Breaking the Cycle of Inherited Family Trauma

Breaking the Cycle of Inherited Family Trauma
Can we Inherit Pain?

Emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of the individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as a part of the whole picture. Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.

The following story offers a vivid example. When I first met Jesse, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year. His insomnia was evident in the dark shadows around his eyes, but the blankness of his stare suggested a deeper story. Though only twenty, Jesse looked at least ten years older. He sank onto my sofa as if his legs could no longer bear his weight.

When I first met Jesse, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year.When I first met Jesse, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year.

Jesse explained that he had been a star athlete and a straight-A student, but that his persistent insomnia had initiated a downward spiral of depression and despair. As a result, he dropped out of college and had to forfeit the baseball scholarship he’d worked so hard to win. He desperately sought help to get his life back on track. Over the past year, he’d been to three doctors, two psychologists, a sleep clinic, and a naturopathic physician. Not one of them, he related in a monotone, was able to offer any real insight or help. Jesse, gazing mostly at the floor as he shared his story, told me he was at the end of his rope.


When I asked whether he had any ideas about what might have triggered his insomnia, he shook his head. Sleep had always come easily for Jesse. Then, one night just after his nineteenth birthday, he woke suddenly at 3:30 a.m. He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried. Three hours and several blankets later, Jesse was still wide awake. Not only was he cold and tired, he was seized by a strange fear he had never experienced before, a fear that something awful could happen if he let himself fall back to sleep. If I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up. Every time he felt himself drifting off, the fear would jolt him back into wakefulness. The pattern repeated itself the next night, and the night after that. Soon insomnia became a nightly ordeal. Jesse knew his fear was irrational, yet he felt helpless to put an end to it.

I listened closely as Jesse spoke. What stood out for me was one unusual detail—he’d been extremely cold, “freezing” he said, just prior to the first episode. I began to explore this with Jesse, and asked him if anyone on either side of the family suffered a trauma that involved being “cold,” or being “asleep,” or being “nineteen.”

He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried.He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried.

Jesse revealed that his mother had only recently told him about the tragic death of his father’s older brother—an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm just north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Tracks in the snow revealed that he had been struggling to hang on. Eventually, he was found facedown in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia. His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again. Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death—specifically, the terror of letting go into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

Making the connection was a turning point for Jesse. Once he grasped that his insomnia had its origin in an event that occurred thirty years earlier, he finally had an explanation for his fear of falling asleep. The process of healing could now begin. With tools Jesse learned in our work together, which will be detailed later in this book, he was able to disentangle himself from the trauma endured by an uncle he’d never met, but whose terror he had unconsciously taken on as his own. Not only did Jesse feel freed from the heavy fog of insomnia, he gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.

He gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.He gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.

In an attempt to explain stories such as Jesse’s, scientists are now able to identify biological and psychological markers — evidence that traumas can and do pass down from one generation to the next. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is one of the world’s leading experts in posttraumatic stress, a true pioneer in this field. In numerous studies, Yehuda has examined the neurobiology of PTSD in Holocaust survivors and their children. Her research on cortisol in particular (the stress hormone that helps our body return to normal after we experience a trauma) and its effects on brain function has revolutionized the understanding and treatment of PTSD worldwide. (People with PTSD relive feelings and sensations associated with a trauma despite the fact that the trauma occurred in the past. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, nightmares, frightening thoughts, and being easily startled or “on edge.”)

Yehuda and her team found that children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD were born with low cortisol levels similar to their parents, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation. Her discovery of low cortisol levels in people who experience an acute traumatic event has been controversial, going against the long-held notion that stress is associated with high cortisol levels. Specifically, in cases of chronic PTSD, cortisol production can become suppressed, contributing to the low levels measured in both survivors and their children.

