When we think about things that we inherit from our ancestors, we might think of things like family heirlooms, physical characteristics, legends, names and even wealth. What we might not think about is something that we’d rather not inherit: our ancestors’ trauma.
But research is showing us more and more, that generational trauma (sometimes referred to as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma) exists, and has significant effects on the mental health of people who were born generations after the person who survived the traumatic event. If we don’t start healing our generational trauma now, we risk passing it down to our own descendants, as well — like a family curse that just won’t go away.
Do We Inherit Trauma?
We usually think of trauma as an individual matter; one person survives a traumatic event, and unfortunately suffers the mental and physical health effects of that trauma. But through research, we now know that it’s much more complicated than that; trauma affects much more than just the person who survived the event. It can even reach out and continue to affect people for generations afterward.
In other words, we can inherit trauma, and its effects, from our ancestors.
What Is Trauma?
Before we talk about generational trauma specifically, it’s important to be aware of what the word “trauma” actually means. Although we use the words traumatized or traumatic colloquially in everyday language, in the psychiatric world, “trauma” actually refers to something very specific: it’s the emotional reaction we have to a life-threatening or terrifying event.
Many traumatic events are individual, for example: one person experiences an assault; but community trauma also exists. Too many cultural and racial groups around the world have been subjected to community trauma throughout history. Even just within the United States, we can remember the enslavement of human beings in the U.S. human-chattel slave trade, the genocide of indigenous people, the forced internment of Japanese-Americans and more.
All of this constitutes trauma just as much as any individual traumatic event. And traumas such as this, in which an entire group of people face the same traumatic event, are more harmful when passed down generationally; it’s not just one person or family who faces the damage inflicted by the trauma, but entire populations of people.
Generational Trauma Defined
Experts describe generational trauma as post-traumatic effects that aren’t just experienced by one person, but are handed down, like an unwanted legacy, from one generation to the next. Anything about the traumatic event may be passed down, from the memories and stories about the event itself, to the more subtle and insidious ways in which the trauma has affected both the person directly involved and the family.
One of the first times that generational trauma was ever studied was back in 1966, when a Canadian psychiatrist studied the effects of the Holocaust on survivors’ children and grandchildren. What they found was shocking: even the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, two generations removed from the actual traumatic event, experienced much higher rates of emotional distress than the control group, and in one study they were found to be overrepresented by 300 percent in psychiatric treatment.
This is exactly what generational trauma does: one generation survives the traumatic event, but the mental and physical effects of the event reverberate to their descendants for generations that follow. And we see this time and time again, not only for Holocaust survivors, but for survivors of other groups, like people who survived being enslaved and genocide, sexual assault victims and much more.
Generational trauma can also appear when just one person (rather than the entire family or community) has experienced a traumatic event. For example, if a woman experiences a sexual assault, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren may continue to feel and live the experiences of this traumatic event, even long after she’s passed away. She probably isn’t aware of the fact that she’s passing the trauma down as an inheritance for her descendants, but generational trauma can show up in insidious ways.
How Does Generational Trauma Show Up?
If you’re aware that your ancestors have survived either community or individual trauma, you may be wondering if you might be feeling the effects of generational trauma. What does generational trauma look like exactly, and how does it show up in the lives of people who’ve inherited it?
Some signs that you might be experiencing generational trauma are:
- You experience unexplained anxiety and are hypervigilant of your surroundings
- You feel a sense of mistrust of certain people or generally of the world around you
- You’re avoidant of certain situations with no rational reason
- You feel denial over things that have happened in your family’s past
- You have frequent nightmares or trouble sleeping
- You experience problems with drinking or drug use
The effects of trauma are passed on from parents to their children. Parents who are suffering from untreated PTSD are more likely themselves to suffer from symptoms like dissociative episodes, substance abuse, emotional disconnection and an inability to self-soothe their difficult feelings. These symptoms, in turn, make their children less likely to form a healthy attachment or to learn these life skills themselves.
Those children grow up, exhibiting the same symptoms as their parents, and have children of their own. Thus, the cycle of generational trauma continues, until someone decides to address the trauma and break it.
Healing Generational Trauma
When we think about how we can start healing generational trauma, the answer comes in two parts: first, we need to address and help the people already dealing with the devastating effects of generational trauma through culturally appropriate and trauma-specific mental health treatment.
But we also need to think about the communities who have been subjected to oppression and community trauma like enslavement. One of the most important and urgent ways we can heal generational trauma is by making sure that community trauma like institutional racism stops immediately.
How Can We Heal Generational Trauma?
For those who are already experiencing the psychological effects of generational trauma, it’s important that you get proper treatment. Generational trauma is trauma (as well as PTSD), and is treatable. Of course, with generational trauma it’s more complicated — considering that you probably aren’t the only person who is facing these effects — but families can heal from generational trauma, too.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do when thinking about how to heal generational trauma, is to heal ourselves, so that we stop unconsciously continuing the trauma for generations that will come after us. It’s not our fault that we’ve inherited trauma — but by getting appropriate treatment, exploring our history and talking with our families, we can make sure that our descendants don’t inherit this terrible legacy.
Some evidence-based treatments for trauma healing include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Narrative Therapy and trauma-focused CBT. Family and parenting interventions may also help break the cycle and form healthy attachments.
Residential Trauma Treatment in Colorado
If you’re looking for trauma treatment for yourself or a loved one, our residential treatment program in Colorado can help. We use innovative evidence-based treatment to help people recover from trauma and PTSD, including EMDR.
To get started on the road to recovery, contact our admissions specialist today.