also live in traumatic circumstances such as war, violence, or extreme poverty, existing trauma is compounded. In her book, Trauma Trails, Professor Judy Atkinson describes her work helping entire indigenous communities heal from transgenerational trauma.

The process will stop only when an affected individual is able to come to emotional completion. That requires courage, a safe environment, and support that will allow him or her to go into the vulnerability of feeling the old pain in order to release it. Transpersonal psychologists access a variety of techniques to help in the healing of trauma.