The Impact of Generational Trauma


Intergenerational trauma is a problem that affects individuals and communities across the world. Traumatic experiences can be passed down from generation to generation, leading to a cycle of trauma that can be difficult to break. For individuals who have grown up with trauma, building healthy relationships can be a significant challenge. In this article, we will explore the impacts of intergenerational trauma on relationship building and provide practical steps for developing healthy relationships despite a history of trauma.


What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Before you were born you were in your mother’s womb and very susceptible to her emotions. As your mother felt joy, her body released hormones that made you feel joy.

When she felt sad, scared, or angry, her body released hormones that made her experience these same emotions. This may seem hard to believe, but research from the University of California-Irvine does show that this is true. Eventually, you were born.  If  you were raised in a house that was not always happy or harmonious your body registered this stress. Your parents may have been emotionally distant or even abusive because they may have been brought up by parents who had their own reasons for being emotionally absent or abusive.  Your parents may have been trying their best, but perhaps they didn’t have the skills or tools to navigate emotions in a healthy way

This is how families that have unresolved trauma can works its way through from one generation to the next. Families who have dealt with addiction, depression, anxiety, terror, racism, and the like, often continue to pass on negative emotions, poor behaviours, low self-esteem, and maladaptive coping strategies.

What Contributes to Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma occurs when trauma is experienced by a group of people, and the psychological impacts are passed on to their offspring, who then in turn experience trauma from their upbringing and any other sources of trauma in their lives. When this process continues over several generations, it can result in a cumulative effect that can have profound impacts on individuals, families, and communities. Examples of intergenerational trauma include the trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples as a result of colonization, forced removals, residential schools, and other forms of cultural genocide. African Canadians also experience intergenerational trauma from segregation, and ongoing systemic racism. Many other groups have experienced forms of trauma including immigrants, religious minorities, women and the LGBTQ2S+ community. 

Poverty can also be a form of intergenerational trauma. When families experience poverty over multiple generations, the stress and challenges associated with it can have a significant impact on the psychological and social well-being of individuals and families.

The stress of living in poverty, being a part of a marginalized community or being faced with systemic barriers and inequality can impact family relationships and parenting styles. Parents may not have the emotional or financial resources to provide their children with the care and support they need.

The psychological impact of generational trauma can manifest in various ways, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and other mental health issues. These effects can also impact family dynamics, relationships, and parenting styles.

What is the Impact of  Generational Trauma?

The impact of generational trauma can shape how we view ourselves and others, leading to difficulties with attachment, trust, and emotional regulation. However, healing is possible, and there are steps that individuals can take to break the cycle of trauma and develop healthy relationship patterns.

The neurobiology of stress and trauma involves complex interactions between the brain, the nervous system, and the body. Trauma and stress activate the body’s stress response, which triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare the body to respond to perceived threats and activate the “fight or flight” response.

However, chronic or severe stress can lead to dysregulation of the stress response system, which can have long-term effects on the brain and body. Research has shown that prolonged exposure to stress and trauma can lead to changes in the brain’s structure and function, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions, including fear and anxiety, and is activated during traumatic experiences. Over time, chronic stress and trauma can lead to hyperactivity in the amygdala, which can lead to increased anxiety and fear responses.

The hippocampus, which is involved in memory formation and recall, can also be impacted by stress and trauma. Research has shown that individuals with PTSD have a smaller hippocampus than those without PTSD, suggesting that chronic stress and trauma may lead to reduced neuroplasticity and brain function in this region.

The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, emotional regulation, and impulse control, can also be affected by chronic stress and trauma. Studies have shown that individuals with PTSD have decreased prefrontal cortex function, which can lead to difficulties regulating emotions and behaviors.

Additionally, chronic stress and trauma can lead to dysregulation of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls functions like heart rate, digestion, and breathing. This can lead to physical symptoms like headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and chronic pain. Trauma can also lead to physical disease and people who have experienced a number of adverse events in childhood are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and strokes in adulthood. 

Building Healthy Relationships After Experiencing Trauma

Growing up with trauma can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to form healthy relationships. Children who experience trauma may struggle with attachment, trust, and emotional regulation, making it difficult to form healthy bonds with others. Additionally, individuals who have experienced trauma may have a heightened sensitivity to stress, which can lead to conflict and misunderstandings in relationships.

While growing up with trauma can make building healthy relationships more challenging, it is possible to break the cycle of trauma and develop healthy relationship patterns.

Here are some steps that can help:

Develop Self-Awareness: Developing self-awareness is essential for building healthy relationships after trauma. This involves identifying patterns of behavior and emotional responses that may be rooted in trauma and working to develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Practice Self-Care: Practicing self-care is an important aspect of healing from trauma and building healthy relationships. This can involve engaging in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment, like hobbies or exercise, as well as taking care of your physical and emotional needs.

Practice Communication: Communication is essential for building healthy relationships. Individuals who have experienced trauma may struggle with communication due to difficulties with trust and emotional regulation. Practicing active listening, expressing emotions in a healthy way, and setting healthy boundaries can help individuals build healthier communication patterns.

Build a Support System: Building a support system of friends and family members who understand and support your healing journey can be an important aspect of building healthy relationships after trauma. This can involve connecting with support groups or engaging in community activities that align with your values and interests.

Be Mindful of Triggers: Individuals who have experienced trauma may be more susceptible to triggers, which can lead to emotional dysregulation and conflict in relationships. Being mindful of triggers and developing healthy coping mechanisms can help individuals navigate these challenges in a healthier way.

Celebrate Progress: Healing from trauma and building healthy relationships is a process that takes time and effort. Celebrating progress, no matter how small, can help individuals stay motivated and focused on their healing journey.

Seek Professional Support: Seeking support from a mental health professional can be an important step in healing from trauma and developing healthy relationship patterns. Therapies like somatic therapy and Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy can help individuals process trauma and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

If you or someone you know is struggling with the effects of intergenerational trauma and is finding it difficult to build healthy relationships, know that healing is possible. Seek support from a mental health professional to begin your healing journey.

Restore Renew Revive Counselling & Couples Therapy is here to help. Our experienced therapist offers a safe and compassionate space for individuals and couples to heal from trauma and build healthy relationship patterns. Call us at 902-702-7722 or visit our website at to learn more and schedule an appointment.


Marcy is a Clinical Social Worker in Halifax, NS who specializes in helping women who are struggling with anxiety, people pleasing, perfectionism and low self esteem cope more effectively.  She also works with new moms who are experiencing challenges with the transition to parenthood and with people who experience chronic illness.  In addition she specialized in helping couples who are struggling in their relationship to learn to communicate more effectively and rebuild intimacy in their relationships.  If you’d like to book a free 15 minute consultation with Nancy click here. Or call (902) 702-7722 to schedule.

Marcy Daniels MSW, RSW

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