Yehuda discovered similar low cortisol levels in war veterans, as well as in pregnant mothers who developed PTSD after being exposed to the World Trade Center attacks, and in their children. Not only did she find that the survivors in her study produced less cortisol, a characteristic they can pass on to their children, she notes that several stress-related psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, chronic pain syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome, are associated with low blood levels of cortisol. Interestingly, 50 to 70 percent of PTSD patients also meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression or another mood or anxiety disorder.

Children of Holocaust survivors were likely to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation.Children of Holocaust survivors were likely to relive PTSD symptoms.

Yehuda’s research demonstrates that you and I are three times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD if one of our parents had PTSD, and as a result, we’re likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. She believes that this type of generational PTSD is inherited rather than occurring from our being exposed to our parents’ stories of their ordeals. Yehuda was one of the first researchers to show how descendants of trauma survivors carry the physical and emotional symptoms of traumas they do not directly experience.

That was the case with Gretchen. After years of taking antidepressants, attending talk and group therapy sessions, and trying various cognitive approaches for mitigating the effects of stress, her symptoms of depression and anxiety remained unchanged.

Gretchen told me she no longer wanted to live. For as long as she could remember, she had struggled with emotions so intense she could barely contain the surges in her body. Gretchen had been admitted several times to a psychiatric hospital where she was diagnosed as bipolar with a severe anxiety disorder. Medication brought her slight relief, but never touched the powerful suicidal urges that lived inside her. As a teenager, she would self-injure by burning herself with the lit end of a cigarette. Now, at thirty-nine, Gretchen had had enough. Her depression and anxiety, she said, had prevented her from ever marrying and having children. In a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone of voice, she told me that she was planning to commit suicide before her next birthday.

Listening to Gretchen, I had the strong sense that there must be significant trauma in her family history. In such cases, I find it’s essential to pay close attention to the words being spoken for clues to the traumatic event underlying a client’s symptoms.

For as long as she could remember, she had struggled with emotions so intense she could barely contain the surges in her body.She struggled with emotions so intense she could barely contain the surges in her body.

When I asked her how she planned to kill herself, Gretchen said that she was going to vaporize herself. As incomprehensible as it might sound to most of us, her plan was literally to leap into a vat of molten steel at the mill where her brother worked. “My body will incinerate in seconds,” she said, staring directly into my eyes, “even before it reaches the bottom.”

I was struck by her lack of emotion as she spoke. Whatever feeling lay beneath appeared to have been vaulted deep inside. At the same time, the words vaporize and incinerate rattled inside me. Having worked with many children and grandchildren whose families were affected by the Holocaust, I’ve learned to let their words lead me. I wanted Gretchen to tell me more.

I asked if anyone in her family was Jewish or had been involved in the Holocaust. Gretchen started to say no, but then stopped herself and recalled a story about her grandmother. She had been born into a Jewish family in Poland, but converted to Catholicism when she came to the United States in 1946 and married Gretchen’s grandfather. Two years earlier, her grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz. They had literally been gassed—engulfed in poisonous vapors—and incinerated. No one in Gretchen’s immediate family ever spoke to her grandmother about the war, or about the fate of her siblings or her parents. Instead, as is often the case with such extreme trauma, they avoided the subject entirely.

Her grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz.Her grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz.

Gretchen knew the basic facts of her family history, but had never connected it to her own anxiety and depression. It was clear to me that the words she used and the feelings she described didn’t originate with her, but had in fact originated with her grandmother and the family members who lost their lives.

As I explained the connection, Gretchen listened intently. Her eyes widened and color rose in her cheeks. I could tell that what I said was resonating. For the first time, Gretchen had an explanation for her suffering that made sense to her.

To help her deepen her new understanding, I invited her to imagine standing in her grandmother’s shoes, represented by a pair of foam rubber footprints that I placed on the carpet in the center of my office. I asked her to imagine feeling what her grandmother might have felt after having lost all her loved ones. Taking it even a step further, I asked her if she could literally stand on the footprints as her grandmother, and feel her grandmother’s feelings in her own body. Gretchen reported sensations of overwhelming loss and grief, aloneness and isolation. She also experienced the profound sense of guilt that many survivors feel, the sense of remaining alive while loved ones have been killed.

