Pivotal historic events from centuries past like wars, famines, and genocide can seem far removed from our daily experience. Many believe that what previous generations faced was several lifetimes ago, having little impact on their descendants today. Time and physical proximity may cause you to feel similarly, yet new research suggests that trauma may cross generational lines and affect those that come after us.

Intergenerational trauma – or trauma that has the potential to impact future generations of individuals within a family system – has become hotly contested as researchers dive into the field of epigenetics. So what is epigenetics and what does it mean for us today?

Epigenetics Broken Down

DNA modifications can impact gene activity without changing the actual DNA sequence. The chemical compounds added to single genes that affect their activity are called epigenetic changes. Because these chemical compounds are attached to the DNA, they remain even as cells divide – that means they can actually be passed down through generations.

About 10 years ago, epigenetics emerged as the focal point in a study of children who were still in the womb during the Dutch Hunger Winter at the end of World War II. Researchers found what they called an “epigenetic signature” on one of their genes, which they linked to health factors later in life.

Additional studies followed, including one on concentration camp survivors, which found that both Holocaust survivors and their children showed epigenetic changes on a gene often linked to stress. Critics of the study, however, were not convinced. They pointed out the small sample size and criticized lead researchers for not extending the analysis to third and fourth generations of descendants of the Holocaust survivors.

Studying descendants of war prisoners

The debate continues now with a more recent study of descendants of Civil War prisoners. These men from the mid-1800s were imprisoned in crowded POW camps where death from dysentery and scurvy were prominent. The study assessed thousands of veterans and their children, reporting that children of abused war prisoners were about 10 percent more likely to die after middle age than their peers.
“It’s either the stress of war or the malnutrition of war or both,” epigenetics researcher Randy L. Jirtle, who was not involved in the study, told The Atlantic. “The stress on the system moves the machinery to put down or not put down epigenetic markers.”

That same researcher said that he thinks the study might help explain why southern U.S. states, which had more severe food shortages in the Civil War era, struggle with obesity and other health issues more than other states.

Breaking the Cycle

The science is still young, most caution, with no direct cause-and-effect link. But from concentration camps survivors to combat soldiers or domestic violence cases, we can observe that the effects of different types of trauma can be passed from generation to generation in some way.

It’s important to know that breaking the cycle of trauma is possible, according to Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., an Ohio licensed professional clinical counselor and Talkspace provider. O’Neill said that the most successful individuals who seek treatment have a good understanding of how the trauma has impacted their life. From there, a personalized process can help the individual “reauthor” their life stories to move past the intergenerational trauma.

“Often, it begins with the individual both identifying the impact of the trauma and then taking steps to seek help to cope with it,” she said.

How children can proactively separate themselves

Talkspace Senior Therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP, CLYL, has previously worked with an individual to process trauma in hopes of stopping the cycle. Using cognitive behavioral, narrative, and creative arts therapies, they worked through her client’s trauma from severe child abuse. Together, they worked to let go and build resilience to ensure the client’s children were not impacted as much as they could have been.

To proactively help children separate themselves from traumatic events experienced by their parents, the D.C. metro therapist recommends teaching children how to communicate their emotions.
“You can share past experiences with them — once you have processed them — and help them understand how [these experiences] affected you and how you used them as learning experiences to become more resilient,” Catchings explained.

Research shows that past events have the potential to impact future generations, but experts agree that more needs to be done to understand epigenetics. In the meantime, we should look to the past with open eyes to recognize what’s formed us and proceed intentionally. Working with a therapist early on can also serve as a crucial step toward breaking free from inherited trauma in order to persevere and live freely.