Do you have stubborn, irrational feelings of anxiety, fear, and anger that seem to come out of nowhere with no identifiable cause from your life? If so, maybe those feelings aren’t yours. Maybe they belonged to your ancestors.
There are ample emotional traumas that can come from our own lives, some that we have buried and are therefore unaware of. But once we have explored, faced, and resolved any of our own traumas, why would such feelings continue to haunt us?
Recent discoveries in the new field of behavioral epigenetics have found a surprising possibility for why this happens. Their research has discovered that the emotional reactions of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents to the traumas, dramas, and conditions of their lives, may have left markers on their genetic codes that were passed on to us.
It has long been known that some mental health conditions like ADHD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, as well as others, can have hereditary roots. Now it seems we can also inherit the effects of ancestral trauma and all the emotional responses that bring, including fears, anxieties, hatred and prejudices, depression, preconceived notions, political affiliations, the ability to handle stress, and the development of our personality.
Here are some dramatic examples from epigenetic research indicating how that the nervous systems of trauma survivors could be so deeply affected that the nature of their genes was changed so that the emotional impact of the trauma was passed on in the genes of offspring for generations.
- Ancestors of Holocaust survivors have a higher risk of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than others.
- Children of parents suffering from PTSD by any cause are three times (3) more likely to develop the PTSD symptoms of their parents.
- This is also true of 30% of children with a parent who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and developed PTSD…
- Similar impacts have been found among offspring of those who survived the Cambodian and Rwanda genocide, 9/11, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, The Dutch Hunger Winter, Confederate prisoners of the American Civil War, or having lived in a war-torn country.
- Offspring living on Native American reservations whose ancestors lived through the massacres and atrocities committed by United States Government have similar genetic risks. Their teens have the highest suicide rate in the Western Hemisphere, 10 to 19 times higher in some locales than other American teens and young adults.
- Black Americans whose ancestry includes 20 generations of racism and mistreatment that continues
to this day have more feelings of worthlessness, hopeless and sadness than White Americans.
- Those who survived abandonment, loss of a loved one by suicide, trauma, or early death of a parent, child or sibling can also have been so traumatized that their genes too have been altered and will affect the brains of their offspring.
- Adults of any ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or physically or sexually abusive parents can
carry trauma altered genes from their parents.
So how about you?
Of course, there a plenty of opportunities to develop anxiety or depression from our own life experiences, but if those traumas have been resolved or ruled out, you are suffering from haunting troublesome emotions you cannot explain, they may not belong to you. They may exist due to the genetic residue from the experiences of those who came before you.
It’s been shown that children of depressed parents have a smaller volume in the pleasure centers of the brain, making them far more susceptible to depression. Ancestors who lived through high levels of fear may well produce offspring with a larger, more sensitive amygdala, the area of the brain that is ever on the alert for the presence of danger or threat. This leads to a higher anxiety set point than otherwise, meaning one has a moderate level of unconscious anxiety at all times so even minor stresses can result in great levels of anxiety.
Unexplained emotions that baffle you may have always been with you. Or sometimes the impact of ancestral trauma only appears after some occurrence in your life switches on the trauma genes. Occurrences I seen among my clients include the death of a parent. The suicide of a close friend. The end of a marriage. A home invasion. A rape. The failure to achieve a long-hoped-for goal. And so many more. In such cases, the wound remains after the natural healing process because the wound we “can’t get over” belongs to someone else, a relative from our past.
So go back through your genealogy to search for signs that your inexplicable feelings may have something to do with the experiences of your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents.
An example from my life.
My example is not as extreme as the experiences listed above but discovering what I have has helped me overcome what I inherited and shows that even lesser degrees of ancestral trauma can pass on emotional difficulties in the life of offspring.
I suffered terribly from nearly incapacitating anxiety all through my youth and into young adulthood when I went into therapy. There I learned about anxiety and gained many tools for managing my anxiety so that it no longer hindered me. But I had to use those tools a lot to manage anxiety feelings that could arise even with simple demands like having to get a lot of things done on a tight schedule. I couldn’t have known about epigenetics at that time, but I knew both my parents tended to be anxious. That is kept coming up led me to think I was born with it. So I began thinking about what happened in their lives that I might have picked up in my genes.
I thought of my mother. She often talked about how when my father was in the FBI during the war, she had to travel alone by train as a young woman from one unfamiliar city to another. Then set up a household until my father could get there. This was during my conception, while I was in utero and when I was nursing. I imagined this pregnant woman juggling the transport of suitcases and chests onto busy, crowded trains. I imagined her not knowing if my father was safe and when or if he would arrive at the new location. I thought she must have been quite stressed and anxious under such pressure. So I asked her about that. She said no, that everyone had to deal with such difficulties.
I didn’t believe her. I knew that sometime after my birth she had put her foot down with my father. She told him she couldn’t take that life any longer. She insisted we move them back to their home town so she could have the support of her mother. Furthermore, I could see, even as a teenager, how anxious my mother became with any kind of travel plans or pressures for having to accomplish a number of important things on a schedule. As adults my brother I used to joke about her constant admonitions to “Watch out” for possible “dangers” of about anything we were doing.
