Transgenerational Trauma: What You Should Know
Most people know that we owe various aspects of our appearance to past generations. But, our ancestors sometimes give us more than just our eye color or a predisposition to certain health conditions.
Just as our ancestors’ genes help shape our physical bodies, their traumatic experiences, difficulties, and hardships also carry across generations, contributing to our character and personalities long after the traumatic event has ended.
The Truth About Generational Trauma
Transgenerational trauma (generational trauma or intergenerational trauma) is a term for the belief that trauma can be transferred from an initial generation to their children and subsequent generations. While the research surrounding transgenerational trauma is just starting out, the patients, therapists, and the medical world are already benefiting from associated research.
The effects of intergenerational trauma aren’t limited to psychological aspects – they also extend into family life, community interactions, cultural views, neurobiology, and can impact genetics as well.
Why Does It Happen?
Various types of trauma, from natural disasters to the loss of an infant, can incapacitate individuals and begin a pattern of transgenerational trauma. While every individual has the capacity to experience generational trauma, there are some groups that are more likely to be affected. These include:
- Descendants of slaves/African Americans
- Native Americans and other indigenous peoples
- Survivors of natural or man-made disasters
- Survivors of abuse
- Individuals affected by civil wars or genocides
Trauma may be transmitted through a number of means. And, as individuals respond in different ways, it can create unique reactions throughout generations.
How Does It Happen?
There is no set way for generational trauma to be transmitted. It may be passed through unconscious cues from parents to children or through consciously expressed cautionary stories and tales, turns of phrases, and other communication. This form of transmission is direct and simpler to discern and is easy to trace back to a source.
Another method of transmission occurs within the body – it is known as epigenetics. This is the process whereby genes are turned on or off without being completely modified. For this transmission process to occur, a traumatic experience turns chemical tags in our DNA on or off in response to our changing environment, leading us to adapt to the changes. These chemicals are then passed on to the next generation.
By Daniel Feerst, A person’s response to generational trauma may take many forms. It is heavily dependent on the type of trauma that occurred, how far removed the individual is from the traumatic event, and how the individual is attempting to cope with the leftover trauma. Symptoms may include:
- Anxiety and depression
- Increased thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts
- Learning difficulties
- Marital issues
- Drug/alcohol abuse
- Fear of the future
- Feelings such as guilt, rage, denial , or grief
- A desire for isolation; withdrawal from life
- Memory loss
Because many symptoms associated with transgenerational trauma may appear related to other disorders, it is imperative to recognize the true cause behind the symptoms in order to provide individuals with proper treatment.
What You Can Do About It
Daniel Feerst, said many options are available for those who are seeking relief from the effects of generational trauma. Individuals who work to heal themselves from the effects of trauma are less likely to pass on negative behaviors, outlooks, coping mechanisms, and more.
The help an individual needs depends heavily on the type of trauma they are affected by. Some individuals may find it helpful to join programs or communities dedicated to opening up communication between themselves and their families.
Other individuals may utilize treatments such as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), somatic experiencing, or other therapies to help negate the effects of trauma on their DNA.
Individuals can begin to help themselves by recognizing and confronting the past trauma, practicing good self-care, using and teaching their children to use effective and safe coping strategies, and reducing exposure to potential triggers.