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PTSD and Historical Trauma

Carrying the wounding over the lifespan and across generations.

Key points

  • Traumatized people react to reminders of the trauma with emergency responses that were relevant at the time of the original threat.
  • The effects of the trauma persist because the traumatic event is locked into the cellular structure of the body.
  • Traumatic events imprint the genetic material in germ cells and may transfer to their children and grandchildren.

Trauma is generally defined as an event that induces severe fear, helplessness, or horror. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a particular type of trauma that has been much in the news. Essentially, PTSD occurs when a person feels overwhelmed and helpless in a life-threatening situation. PTSD has long-lasting and often debilitating effects.

Here I want to expand on the concept of PTSD to include historical trauma (HT), a term coined in the early ’80s by Lakota professor of social work, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. What she meant by that term was “the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations.” HT refers to the abuse and displacement of stigmatized groups such as enslaved African Blacks and Native Americans in the USA, Indigenous people in Canada, Aboriginals in Australia, Jewish people under the Nazis in Europe, American POW Japanese camp survivors, refugees from Afghanistan, the list is sadly endless. HT becomes embedded in the cultural memory of a people.

Individuals afflicted by HT exhibit enduring and pervasive symptoms of depression, survivor guilt, anger, intense fear, self-destructive behavior including substance abuse, hypervigilance, dissociation, low self-esteem, dreams of being violated, involuntary and intrusive memories of the traumatic event, memory loss for other parts of that event, lack of ability to concentrate, impairment of social functioning, and feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.

The children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations of survivors tend to internalize their ancestral suffering and perceive any fun or joyful experience in their present lives as a betrayal of their ancestors’ suffering.

Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma

The idea that a parental traumatic experience could be passed on to subsequent generations gained acceptance in scientific circles in the late 70s and early 80s. Since the mid-1980s, controlled studies on the children of Holocaust survivors (in reality – adults) showed increased vulnerability to PTSD, distrust of the world, impaired parental function, chronic sorrow, inability to communicate feelings, ever-present fear of danger, separation anxiety, boundary issues, and other psychiatric disorders.

Adults with a childhood history of unresolved trauma are more likely to develop lifestyle diseases (heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, skeletal fractures, and liver disease) and be likely to enter and remain in the criminal justice system. Such people suffer from the highest unemployment rates, poverty, alcoholism, and suicide in the country.

All are factors associated with adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes in offspring. And let us remember: abuse begets abuse for many generations until the chain is interrupted.

In the same way, parents pass on genetic characteristics to their children. They also pass on all kinds of “acquired,” that is, epigenetic characteristics, especially if these originated in powerful emotionally charged experiences like exposure to starvation, violence, or the tragic loss of loved ones. Such traumatic events leave an imprint on the genetic material in germ cells of individuals and may be transferred to their children and their children’s children.

Cellular Memory of Trauma

The effects of the trauma persist because the traumatic event is locked into the cellular structure of the body. Chronic trauma is another example of body memory.In such cases, a touch, smell, sound, even certain types of weather can act as triggers and bring the past suddenly into the present again.

The writer Aharon Appelfeld, put it this way in his memoirs:

Everything that happened at that time has left its mark in the cells of my body. Not in my memory. The body’s cells seem to remember better than the memory, which is intended for this. For years after the war, I did not walk in the middle of the pavement or path, but always close to the wall, always in the shade, always in a hurry like someone fleeing...Sometimes it is enough to smell food, feel the dampness in my shoes, or hear a sudden noise to bring me back to the war...The war sits in all my bones.

In the above example, it is not a particular episode but an entire segment of a person’s life that has left its mark on the body, more deeply and permanently, than autobiographic memory could ever do.

Traumatized persons react to reminders of the trauma with emergency responses that were relevant at the time of the original threat but, alas, no longer apply to the current situation.

Representative Research

McGill researchers and their Swiss collaborators have discovered that histones are part of the content of sperm transmitted at fertilization. The researchers created mice in which they slightly altered the biochemical information on the histones during sperm cell formation. The offspring were adversely affected both in terms of their development and in terms of their survival. These effects could still be seen two generations later. Their findings are remarkable because they indicate that information in addition to DNA is involved in heritability. The study highlights the critical role that fathers play in the health of their children and even grandchildren.

In a Tufts University School of Medicine study, male mice exposed to chronic social instability stress during adolescence transmitted stress-associated behaviors to their female offspring across at least three generations even if these children never experienced significant stress themselves or interacted with their fathers by way of the male lineage. One mechanism for this effect was found to be sperm miRNA.

Sperm miRNA expression in humans has been affected by environmental factors, such as smoking and obesity. However, this is the first study to demonstrate sperm miRNA changes in response to stress in humans and raises the possibility that sperm miRNA could be a biomarker for early abuse as well as elevated susceptibility of offspring to psychiatric disorders.


Traumas, whether physical or psychological, are locked in the whole body. Health professionals such as osteopaths, chiropractors, craniosacral therapists, massage therapists, and others working with their clients’ bodies generally subscribe to the belief that it is the physical, sexual or emotional trauma that has created localized, compressed area or areas of foreign, disorganized energy in the body, walled off from consciousness. Working on these areas will often uncover and liberate traumatic memories and/or free the person of chronic pain.

In addition to personal counseling or therapy, sharing one’s dreadful memories with other members of one’s community in traditional ceremonies provides a cathartic release of painful emotions. It initiates grief resolution, including a more positive identity and a commitment to individual and community healing. This has resulted in less shame, guilt, stigma, anger, sadness, and an increase in joy, a sense of personal power and valuation, and respect for one’s familial origins.


Appelfeld, A. (2005). Geschichte eines Lebens. Berlin: Rowohlt. Washington, DC.

Beals, J., Manson, S., & Mitchell, C. et al., (2005). Prevalence of DSM-IV disorders and attendant help-seeking in 2 American Indian reservation populations. Archives of General Psychiatry, 162, 99-108.

Beristain, C., Paez, D. & Gonzalez, J. (2000). Rituals, social sharing, silence, emotions and collective memory claims in the case of the Guatemalan genocide. Psicothema, 12(Supl.), 117-130.

Brave Heart, M.Y.H. (1998). The return to the sacred path: Healing the historical trauma response among the Lakota. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 68(3), 287-305

Heim C, Nemeroff CB. (2001). The role of childhood trauma in the neurobiology of mood and anxiety disorders: preclinical and clinical studies. Biological Psychiatry. 49:1023–1039;

Pembrey, M., Saffery, R. & Bygren, L. O. (2015). Network in Epigenetic Epidemiology. Human transgenerational responses to early-life experience: potential impact on development, health and biomedical research. J Med Genet. 51, 563–72

van der Kolk, B. A. (1994). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard review of psychiatry, 1(5), 253-265.
van der Kolk B. A. (1987). Psychological Trauma. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

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