I came to believe that I was conceived and lived in a soup of anxiety in utero. I was born anxious and I’d just have to use my tools and live with it.
After learning about epigenetics though I wondered, could the traumatic challenges she faced have altered her genetic structure? Was I carrying the anxiety of a war bride? Was that why I became so irrationally anxious each week when we had to plan and pack up to go in town to shop? Evidently so, because when I propose to myself that this anxiety was my mother’s, not mine, I no longer felt anxious.
Still, I wanted to know more. If my mother was right and most other FBI wives didn’t have anxiety, why was it different for her? Why did it carry on into her life after they moved? Was her anxiety bequeathed to her genes from her family’s trauma? I began digging deeper and indeed there was yet more to this story.
My grandmother was a proper Victoria lady who suffered quietly from anxiety throughout the time I knew her. She had a quiet life but her anxiety was so severe that, even at that time, her doctor had prescribed vitamin B 12 shots. Had she inherited trauma genes that were carried in my mother’s gene?
Thinking about what I knew I remember that my mother had told me how grandma’s family lived through The Great Depression. Her husband, my great grandfather, was a proud, earnest man. To keep the family afloat he had borrowed repeatedly against their house but never told anyone about that or that they were falling into ever deeper financial crisis. One day the family was thrown out on the street with all their belongings. My great grandfather committed suicide in the woodshed when the news came out.
I can only imagine the shock and stress for my poor great grandmother, left homeless and alone, it certainly seems possible that the trauma of her husband’s suicide and the loss of their home could have altered her genes enough she passed on the residue of these traumas to my grandmother, who in turn passed them on in her genes to my mother.
Knowing this helped a lot. It enabled me to let go of a buried sense of worry that wasn’t mine. Fortunately, I have a secure home and a stable financial situation. But there was more. My highest anxieties continued. They centered not only on managing demanding tasks, which I had resolved. I had always been extremely anxious about how I would be perceived and accepted or rejected by others. Could that fear also not belong to me? I wanted to search further.
I remembered that my mother came from a working-class family. In her family, girls were not to go to college and there was no money for that anyway. So after high school, my mother took a secretarial job in a law firm. There she met my father who was a lawyer. They fell in love and were married. For the first time, I realized that meant my mother was suddenly ushered into the world of a prominent family, married to a lawyer whose father had been a judge.
This was all before I was born of course, so I’d never thought it had relevance to me. But I began to imagine what that would be like for her. How different she would have been from the other women in “high society.” How unprepared she was for their expectations. How quickly she had to learn to fit into a strange new world.
As a child and later as a teen I knew those women. I knew how judgmental, superior and intolerant they were. How quickly they could look down on someone for the simplest things. Somehow my mother succeeded in making the transition to their world. I can imagine, though, how having to quickly learn a whole new way of thinking and behaving while under the ever-present spotlight of judgmental eyes had to be stressful. After all, she was already prone to anxiety. On a much smaller scale, of course, I imagine for her it was a little like the challenge Meghan Markel, Duchess of Sussex, has faced trying to fit into the royal family. We are only now learning of the severe mental anguish this caused her.
So, yes, I think the mother’s experience could have produce changes within her epigenetic trauma genes. As I looked back I remember how extremely anxious my mother was to be sure I was acceptable to those in my “place” in society. I remember how insistent she was that I learn all the social graces. How she made sure I participated in cotillion. Enrolled in modeling school. Wore the right clothes. Ran around with the daughters of her upper-crust peers. I remember how anxious and resentful I was with these expectations. I was a tomboy. I didn’t want to be like them, or her. I remember the near panic she had about any indication that I might not demonstrate the social skills I now know she had struggled to master.
It’s odd looking back at how I might have inherited her social anxiety. It’s reassuring to understand how it has abated over time once I had escaped the pressure of having to be different from the person I am by nature and inclination. I wish I had appreciated her plait much earlier in my life. I could have disowned it far sooner and a lot easier. I could have been more compassionate to her. Understanding our epigenetic history can make such a positive difference for us at whatever point we uncover it.
I’m wondering now if the extreme pressure Meaghan Markle has gone through is altering her genes? Will her children carry her trauma with them? Or, as many others are wondering, what will the epigenetic effects of living through the COVID-19 pandemic.
What might your family history have left in your epigenetic code unbidden and unacknowledged that’s affecting you to this day? Mine may be minor in comparison to the traumas your ancestors could have suffered and yet even they were enough to have changed my life. How might yours have changed yours?
What to do with your epigenetic inheritance?
As you can see from my story, it’s not inevitable that we continue living out the emotional trauma reactions of our ancestors. Nor do we have to be arduously applying psychological tools and skills forever to manage them.