Gretchen reported sensations of overwhelming loss and grief, aloneness and isolation.Gretchen reported sensations of overwhelming loss and grief, aloneness and isolation.

In order to process trauma, it’s often helpful for clients to have a direct experience of the feelings and sensations that have been submerged in the body. When Gretchen was able to access these sensations, she realized that her wish to annihilate herself was deeply entwined with her lost family members. She also realized that she had taken on some element of her grandmother’s desire to die. As Gretchen absorbed this understanding, seeing the family story in a new light, her body began to soften, as if something inside her that had long been coiled up could now relax.

As with Jesse, Gretchen’s recognition that her trauma lay buried in her family’s unspoken history was merely the first step in her healing process. An intellectual understanding by itself is rarely enough for a lasting shift to occur. Often, the awareness needs to be accompanied by a deeply felt visceral experience. We’ll explore further the ways in which healing becomes fully integrated so that the wounds of previous generations can finally be released.

Trauma can lay buried in a family’s unspoken history.Trauma can lay buried in a family’s unspoken history.

An Unexpected Family Inheritance

A boy may have his grandpa’s long legs and a girl may have her mother’s nose, but Jesse had inherited his uncle’s fear of never waking, and Gretchen carried the family’s Holocaust history in her depression. Sleeping inside each of them were fragments of traumas too great to be resolved in one generation.

When those in our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered with immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and can escalate beyond what they can manage or resolve. It’s human nature; when pain is too great, people tend to avoid it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the necessary healing process that can lead us to a natural release.

Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain. For Jesse, the unrelenting cold and shivering did not appear until he reached the age that his Uncle Colin was when he froze to death. For Gretchen, her grandmother’s anxious despair and suicidal urges had been with her for as long as she could remember. These feelings became so much a part of her life that no one ever thought to consider that the feelings didn’t originate with her.

Currently, our society does not provide many options to help people like Jesse and Gretchen who carry remnants of inherited family trauma. Typically they might consult a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist and receive medications, therapy, or some combination of both. But although these avenues might bring some relief, generally they don’t provide a complete solution.

Not all of us have traumas as dramatic as Gretchen’s or Jesse’s in our family history. However, events such as the death of an infant, a child given away, the loss of one’s home, or even the withdrawal of a mother’s attention can all have the effect of collapsing the walls of support and restricting the flow of love in our family. With the origin of these traumas in view, long-standing family patterns can finally be laid to rest.

This article is an excerpt from Mark Wolynn’s book: “IT DIDN’T START WITH YOU: How Inherited Family Trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle”

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This feature is an excerpt from Mark Wolynn’s book: IT DIDN’T START WITH YOU: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle (Penguin)



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Laurel Larsen
3 years ago

It was fascinating to learn that processing feelings and sensations are necessary for processing trauma as well. Having clients experience their trauma must be so painful to watch! It’s great to know that it leads to healing in the end though. I’ve been wanting to become a therapist so this post was very insightful.

4 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Awesome article. I read similar on

4 years ago

Unexplained issues take over your life..n dominate it to such an extent..that existence becomes difficult…when one tries to find answers to such issues..there are none..n life just slips by..the most impt question remains
…the resolution…
What happened earlier with our parents..grandparents etc..may not be known to us …therefore the difficulty in resolution of issues…just need some answers to be able to live productively..
I agree with what i have read..but the implementation seems remote..guidance n knowledge is needed

4 years ago

Still a ways to go but at least inroads are being made… the big question, though, has yet to be asked, and one would think they might by now, refrain, as it were, from the need to seek proof within biology and possibly start asking why biology follows on… from what?
Artists though, and maybe it is that creativity is embraced, tend occasionally towards the big mess, the obliteration of all that has been engulfing them and losing any sense of clarity… some striving that by making it all worthless, pointless, some new perspective might be gained.
And so maybe this is what trauma is, though we must take a leap of faith by even questioning such in this way, presuppose as it were some deeper reckoning of self beyond the mundane science seems to be enamoured of taking for granted is our only expression, go beyond cause and effect that there might be effect creating causes… to the extent that trauma itself might be part of a plan, a plan to reinvigorate what ourselves might and could be beyond the mundane, that we could only get so far in acting with what is available and need this impetus to shock ourselves to a deeper sense of what life can be?

