Trauma is a difficult experience, one that’s difficult to put into words, and can have lasting effects when left untreated. In some cases, those who experience a traumatic event or have traumatic experiences can unintentionally and unknowingly pass down behaviors and responses to their trauma for generations.
Intergenerational trauma can be hard to pinpoint because oftentimes, they are behaviors, attitudes, reactions and coping mechanisms that have been passed down from generation to generation. The source of the trauma is often lost after time, but its impact can remain for generations, long after the cause is gone.
The History And Biology Behind Intergenerational Trauma
Familial trauma can occur when there is a generational cycle of abuse, deprivation and abandonment. However, it can more commonly occur in much more subtle and covert ways. If, for example, your mother grew up in an impoverished home and didn’t know if there would be enough food for their next meal, her parents might pass down the message that “we don’t throw food away” or even the saying “waste not want not”.
What happens next is the cycle of intergenerational trauma:
Your mother’s and siblings’ children or grandchildren might start exhibiting underlying feelings of guilt around food. In turn, they might lead them to eat without listening to their bodies, overeating, or even disordered eating. Eating might be a very stressful time for these individuals, and they may not even know from where these thoughts and feelings stem.
Similarly, if your father, for example, was bullied in school at any age, he might pass down to his sons the message that boys need to “toughen up” or that “boys don’t cry” and that might result in generations of emotionally closed or distant men. Healing from generational trauma or traumatic symptoms can be especially difficult because the healing process is different for each person.
When you think about your own family dynamics, does any of this sound or feel familiar?
Intergenerational trauma occurs not just because of parenting and taught behaviors, but also because trauma can actually change our gene expression. This is what is known as epigenetics.
What is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. What this means is that there are researchers who look into how changes have come about because of changes in the way our genes express themselves and not because of genetic modification or mutations of some kind.
How does this connect to intergenerational trauma? The changes in mutations allow us to see and understand that there are actual changes in gene expression and not just psychologically that happen when someone is exposed to trauma. So yes, you may be more prone to anxiety, depression or hyperarousal if there is a history of chronic exposure to any conditions that would cause these types of human emotional states.
Epigenetics in the Media
Dr. Rachel Yehuda is a well known author and professor who studied epigenetics. In the STEM-Talk podcast, Dr. Yehuda talks about her time in school studying this and she says that when “something begins in the body, in the adrenal gland, has real repercussions for what happens in the brain” (15:25). More interestingly, she notes that, “This idea that we are so affected by the things that happen to us and that development in particular is a very critical period for setting the stage of how our bodies and our brains are going to function in the future” (15:49).
There are multiple studies that have shown that, “There are a lot of possible ways that a traumatic event in the parent or trauma exposure in the parent could leave a mark on their offspring” (29:30).
One way in which this might occur is where the traumatic experience changes the parent’s behavior and how they interact with their family. However, it can also occur because “trauma can be encoded in the germ cells, and in sperm or egg” cells or even have in-utero effects (29:40).
When trauma has shaped the way you are on a genetic level or on an interpersonal level, it can be extremely difficult to heal or change unwanted behaviors.
Coping mechanisms help people either avoid or heal from their trauma. How might someone with traumatic experiences or symptoms deal with their behaviors or emotions? Generally speaking, there are two main ways people cope with their trauma.
One of the most common coping mechanisms when it comes to trauma is denial. This may sound like, “I didn’t live through anything traumatic” or “Oh that? That was nothing!” And yet, behaviors, feelings and reactions to situations may frequently be very much connected to the unrecognized or underlying trauma.
Denial often leads to the other common and perhaps most prolific of all coping mechanisms known as minimization. This is when a person minimizes the effects of trauma or makes it out to be smaller than it really is. This might sound like, “Everyone experiences tough times, I have it easy compared to others,” or “I’m fine, it wasn’t a big deal.”
While we all do the best with what we have and the circumstances we live in, that doesn’t mean you should settle or feel afraid to acknowledge your lived experiences. No matter how small your experiences may feel, everyone is worthy of help and a happy life.
Let’s talk about healing…
Ways Of Healing Your Intergenerational Trauma
While everyone is different and finds different ways to cope and heal, there are some general ways to start healing that can be effective. Here are three important things to consider:
- Having an understanding and knowledge of family history. If you have the opportunity to do so, talk about your family’s history with them. In families or with people who have experienced trauma might be very difficult. However, knowing where the traumatic symptoms come from or what your family members have been through can be a very big step in realizing some of the reasons why you have certain behaviors or thoughts or reactions.
- Accept that healing is a process and not a one-time event. It will take time for you to get the support you need and begin feeling better, but it is worth it. You also need to be committed to work through the difficult emotions and moments throughout the healing journey.
- Seek out healing methods that work for you. If you’re more introverted and aren’t comfortable reaching out to other people, find a technique that works for you like reading or listening to music. You could go for a run or make a family recipe. Healing and feeling good on a daily basis is just as important as feeling balanced over a period of time.
While finding methods that work for you can help, they work better in tandem with therapy. Finding the right therapist is an important step in your process. Trauma therapists are those who specialize in learning about an individual and their experiences as well as the experiences of those around them.
Therapy with the right person…
Therapy with the right mental health professional can be a tremendous way to heal from intergenerational trauma. It can help you process your thoughts and feelings in a safe environment with someone who understands how difficult this journey can be. Therapy can also help you learn how to take care of yourself again, which is especially important if you have been neglecting your needs for a long time. Additionally, therapists can help you learn how to move forward while understanding why you are the way you are and begin to appreciate that.
When you’re ready to begin your healing journey, speaking with a therapist may be a good option.
When you understand the cycle of intergenerational trauma, it’s easier to address the hurt that comes from it.
About the author(s)
Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.