Unlike changes in the structure of genes themselves, epigenetic changes are reversible. They do not change your DNA gene sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence. To explain a bit further, epigenetics, in simplified terms, refers to “the biological control mechanisms of our DNA—the light switches that turn genes on or off. What does that mean? In essence: “epigenetics control how or why your genes are expressed.” 
So this means it’s not just about which genes you inherited, but whether your genes are switched on or off. You can think of this switch as a “hidden influence” on your genes.
Research and anecdotal reports from professionals in clinical practice have shown this to be true. As Dr. Daniel Amen, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, New York Times bestselling author, and founder of the Amen clinics around the world, says generational trauma can be changed but using our brains to change our brains and change our lives.
So take heart. These are not your feelings. They don’t belong to you and you can escape from them.
Your ancestral emotional reactions are triggered by your environment just like the triggers for your own emotions are, but since they are not yours, there seem to be no triggers. You can’t explain why you’re having the feelings.
To heal ancestral traumas, first, you need to have resolved any traumas you personally have suffered in your life. Once you’ve done that, the origin of inexplicable emotions must not be yours. Often my clients can’t understand why they are haunted by feelings they can find no cause for in their direct experience. This is the clue that it’s time to start searching through the lives of their ancestors.
Sometimes simply finding the origin of the feelings as I did can resolve the issues. You’ll see how “Wow, I got that from them. It’s not me.” But maybe your search won’t be as easy as mine was. Maybe you will need help with the search or with relating to the circumstances and feelings ancestors must have had. Or maybe you’ll want help sorting, connecting, and separating your own feelings about the traumas of the past you uncover in relation to your own resolved traumas. In such cases, you can turn for help to living family members and their friends, family archives, sites like Ancestry.com, and the support and guidance of a therapist familiar with ancestral trauma and how to guide someone through resolving it.
To get started.
Set up a computer file or notebook to begin logging pieces of your search for possible sources of trauma among your ancestors. Then begin your search. For example:
1) What do you remember or have been told about your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. What is the family lore, if any? What if any traumatic events have been mentioned? For example: Did they serve in a war? Were there violent deaths or attacks? Life-altering accidents? Abuse? Serious illnesses? Abandonment? Imprisonment? Crushing defeats? Suicide? Great hardship?
2) If you don’t know a lot about your family history, consider interviewing parents or grandparents who are still living. For example, I interviewed and tape-recorded a discussion with my mother about my grandparents. I asked her to tell me what she remembered about them. What were they like? What kind of people were they? What was their life like at different points? What did they go through? How did they feel? How did it affect their lives? What were their origins? How was it for you growing up with them?
3) You can also talk to aunts, uncles, siblings, any others who might have clues. You can read about that period of time and get as much detail as possible of what people were going through then.
4) You can find a surprising amount of additional information on sites like Ancestry.com. Sometimes this information will contradict the family lore or unearth surprising additions or corrections to what you understand about your roots. It did for me. To really get the full depth of information from these sites can take a great deal of time. There is a woman in our local area whose business includes conducting these online searches with you. This was very helpful to me. I don’t think I would have had the patience or the time to discover all that she did.
5) These last steps may be more difficult, but a knowledgeable therapist can help you through them if necessary. You will need to imagine the trauma feelings your ancestors did have or must have had and compare those to your inexplicable trauma feelings. You will then need to identify with their trauma. Feel empathy for what they suffered. This can be a painful experience. It may bring tears or anger. In the midst of the emotion from these memories, though, you will need to acknowledge clearly that these feelings are not yours. The pain was theirs. Through this process, you can let go of your feelings of pain in these matters, disown the feelings they bring into your body. Place them back where they belong, with your ancestor(s). As you do this, you will know you are fine, but they were not. You did not experience these things. Then you will be able to begin feeling compassion for them, for their lives, for the circumstances they faced. This release is sometimes accompanied by regret or forgiveness.
As you can see from my example, there may be more than one person or several events you inherited trauma feelings from. As you go through these and release them to their real owners, there will a great sense of relief, a feeling of freedom. Perhaps a bit of appreciation too for what they went through before where you can stand now. For a time, their feelings begin to arise in you again. After all, you’ve carried them for a long time. If this happens, recognize them and remind yourself each time, “Wait, this isn’t my feeling. It belongs to ….” And feel it leave your body.
If you are a past or current client or live in our mountain communities and would like help healing your ancestral trauma, please contact me through the information below. I would like to help because I know how good it feels to be free from someone else’s pain.
 Dr. Chris Mason, Associate Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, with appointments at the Tri-Institutional Program in Computational Biology and Medicine between Cornell, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Rockefeller University, and Director of the Mason Lab. For more see https://www.psycom.net/epigenetics-trauma.
 “The applied implications of epigenetics in anxiety, affective and stress-related disorders – A review and synthesis on psychosocial stress, psychotherapy, and prevention.” By Katharine Domschke and Michael G. Gottschalk. Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 77, April 2020, 101830.
 Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Dr. Daniel Amen, 2015. Your Brain Is Always Listening, 2021.
If you are interested in any subject on this site, please contact me.