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How Trauma Negatively Impacts

By Jesse Kohler, CTIPP's Executive Director, and Laura Braden Quigley, CTIPP's Director of Communications and Outreach

How does trauma negatively impact individuals, families, communities, and systems?

In the last several decades, scientific research has demonstrated how deeply trauma can become embedded into biology, behavior, and risk, and how these can be passed onto future generations.


This body of science — Neuroscience, Epigenetics, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and Resilience research (NEAR) — is one of the most significant public health discoveries of our time. Each area of the science provides clues for how to address trauma across the lifespan:

  • Neuroscience is about understanding the nervous system, the spine, and the brain, which can help us determine how to intervene and support resilience and recovery, including:

    • the role of emotions relative to memory and the brain

    • understanding brain states

    • recognizing our natural capacity for transformation through neuroplasticity

    • the changing of the brain as trauma happens and heals over time

  • Epigenetics demonstrates that the body is always adapting down to the cellular level. Our DNA is not our destiny, and just as the ability to transfer trauma across generations is clear, so too is our ability to heal from generation to generation with the right intervention and support.

  • ACEs can have a lasting impact that unfolds over the lifespan (see below).

  • Resilience is the capacity/ability to adapt to, prevent, or mitigate the impacts of an adverse event or trauma. Resilience is a capacity that can be developed and exercised.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

The ACEs Study was published nearly 30 years ago, and its findings have been replicated across populations and with similar outcomes.

The study’s primary contribution to the trauma-informed movement is that life adversity can lead to challenging behavioral- and health-related outcomes, especially when stress occurs during critical developmental periods.

The original study found that two-thirds of all participants experienced one ACE, 87 percent experienced multiple ACES, and one-eighth experienced four or more ACEs. There was a strong graded relationship between the number of ACEs an individual experienced and adverse behavioral and health outcomes later in life.

By no means are ACEs a death sentence, they are not predictive at the individual level and are only proven to be useful at predicting problems and costs at a population level. There are incredible stories of resilience and perseverance that show people’s ability to survive and thrive despite incredibly trying childhoods. And yet, across society, those who face unnecessary adversity often live less fulfilling lives than do their more privileged peers.

ACEs are linked to many of America’s top public health concerns, those who experienced four or more ACEs (one in eight participants in the original ACE study) were:

  • 740% more likely to be alcoholics

  • 1030% more likely to partake in intravenous drug use,

  • 1220% more likely to commit suicide than those who experienced zero ACEs.

  • SEE ALSO: ACEs Prevention Saves Lives

ACEs and developmental adversity (DA) are connected to – and can increase – the population-level risk for many of America’s most costly and seemingly intractable social, economic, and health issues; and ACEs can indelibly impact individual and collective experiences and outcomes across life and span multiple generations.

CTIPP strives to advance solutions that provide individuals, families, communities, institutions, and systems support and care to prevent, mitigate, and heal ACEs, DA, and trauma by:

  • Realizing the widespread impact of trauma and adversity, as well as possible pathways for recovery

  • Recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma and adversity

  • Responding by integrating NEAR (neuroscience, epigenetics, ACEs, and resilience) science and related knowledge into policies and practices

  • Resisting re-traumatization by supporting and enacting engagement that intentionally seeks to neutralize and protect against dynamics that may replicate trauma and adversity


Beyond ACEs, adversity can come in many forms across the lifespan, and the other “realms” include:

  • Adverse Community Experiences: Impact population conditions. Examples include poverty, structural racism, community disinvestment, police violence, lack of affordable housing, lack of opportunity and economic mobility, discrimination, disconnected relationships, unemployment, and deteriorating built environments.

  • Adverse Climate Experiences: Impact community conditions. Examples include COVID-19, climate change, wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, environmental injustice, and pollution.

  • Atrocious Cultural Experiences: Impact macro and socio-historical conditions. Examples include slavery, genocide, colonization, segregation, forced family separation, removal of property, and other harmful social norms such as low sense of political and social efficacy and mistrust.

The enclosed graphic helps illustrate ACEs while also considering the environment that the individual was raised within, and acknowledges how they influence one another.


Cultural, racial, and historical trauma generally emerge collectively and manifest intergenerationally among people who share a circumstance(s), experience(s), and/or social identity. Such experiences can be perpetrated/perpetuated at the interpersonal, community, collective, systemic, and structural levels.

With the acknowledgment that certain public policies and institutions in America continue to cultivate acculturative stress and vulnerability, CTIPP advocates for the implementation of trauma-informed policies and practices that reduce re-traumatization to repair the indelible impacts of historical, cultural, racial, and other forms of trauma that have rippled through the generations to impact people’s brains and bodies in the present.

Key terms include:

  • Collective Trauma: psychological reactions to a traumatic event or series of events impacting an entire society carried as part of collective memory and shared sense of identity

  • Cultural Trauma: indelible marks impacting—and possibly changing the identity of—a collectivity following being subjected to a severe event or series of events

  • Historical Trauma: the cumulative emotional harm of an individual or generation(s) connected to a collectively traumatic experience or event

  • Racial Trauma/Race-Based Traumatic Stress: the stressful mental impact and/or emotional injury related to encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, oppression, and hate crimes

  • Systemic Trauma: the practices, contextual features, and procedures implemented by institutions/environments and/or their leaders that directly or indirectly give rise to and/or maintain psychological, emotional, economic, spiritual, physical, and/or sexual harm to particular individuals or specific groups of people

  • Transgenerational/Intergenerational Trauma: the transmission of trauma and related effects to subsequent generations


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