If you’re Jewish, chances are you’re familiar with the term “intergenerational trauma.” Throughout history, Jews have faced pogroms, persecutions, and expulsions in various places they lived.
This trauma, according to mental health experts, doesn’t simply disappear; it has been passed down through generations and continues to influence Jewish communities today. But let’s dig a bit deeper: what exactly is intergenerational trauma? And can we really inherit trauma from our ancestors?
Read more: Jewish wisdom for navigating anxiety
What is intergenerational trauma?
Trauma is defined as severe and lasting emotional shock and pain resulting from an extremely distressing experience.
For instance, a veteran soldier who has experienced war, a person who has been in an abusive relationship, and a Holocaust survivor may all experience symptoms of PTSD including panic attacks and flashbacks.
Intergenerational trauma is a phenomenon where these psychological effects of trauma are passed down to subsequent generations. According to the American Psychological Association, children and grandchildren of trauma victims may have higher rates of anxiety, depression, or survivor’s guilt than the average population.
This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the Jewish community due to historical traumas such as the Holocaust. There is a kernel of truth in the stereotype of the anxious Ashkenazi Jew: Jews do actually experience higher anxiety rates due to their ancestors’ traumatic experiences.
How is trauma passed down through generations?
One way trauma can be transmitted is through children observing the cognitive habits and hypervigilance of their traumatized parents.
For example, one study found an increased rate of food hoarding and overeating in the descendants of those who experienced the 1932-1933 Ukrainian Holodomor starvation. This behavior was the result of observing and learning from their parents and grandparents.
According to therapist Jo Kent Katz, we internalize the unconscious thoughts, emotions, and actions of our ancestors by directly witnessing those around us.
“Because these ways of being were often responses to life-threatening conditions, we assume them as if they are tools for our own protection,” she told Moment Magazine.
Trauma may also affect how parents relate to and raise their children. Children of Holocaust survivors, for example, were more likely to report that their families poorly expressed emotions compared to their non-Jewish counterparts.
These children of Holocaust survivors reported more emotional suppression in their families and exhibited higher rates of anger and lower socio-emotional functioning compared to the general public. This may be a result of their parents’ emotional state during their upbringing.
Can trauma be passed down biologically?
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the field of epigenetics. Neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda defines epigenetics as “alterations on genes that change the way the genes function. An epigenetic mark is literally a change to the gene or to the DNA.”
These changes often occur as a result of environmental stress or significant emotional trauma and may leave marks on the chemical coating, or methylation, of a person’s chromosomes.
A study conducted by the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences suggests that this coating serves as a type of “memory” within the cell. Since all cells in our body carry this form of memory, it becomes a constant physical reminder of past events, including those experienced by our parents and grandparents
The effects of epigenetics were observed in studies conducted after 9/11. Pregnant women in the second or third trimester who were in the World Trade Center and suffered from PTSD gave birth to babies with low cortisol levels and low birth weight for their gestational age.
This illustrates that a mother’s experiences while her child is in utero can have significant consequences for that child.
According to Israeli geneticist Eva Jablonka, in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, there is “good reason to believe that epigenetic marks can be inherited between generations, including marks that affect gene expression patterns in the nervous system.”
Jablonka explains that the effects of psychological stress are inherited in mice and rats, and she speculates that PTSD may also be inherited through epigenetics in humans.
“Because of their neurobiological susceptibility to stress, children of Holocaust survivors may thus easily imagine the physical suffering of their parents and almost ‘remember’ the hunger, the frozen limbs, the smell of burned bodies and the sounds that made them scared,” she explained.
This has enormous implications for the descendants of those who experienced trauma. If a parent, such as a Holocaust survivor, experienced severe distress, it’s possible that this trauma could be passed down biologically to their children.
This transmission could potentially predispose the children to anxiety and other psychological disorders, embedding the legacy of trauma within the genetic makeup of subsequent generations. In fact, children whose parents had PTSD are three times more likely to develop PTSD in response to a traumatic event themselves.
The legacy of trauma, as evidenced by both psychological and epigenetic research, suggests that unfortunately, the effects of past atrocities are not limited to those who directly experienced them. They reverberate through generations, influencing the mental health and behaviors of descendants.
Trauma and resilience
While it’s true that trauma can be passed down through generations, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean people with PTSD or intergenerational trauma are “doomed” to a life of anxiety or unhappiness.
Instead, by acknowledging and understanding trauma — our ancestors’ and our own — individuals and communities can take proactive steps to address it. Therapy, support networks, and education are powerful tools in this journey. The tragic moments of Jewish history and the present do not define the Jewish future.
Additionally, just as trauma can be passed down, so too can resilience and healing. The Jewish community has shown remarkable strength and resilience throughout history — a legacy that we also inherit and will pass down to future generations.