5 years ago

Family trauma of losing my first parent as my mother gave me away at 10 months old to my father who passed away when I was 5 years old. My grandparents on my fathers side raised me, until they passed away. I carry this trauma of loss, no one else and now I am 46 love me the way my father and his parents did. I hate life, I hate being here with these unexplainable feelings of these traumas. My grandmother lost not one but two of her children at 12 and 27. I lived with her and experienced her life’s feelings. So much of her is deeply rooted inside of me.

5 years ago

I find this concept very fascinating and would like to know where I can find someone to work with. I live in Asia. My email address is [email protected]. please contact me for more discussions. Thank you.

Christine Horold
6 years ago

I think that almost everyone can relate to this article. I, as well as my mother suffered trauma and loss. I was not aware that we could inherit pain. This article really opened my eyes and a lot of things make sense. According to the articles one can really see how everything correlates. I also believe, from experience, that almost everyone is afflicted without knowing this; most of the people will carry some part of their pain with them and they many never speak about it. Then there are people who will still carry their pain but yet they chose to speak about it and lessen the burden.

reality check
6 years ago

I can relate to this. I often have feelings of a trauma and loss that are like a fleeting memory but I know they did not happen to me, they happened before I existed. I have suffered loss and trauma in my own life, but it is not that, as that is very real, deeply painful and I can remember it all with absolute clarity. But I have had this well of sadness and depression inside me all my life, even as a child and I have often felt strongly that it was somehow from the past. I know it is not my trauma, and I now know where some of it comes from in the lives of my parents and grandparents. But there is more buried so deep it feels like an inherited memory from even further back. I have never heard any of this described before and until reading this I never knew that anyone else thought this was a possibility. I have always just thought it was part of my depression that made me feel like this. I also feel that a small part of it has passed on through me to my children, they are in their 40’s now but from time to time I can see it in their eyes. They too have some of this pain that they carry with them to a lesser extent. I have never spoken to them about it, but perhaps someday I will.

Azriel ReShel
6 years ago

Dear Sonja thank you for sharing your story. Sounds like it was tremendously difficult for your parents. Amazing how resilient they were in the face of such painful experiences. Family trauma certainly works its way down the lineage until we are able to heal it and if we can, the ripples of healing go back seven generations and forward seven generations. Wishing you much grace and healing for your whole family.

6 years ago

Yes, I can relate to this very well. Born during the war years in Indonesia, my teenage mother and her young husband suffered tremendously underu the Japanese occupation. Father, as diplomatic courier, was repeatedly tortured and eventually send to work on the infamous Birma railroad. From then on nobody heard anything from him and even a year after the war had ended, his family didn’t know if he was dead or alive! No red carpets were laid out when we were repatriated to Holland by the Red Cross either. Post war Europe had it’s own problems and was nót keen on ship loads of refugees! I was almost 10 before I had my first decent meal and promptly reacted by breaking out in hives! My parents never recovered from their traumatic experiences. The union eventually produced numerous miscarriages and 5 daughters. Family life was totally disfunctional! 4 of us suffer from various degrees of depression and one became mentally unstable in her teens. The offspring of the 5 girls all display various forms of mental problems and emotional immaturity. All three of my of mine are emotionall immatur and one became bi-polar / schizoid after a trauma of her own.
All my life I have been plagued by mysterious diseases, which have now reached epic proportions in my winter years! And still the family drama carries on! There is little love lost amongst us and absolutely no cohesion! Sad indeed!

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