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Understanding Inter-Generational Trauma

Children inherit a lot from their parents and ancestors. This could be wealth, possessions, traits, behaviors, physical features. However, not everything that gets passed on is positive and helpful. Do you know ancestors could pass on trauma as well to the next generations? Even if children are not directly exposed to the traumatic incident, their parents’ trauma and even the family’s collective trauma can have an indirect impact on the children living in the home.

Generational Trauma

Trauma can be described as an experience that happens in an individual’s life which creates serious harm, whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional. It can be deeply disturbing to the individual and can make them feel out of control of the situation. The traumatic experience could cause an impact not only on one generation, but on subsequent generations after the event. It is also referred to as inter-generational trauma. Generational trauma is a traumatic event that began decades prior to the current generation and has impacted the way that individuals understand, cope with, and heal from trauma.

When someone goes through trauma or chronic stress, some responses, known as trauma responses, will be activated to help them survive. In short term, these trauma responses are helpful for survival, but in long-term these adaptations can be harmful as their brain learns that these responses will help keep them or their family safe and they might pass on to further generations and can be very hard to unlearn.

According to the evolutionary approach in Cognitive Psychology, the learning that is there in ancestors can be transferred through DNA from generation to generation. The basis of genetic transfer is not by chance. One important factor that affects is the requirement of the trait. If the trait or behavior helped the ancestors in survival, such traits are more likely to get transferred to the next generations. Since trauma responses help them survive, they are significant, thus making them more susceptible to transfer.

In many instances, the transmission is entirely genetic, meaning that the trauma left a chemical imprint on an individual’s genes that was subsequently passed on to succeeding generations. The gene is not directly harmed. It modifies DNA in a way that unintentionally traps the offspring in a form of group solidarity with the initial trauma. The field of epigenetics investigates how life’s experiences, including traumatic incidents and emotional responses, might alter how an individual’s genes function. An individual’s DNA sequence is unaffected by these alterations, but their body’s ability to interpret that DNA may be affected.

Causes of Generational Trauma

Generational trauma, also called intergenerational trauma and transgenerational trauma, is passed down through generations in families and it could be a mix of nature and nurture as some of it can be passed through genes, many of an individual’s traits or emotions could be a result of the trauma that their ancestors went through. It could be war, genocide, poverty, abuse, violence, or loss of a loved one, to name a few and the way they internalized their stress responses could have changed them at genetic level. The same could have passed down to next generations without them going through the traumatic event. While these studies are relatively new, several psychologists are actively working in this field.

Another way in which intergenerational trauma can be passed down is through parenting styles that have been affected by trauma, which can result in difficulty in bonding and creating healthy emotional connections with children. Children experience and understand the world primary through caregivers and therefore are profoundly affected by parents’ modelling. Children both mimic their parents’ behaviors and learn to navigate future relationships based on what they learned from their parents. Children may develop coping mechanisms which help them avoid and/or try to fix their parent’s abusive behavior or emotional neglect. The same can be passed down to their children further continuing the cycle because when one grows up in a home where trauma is dealt in some way, that’s exactly what they’re going to model their trauma responses after, as they don’t have any additional contexts to relate to.

Recognizing Generational Trauma

People react to traumatic events in different ways, and frequently they are unaware of the effects of the event. Depending on the experiences that families have had, intergenerational trauma symptoms might be physical, psychological, or behavioral. Those who have experienced terrible events in their families may exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Family members should therefore be aware of these symptoms.

Denial, depersonalization, isolation, loss of memory, flashbacks, psychological numbing, hypervigilance, substance misuse, and unresolved grief are just a few of the symptoms of intergenerational trauma that might be confused for other conditions. The additional common signs of intergenerational trauma include, but are not limited to:
-Inability to trust others
-Irritability and anger
-Inability to connect with those around

Healing from Generational Trauma

Intergenerational Trauma is multi layered and multi-dimensional and can be challenging to heal from, but the first step of any healing journey is to acknowledging the pain, the hurt, the patterns and talking about it. Intergenerational trauma strives on not talking about it.

People have hard time talking about intergenerational trauma as it often comes with a feeling of shame, and it triggers automatic silence and it’s very common. Things like family secrets can stop any dialogue from happening.

It is hard to acknowledge and talk about it, because people can be very protective of their families. It’s hard to realize that the same people that provided them with love, security and psychological safety might be those who caused them trouble or perhaps emotionally wounded them. It’s this constant quarrel between love, disbelief, shame, and pain, that people often find it hard to talk about, but finding a healthy way to talking about the cycle often goes a long way.

Breaking the patterns of Generational Trauma

Having generational trauma does not mean a person or a family cannot heal from it. One can choose to be a cycle breaker by ending the unhealthy traits that are part of their family’s history and replace them with new healthier patterns or traits.

-Identify the trauma and its effects on your life and that of your family.
-Recognize the impact that past experiences have had on your family and use that knowledge to be understanding of people and their actions.
-Be kind to yourself and others and understand that everyone has shortcomings.
-Seek help from a professional who is familiar with trauma and can help you get the most out of treatment. The PsyK- Life provides one on one counselling services. If you want to be a cycle breaker and help your family heal from generational trauma, feel free to reach out.

-Madaalasa Mannava

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