Can You Have Trauma Symptoms Without Trauma?

Shadows of the parents holding the child's handMany may assume that the genetic transmission of trauma from parent to child occurs through abuse or neglect, but this is not always the case.

Trauma can also be transmitted through changes in gene expression. This is known as epigenetic trauma transmission. Epigenetics is thought to be inherited changes in genetic function that are not related to changes in one's DNA sequence (Dupont, Armant, & Brenner, 2009). It is believed that epigenetic changes can occur as a result of excessive stress, as in the case of parents with a history of trauma.

Inheritance of trauma

Research with children of Holocaust survivors has shown that children can inherit traumatic memories from their parents. The evidence is so compelling that some claim that children can inherit their parents' unconscious minds. Some children of Holocaust survivors were also known to have genocidal nightmares. Although it can be argued that children receive Holocaust images through shared stories and narratives, it does not explain their increased vulnerability to stress-related diagnoses, such as complex trauma (C-PTSD) and post-traumatic stress (PTSD).

While it may be more difficult to prove the legacy of traumatic memories, we know that psychological stress can affect gene expression patterns through the nervous system.

While it may be more difficult to prove the legacy of traumatic memories, we know that psychological stress can affect gene expression patterns through the nervous system. Perhaps the mood for developing PTSD and C-PTSD is transmitted through an epigenetic pathway (Kellermann, 2013).

When symptoms appear without a history of trauma

It is important to understand that trauma can be inherited regardless of difficult family circumstances. A child may develop anxiety, depression, or other stress-related problems, such as PTSD, as a result of an inherited vulnerability despite immediate trauma.

Research has shown that safe mother-child attachment is key to childhood development (Meins, Bureau & Fernyhough, 2018). A recent study shows that a "good enough" parent is right for a child to develop a secure attachment to their mother. This means that perfect parental care is not required for the child to grow up safely, a situation associated with the best outcomes for mental health (Lehigh University, 2019).

The research has two sides. First, our research shows that we do not require a perfect parenting environment and without stress to be safe and healthy. The other side of this research is that some children will inherit the trauma even with a gentle upbringing. In these cases, a child may inherit traumatic symptoms such as nightmares and anxiety, even without being exposed to trauma.

Can epigenetic changes lead to positive results?

While the news that the trauma may be transmitted despite good parental care may sound disappointing, epigenetics also makes a positive difference. When we have a good diet and grow up in a subversive and loving environment, for generations, epigenetic changes can also happen for the better. Researchers who study epigenetics in animal models have found that rat puppies with mothers who lick and care for them more often are more likely to grow up to be calm, while puppies that are not often cared for by their mothers may grow up to be anxious (Kirkpatrick,). 2017).

What we know from epigenetic research as it relates to intergenerational trauma transmission is that we can have at least some influence on our children's ability to be calm and stress-resistant. By providing a loving and nutritious environment for them, we can reduce the severity of hereditary trauma. Each subsequent generation can reduce the effects of trauma through consistent parenting and parental love. The trauma does not have to continue from one generation to the next.

Bibliographical references:

  1. Dupont, C., Armant, D. R., & Brenner, C. A. (2009). Epigenetic: Definition, mechanisms and clinical perspective. Seminars in Reproductive Medicine, 27(5), 351-357. doi: 10.1055 / s-0029-1237423
  2. Kellermann, N. P. (2013). Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust injury: Can nightmares be inherited? Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 50(1), 33-39. Retrieved from
  3. Kirkpatrick, B. (2017, December 12). A hug can leave positive epigenetic traces in your baby's DNA. Retrieved from
  4. Lehigh University. (2019, May 8) "Pretty good" parenting is pretty good, according to the study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from
  5. Meins, E., Bureau, J. F., & Fernyhough, C. (2018). Maternal-child attachment from infancy to preschool years: Predicting safety and stability. Child development, 89(3), 1.022-1.038. doi: 10.1111 / cdev.12778

2019 Copyright 2019 All rights reserved. Publishing license granted by Fabiana Franco, PhD, therapist in New York, New York

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