Can trauma be inherited?

So much is hereditary: hair color, eye color, shape of the face, blood type – and the latest research even claims trauma! Can it really be that war, violence, accidents and natural disasters of our ancestors still have such an impact on our own mental health?

What distinguishes stress from a traumatic experience?

Stress can show itself in many ways: Mild stress when we rush to an appointment at the last minute. Chronic stress when we have to fulfill too many tasks at work every day or are overwhelmed with a household that needs to be done, children that need to be taken care of at the same time and relatives that need to be cared for. The latter increases the risk for mental illness like depression or anxiety disorders enormously. But all this does not create a trauma. A real trauma describes an experience that is difficult to cope with and is associated with fear and helplessness, such as an accident, war or rape. It is characterized by stressful memories, feelings of guilt or circles of thought and exceeds the individual’s ability to process it.

From trauma to post-traumatic stress disorder

After a traumatic experience, which cannot be overcome over a longer period of time, a so-called post-traumatic stress disorder often develops. This is characterized by the following features:

  • Involuntary re-experiencing of the trauma (e.g., in the form of nightmares orintrusive memories)
  • Avoidance of certain memories, situations or people who remind of the experience (consciously or unconsciously)
  • Loss of interest, social withdrawal, and strong negative emotions (such as anger, sadness, or loneliness)
  • Increased perception of threats (accompanied by tension and concentration problems)

Overall, affected individuals are often no longer able to cope with their daily lives. In addition, it is often not easy to make the right diagnosis at the beginning, as the symptoms are very similar to other clinical pictures such as depression or panic disorders.

The power of environmental influences on our genes

Fortunately, not every trauma develops into post-traumatic stress disorder. However, there is currently a great deal of scientific debate about whether trauma can also lead to so-called epigenetic changes in the genetic material, which means that chemical changes occur in the structure or state of the DNA. That such a change in genes is possible as a result of traumatizing experiences has already been shown by many researches in this field. For example, it has been proven that children of people who experienced the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnam War have an increased rate of depression as well as suicide. A very recent and well-known publication on the influence of trauma on genes comes from a research team led by Professor Rachel Yehuda in New York. Here, Jewish individuals who were trapped in a concentration camp, tortured or forced into hiding during World War II were studied. The team found that the gene FKBP5, which is responsible for the stress hormone system and is associated with depression, showed changes in contrast to individuals from Jewish families who were outside of Europe during the war.For information: The term epigenetics describes the influences of lifestyle and environment on genes. These can be inherited in part from one generation to the next.

And how are traumas now passed on to the next generations?

Epigenetic changes were found both in the children of people who were victims of the Khmer Rouge during the Vietnam War and in the children of traumatized Holocaust survivors. Specifically, for the offspring of the trauma study participants, this meant a change in the stress gene and higher anxiety and susceptibility to stress-related diseases such as depression, anxiety disorders, and cardiovascular disease. However, some scientists criticize such findings because of the small numbers of participants and the fact that some diseases, such as bipolar disorder, occur in families over generations without having found a responsible gene yet. They emphasize that the range of factors that play an important role in the inheritance of trauma must be much wider. This is because, in addition to purely genetic inheritance, the way the traumatized generation interacts with its offspring is very important. Facial expressions, gestures, behavior, all of these can also unconsciously control the experience of the offspring and ensure that they develop symptoms as if they themselves had experienced the suffering of their parents or grandparents. Consequently, human relationships also have an influence on the epigenome: how much attention, love and security is received is decisive for gene activity.

Diagnosis: Inherited trauma

It becomes clear: Trauma seems to be able to persist in many ways through several generations. It is always good to take a look at the family history in case of unexplained mental and physical suffering, which cannot be traced back to one’s own experience. Does anyone else have these complaints? Is it perhaps just not talked about? And how can it be dealt with now? For many people, even a diagnosis and awareness of the origins of their own difficulties can be very relieving. Inherited wounds can also be treated with analogous methods to self-experienced trauma:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
  • Hypnosis psychotherapy

Can the genetic material recover after successful treatment?

In fact, this question is not yet clear to answer. Maybe the epigenetic traits change again during recovery, maybe they are simply inhibited and when experiencing a new trauma the risk to get sick again is much higher. It is therefore worthwhile to venture a small glimpse into an animal study: scientists have found that in traumatized mice that lived an emphasized low-stress life after their traumatizing experience and were exposed to a varied environment in social groups, the symptomatology regressed and was also not passed on to the next generation. So there is hope that in the coming years, research will make many more discoveries about the epigenetics of trauma and the breadth of both psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatment options will increase.

  • Gapp, Katharina et al: Potential of Environmental Enrichment to Prevent Transgenerational Effects of Paternal Trauma. Neuropsychopharmacology (2016), vol. 41.
  • Ryann, Joanne et al: Biological underpinnings of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder: focusing on genetics and epigenetics. Epigenomics (2016), vol. 8.
  • Wolynn, Mark: This pain is not mine. Munich, 2017.
  • Yehuda Rachel et al: Holocaust exposure induced intergenerational effects on FKBP5 methylation. Biological Psychiatry (2015).

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Verena Klein
Author Verena Klein
"LIMES Schlosskliniken specializes in the treatment of mental and psychosomatic illnesses. With the help of the blog, we as a clinic group would like to examine the various mental illnesses in more detail and present different therapies as well as current topics."

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