Understanding epigenetics: how trauma is passed on through our family members

July 5, 2023 1:26 pm

Trauma can affect our DNA, researchers say, and that impact can be passed on to our descendants. (Getty Images)

I am a proud Daughter of the Revolution. Growing up in a family of warriors, I saw firsthand how the trauma of active combat impacts individuals. 

Modern research suggests the trauma our ancestors experienced doesn’t affect them alone — some studies indicate that trauma can be passed down to future generations through genetics. With each new study, we are learning more about human genetics, the power of our environment, and the effects of trauma.

What is epigenetics? 

Epigenetics is a scientific field investigating how our environment influences our genes, altering not our DNA sequence, but how it’s read and utilized.

Consider your life as a book. Your DNA is the unchanging alphabet, but the plot — shaped by your experiences — is fluid. Significant trauma can cause dramatic plot twists that don’t change the alphabet, but can change how your DNA expresses, affecting your mood, reactions, health, and susceptibility to conditions.

Epigenetics emphasizes the continual rewriting of our DNA story through experiences, affecting how we engage with the world. Much like a story’s revision, trauma’s effect on genes can be adjusted. We might not change the “alphabet,” but we can help reshape the narrative in healthier ways, creating beneficial impacts for families and future generations.

How environmental factors turn your genes on and off


DNA controls the function of each cell in your body, and epigenetic modifications to your genes change a cell’s function by switching genes on or off. Every modification impacts function on a cellular level. 

Researchers are discovering these modifications may even be inherited from generation to generation via genetic material. This means that environmental factors like stress can impact not only your health, but also that of your family and descendants.


Epigenetics is like a library where your DNA is the books. Not every book is being read at the same time, and environmental factors like diet, stress, or support, act like librarians, deciding which books (genes) are open and read.

When you experience high stress, like many veterans, it’s like the “stress” books are constantly being read, which can impact your health, but just like we can choose a new book to read, we can change our environment. 

By altering factors like introducing counseling or healthier lifestyles, we can change which “books” are being read. Our DNA doesn’t change, but we can influence which parts are active.

How family trauma is passed down by genetics

The American Psychological Association describes trauma as an emotional reaction to a distressing event, such as an accident or natural disaster. This reaction can manifest immediately as shock and denial, and later as emotional volatility, strained relationships, or physical symptoms.

While our minds try to avoid, suppress, or numb painful memories, the latest research suggests the effects of trauma extend beyond the initial event, and can even be transmitted to subsequent generations. This concept, known as intergenerational transmission of trauma effects, was first recognized in studies involving survivors of the Dutch famine during World War II and Holocaust survivors.

These studies found that traumatic experiences like stress, famine, or war can influence the expression of our genes, thereby affecting our offspring. Trauma doesn’t alter our DNA, but it can guide which genes are activated or deactivated, similar to a marginal note in a book.

When an individual experiences trauma, their body may adapt by adjusting gene expression, and some of these changes can be passed on to their children, akin to inherited “notes.” However, these changes are not definitive but rather adaptable and can be rewritten by our own life experiences and actions.

The role of epigenetics in addressing generational trauma

Epigenetics plays a crucial role in addressing generational trauma because it helps us understand how the effects of trauma can be passed down through generations and, most importantly, how we can intervene.

Survivors of violence and childhood abuse carry their trauma into adulthood and beyond. Their offspring appear to be at an increased risk for PTSD, anxiety, obesity, and diabetes. 

When environmental factors or traumatic events affect your genes, the changes do not impact your DNA sequence — they affect how your body reads and responds to your DNA. Mark Wolynn’s book, “It Didn’t Start With You,” explores how this happens.

Epigenetics has shown remarkable potential since its inception in the mid-20th century, but it’s crucial to acknowledge that epigenetics is not an exact science. Solid conclusions about epigenetic inheritance and its health implications require further research. Epigenetics represents just one facet of a complex interplay between numerous biological and environmental factors.

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Sara Johnson
Sara Johnson

Sara Johnson is chief executive officer of Mission 22, a national nonprofit founded by veterans that provides extensive, personalized support and resources to help veterans and their families thrive.