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  • Writer's pictureLinda Campbell

Understanding Epigenetics and Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

When discussing how our minds are programmed to hold certain beliefs, we often focus on events that happen after we are born. We consider the messages we receive from parents and significant others, and how these messages shape our perceptions during vulnerable periods in our lives. However, the truth is that we can be affected by events that occur even before birth. This influence can manifest in several ways, particularly through the intergenerational transmission of trauma and the principles of epigenetics.

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

Intergenerational transmission of trauma refers to the phenomenon where trauma experienced by one generation affects the psychological well-being of subsequent generations. Parents pass on their stories, coping mechanisms, and warnings to their children, who internalize these messages without questioning them. A parent with unresolved trauma may also treat their child differently, impacting the child’s development.

In his work "Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma: An Introduction for the Clinician," Charles Portney, MD, highlights how parents suffering from PTSD often exhibit symptoms such as traumatic reliving, emotional numbing, and dissociation. These symptoms can impede a child's ability to develop a sense of safety and predictability in the world. Such parents may struggle to model a healthy sense of identity, autonomy, and self-soothing mechanisms, often reacting catastrophically to life’s challenges. Consequently, the parent's high levels of anxiety can significantly interfere with the child's developmental progress.

Some researchers suggest that it’s not just the psychological environment but also biological factors at play. Rachel Yehuda of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai studied the children of Holocaust survivors and found lower baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol and distinctive patterns of DNA methylation, an epigenetic marker. While Yehuda cautioned against concluding that trauma causes heritable changes, her research indicates a biological component to how trauma may be passed down.

Regardless of whether the transmission is primarily biological or psychological, the evidence shows that traumatized parents pass their trauma to their children in one form or another.


Epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors can influence gene expression without altering the DNA sequence. This science shows that our environment, including the womb environment, can significantly impact gene expression and development.

Research on babies and children of mothers who have experienced anxiety or trauma indicates that the in utero environment affects the child’s development. When a mother is stressed or anxious, she releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which are transmitted to the baby via the placenta. These hormones can affect the baby’s heart rate, birth weight, gestational age, and predisposition to aggression, anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, autism, and learning and attention difficulties.

Dr. Bruce Lipton, a cell biologist and neuroscientist, emphasizes that “parents are genetic engineers.” He explains that a baby develops in response to the mother’s perception of her environment. If the mother perceives her world as dangerous, the baby’s development adapts to prepare for a threatening world, resulting in heightened stress responses and reactivity.

Importantly, it is the mother’s perception, not necessarily the reality, that shapes these responses. If a mother perceives danger, her body reacts by releasing fight-or-flight chemicals, which influence the baby's development both in the womb and after birth.

Fathers also play a role. If the father’s behavior contributes to the mother’s feelings of threat or danger, it can negatively impact the baby’s development.

The Multi-Generational Impact

There is another intriguing aspect to consider. Female babies are born with all the eggs they will ever produce, meaning these eggs are present even before birth. Therefore, the experiences of a grandmother can impact her daughter and, by extension, her granddaughter. This multi-generational influence suggests that we are affected by the emotions and experiences of our ancestors long before we are born.

Our beliefs and behaviors are shaped not only by our experiences after birth but also by the experiences of our parents and even our grandparents. The intergenerational transmission of trauma and the science of epigenetics highlight the profound and lasting impact of these early influences. Understanding these factors can help us better address and heal from inherited trauma, offering a more comprehensive approach to mental health and well-being.

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