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What is Intergenerational Trauma?

TMS Columbia Experts Examine the Trauma That Can Span Generations

Dealing with a traumatic event or crisis can cause serious repercussions that span across generations of family members long after you are gone. You may have heard of different experiences of intergenerational trauma. However, that exact phrase may not have been used to describe what you have observed. In particular, people who have lived through horrific conditions often see their trauma passed down to their children and grandchildren. 

In our latest article, the experts of TMS Columbia examine this newly-explored phenomenon and how descendants of these relatives can begin to heal from their trauma. 

What is Intergenerational Trauma?

TMS Columbia experts explore this relatively young field

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Psychologists first began to study intergenerational trauma in the 1960s. After studying the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, researchers found that the grandchildren of these survivors represented over 300% of referrals for psychiatric care

From this observation, psychologists theorized that the effects of trauma could be transferred over time to new generations. This shared group of trauma is not limited to these individuals — minorities and people of low socioeconomic status have also suffered from a collective trauma strong enough to impact their younger generations. 

How Trauma is Passed Down From Generation to Generation

But how does this trauma pass through numerous generations? Is it through unchanged social and economic conditions? Or does it come from something deep within the genes? 

Dr. Ali Jawaid from the University of Zurich studied the phenomenon of intergenerational trauma in Pakistani children living in orphanages. Despite having access to education, health care, and schooling, Dr. Jawaid found that many of these children exhibited symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. 

Based on these observations, Dr. Jawaid hypothesized that the traumatic experiences these children went through as a result of being separated from their parents could cause biological changes in their own children. While researchers have not yet confirmed this hypothesis, studies in mice have found that epigenetic changes can indeed occur. 

Causes of Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma can be caused by a number of different factors. For instance, Black U.S. citizens have dealt with hundreds of years of racial and economic trauma. From a young age, Black people have heard stories of the trauma their ancestors went through, including slavery and the Jim Crow era. Indigenous people have also suffered through many years of oppression and abuse. Immigrants and people living in impoverished conditions have no doubt experienced a great deal of trauma and stress as well. 

So how do we end this cycle of trauma and begin to heal from it for the sake of our future generations? 

Healing From Trauma

How the Newest Generations Can Begin to Heal

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Healing from trauma can be difficult. To start, you need to recognize the symptoms and behaviors associated with the intergenerational trauma that have been passed down to you. Once you become aware of these, you can successfully begin the healing process. The road to recovery might not be straightforward, but you can start taking steps today to begin healing. 

Symptoms of Intergenerational Trauma

To being healing from intergenerational trauma, you first need to identify the symptoms and triggers that are plaguing you. Some examples include:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Substance abuse
  • Negative behavioral patterns
  • Symptoms of PTSD like hypervigilance, anxiety, and nightmares
  • Lacking feelings of safety
  • Unhealthy eating patterns or eating disorders

Different actions and events can trigger these symptoms, such as verbal abuse, bullying, racism, or physical aggression. 

Tips for Dealing with Intergenerational Trauma

Instead of trying to ignore the pain caused by these triggers, it’s crucial that you learn how to address them in a healthy manner. Finding and addressing triggers that cause you to become upset or angry can help you find a path toward effectively dealing with them. 

Advocating for more educational resources on addressing and dealing with intergenerational trauma can be helpful for healthcare workers and social workers. Therapists can help families heal from trauma using a cultural lens as well as their own personal experiences. 

Treatment Options for Descendants of Intergenerational Trauma 

Many descendants of parents and grandparents who have experienced intergenerational trauma can benefit from therapy. Undergoing therapy can help you connect your triggers and symptoms to the experiences that your parents and grandparents went through. Your therapist will also help you learn that it is possible to great this cycle of intergenerational trauma. You are not doomed to dealing with depression and anxiety for the rest of your life because of the trauma your relatives experienced. 


Dealing with trauma isn’t easy. But there are a number of treatment options available for people who are dealing with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and ADHD. If you have been dealing with these symptoms, know that help is out there. The TMS Columbia experts at the Psych Associates of Maryland are ready to create a treatment plan just for you. Contact us today to schedule an appointment!

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