Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the long lasting effects of stress. In the flight/fight response to a threat, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, adrenaline is released to cope with the stress, then cortisol is released to stop the stress response and breaks down when the threat is removed. In PTSD the cortisol levels are lower, which are a reflection of a greater dysregulation of the HPA axis, including circadian rhythm alteration, glucocorticoid receptivity and alterations in cortisol metabolism.

In trauma survivors the stress responsive can be a transformative experience. The offspring of trauma survivors, such as the Holocaust, were also more likely to experience anxiety and depression and have lower levels of cortisol associated with child adversity.

Offspring make their own changes – is this transmission or accommodation? Developmentally programmed changes allow more flexible responding but may be a mismatch for the offspring.

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma – Epigenetic mechanisms, the in Utero Environment and Early Attachment – Dr Rachel Yehuda, International Marce Society Conference 2016.

Further reading

Yehuda & Le Doux 2007. Response variation following trauma: a translational neuroscience approach to understanding PTSD.

Yehuda & Bierer 2008. Transgenerational transmission of cortisol and PTSD risk.