What is generational trauma?
Generational trauma, also known as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma, is the passing down of traumatic experiences or stressors from one generation to the next. It is a form of trauma that is transmitted within a family or community, passed from a trauma survivor to their descendents. Generational trauma can happen through genetic and cultural transmission or direct exposure and learned behavior.
Research suggests that generational trauma can be passed down as far as four generations from the first trauma experience.
Genetic transmission refers to the possibility that trauma can affect a person's DNA and potentially influence the health of future generations. For example, research has shown that children of Holocaust survivors are more likely to have certain epigenetic markers, which are chemical tags that attach to DNA and can switch genes on or off. These epigenetic markers can influence a person's risk of developing certain diseases, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.
Cultural transmission refers to the way that trauma can be passed down through family stories, traditions, world views and beliefs. For example, a child who grows up hearing stories about their parents' traumatic experiences may be more likely to experience anxiety or depression themselves. Another example is a culture that values silence and stoicism, which may make it difficult for people to talk about their trauma. This can lead to the trauma being passed down from generation to generation.
Generational trauma can occur from direct exposure in a number of ways. For example, a child who witnesses or experiences a traumatic event, such as domestic violence, abuse, or neglect, is more likely to develop their own trauma. Additionally, children who grow up in chaotic or unsafe environments, such as those with poverty, violence, or addiction, are also at increased risk for generational trauma. Finally, children raised by parents who have their own unresolved trauma may inherit this trauma through their parenting style or through their own behaviors.
Children learn from the adults in their lives, and if those adults have experienced trauma, they may pass on unhealthy coping mechanisms and behaviors to their children. For example, a child who grows up in a household with domestic violence may learn to use violence as a way to resolve conflict. This is how learned behavior can lead to generational trauma.
Examples of generational trauma
Generational trauma can impact any person, group or community but primarily affects those from marginalized, impoverished, and systemically disadvantaged groups. It can be caused by a variety of events, including:
Generational trauma can have a significant impact on the physical, mental, and emotional health of those who experience it. Some of the common symptoms of generational trauma include:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)/ Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)
Physical health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
Difficulty coping with stress
Unhealthy attachment styles
Difficulty trusting others
Sleep issues or disorders
Generational trauma can also have a negative impact on a person's ability to succeed in school and work. It can lead to problems in relationships and parenting. It can also be a major factor in contributing to ongoing trauma cycles, including cycles of:
Treatment options for generational trauma
There are a number of treatment options available for generational trauma. Some of the most common treatments include:
Therapy: Individual or group therapy can help people to understand and process their trauma. It can also teach people coping skills and help them to develop a healing plan.
Support groups: Support groups can provide people with a safe and supportive space to connect with other people who are healing from trauma. You can share your experiences, learn from each other, and offer support to one another.
Medication: Medication may be prescribed to help people manage the symptoms of trauma, such as anxiety and depression.
How is generational trauma related to other types of trauma?
Generational trauma is similar to other types of trauma in that it can have a significant impact on a person's physical, mental, and emotional health. However, there are some key differences between generational trauma and other types of trauma.
One key difference is that generational trauma is often passed down from one generation to the next. This is because trauma can affect a person's DNA and potentially influence the health of future generations. Additionally, generational trauma is often associated with cultural factors, such as family stories, traditions, and beliefs.
Another key difference is that generational trauma is often complex and difficult to identify. This is because it can be difficult to know how much of a person's trauma is due to their own experiences and how much of it is due to the trauma that they have inherited from their ancestors.
Racial Trauma and Generational Trauma
Racial trauma is the cumulative emotional and psychological wounds inflicted upon Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) as a result of individual and systemic racism. It can be caused by overt acts of racism, such as discrimination, microaggressions, and violence, as well as by other forms of racism that are embedded in our society, such as institutional racism and racial disparities in health, education, and wealth.
Racial trauma can have a profound impact on the mental, emotional, and physical health of BIPOC. It can lead to anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance misuse, and other mental health issues. It can also increase the risk of developing chronic physical health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. There are unexpected ways that racial trauma can impact health as well. For example, racial trauma caused by medical harm done to Black Americans has led to a continued and deserved mistrust in the healthcare system. This mistrust has overarching consequences that include delayed or missed care, poorer health outcomes, and increased mortality rates.
Racial trauma, like generational trauma, can be passed down from one generation to the next. Generational trauma occurs when the experiences of trauma are passed down from parents to children, both consciously and unconsciously. For example, a child who witnesses their parent(s) being discriminated against may internalize those experiences and come to believe that they are not worthy of respect or dignity. This can lead to a number of negative consequences, such as low self-esteem, self-sabotage, and relationship problems.
There are a number of things that can be done to address racial trauma and generational trauma. These include:
Education: Educating yourself and your loved ones about racism and its effects is an important first step. There are many resources available online and in libraries that can teach you about racism, including its history, its impact on BIPOC, and how to identify and challenge it.
Therapy: Therapy can be helpful for people who are struggling with racial trauma and generational trauma. A therapist can provide you with support and guidance as you work through your trauma. They can also teach you coping skills and help you to develop a healing plan. Find BIPOC therapists near you.
Support groups: Support groups can provide people with a safe and supportive space to connect with other people who are healing from racial trauma and generational trauma. You can share your experiences, learn from each other, and offer support to one another.
Community activism: Getting involved in community activism is another way to address racial trauma and generational trauma. Community activism can help you to connect with others who are working to create a more just and equitable society. It can also give you a sense of purpose and empowerment.
Healing from racial trauma and generational trauma is a journey, not a destination. It takes time and effort to break the cycle of trauma and create a brighter future for yourself and your loved ones. But it is possible. With the right support and resources, you can heal from your trauma and build a more resilient community.
Generational trauma is serious, and can have a significant impact on the lives of those who experience it. If you believe that you may be struggling with generational trauma, or any form of trauma, please reach out for help. There are many people who care about you and want to support you on your healing journey.
Watch this short video for a list of movies that explore generational trauma: