Inherited trauma. Transgenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma. Multigenerational trauma.
So many different terms are used to talk about this topic.
Firstly, let’s define what trauma is. Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible or traumatic event. There can be various emotional responses, such as anger, nervousness, irritability, sadness; physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, flashbacks, nightmares, and behavioural responses such as avoidance, impact on relationships, or communication difficulties. Intergenerational trauma is defined as trauma that gets passed down through generations of a family. A person may not directly experience the trauma, but the effects can ripple through and extend across generations inadvertently.
What examples are there of intergenerational trauma?
There can be a lot of unresolved pain and trauma in the past, which can manifest itself through examples like…
This is by no means an exhaustive list and are purely some examples. This may come up in therapy in various ways, typically through the recognition of maladaptive behaviours, emotions, and/or thinking patterns that may be hindering us in some way. In therapy, we may go into exploring the past, particularly our upbringing and acknowledging the impact of past generations that may affect us.
How can this be passed down?
Psycho-social factors and learned behaviours can be a huge influence.
We are a product of our environment, especially as our understanding of the world has been initially modelled by our direct caregivers and parents. We see the world through their eyes – their perceptions, thought associations, interpretations, coping mechanisms, behaviour… there is so much learning that goes on, that tends to get ingrained into the fabric of our being. We carry this with us as we develop and grow older.
But this is not to point the finger at our parents and ancestors and blame them for inherently causing this to happen. It is important to acknowledge the impact, to foster understanding for ourselves. Knowing that perhaps this was adaptive behaviour for survival at the time, that this was the best that could have been done given the tools and support at that time.
Whilst these behaviours may have served a purpose at a point in time, it may be more maladaptive and unhealthier now.
Do genetics play a role?
The scientific evidence of intergenerational trauma has been difficult to study, with many interacting factors and small sample sizes. It is not entirely conclusive. Initial work was in the children of Holocaust survivors, then in other recognised groups such as refugees, genocide survivors, prisoners of war, slavery, domestic violence survivors… it was found that this type of trauma can continue to impact populations for generations afterwards.
But it has been difficult to place a finger on this. Epigenetic mechanisms have been favoured over genetic explanations, as it can explain heritable changes in the genome that can be induced by environmental effects. Nevertheless, studies are not conclusive regarding the epigenetic transmission of trauma effects in humans.
Why is this important?
Intergenerational trauma is getting more talked about, and it poses a good framing as a talking point. It can help to understand ourselves – whether it is how we think, feel, behave… to understand ourselves, it is helpful to understand our past and upbringing, as there is a lot of influence there.
Not only does this help in understanding ourselves, but the understanding of our parents too. instead of looking at this with blame and finger-pointing, it is about shifting perspective to that of compassion, empathy, and acceptance.
With understanding comes awareness. We may not always have much awareness of ourselves, let alone awareness of a pattern of events in our family or greater society.
Where can we start to break the cycle for ourselves, to help with healing?
How can we work on it?
Awareness is a good start: taking a moment to reflect on the self and gather some awareness. Have there been any unhealthy perceptions, thought associations, interpretations, coping mechanisms, behaviour that we observe that may have been passed down? Recognising anything that may be related to trauma symptoms and starting to talk about it. Perhaps it may help to reflect with someone else that you grew up with, for example a sibling.
Take a step back to process and understand the trauma. This may be helpful in a therapeutic setting, where a potentially traumatic upbringing can be explored in a safe environment. Where do the patterns emerge, if any, and where can the cycle be broken in a healthy way? How can we maintain it? Introducing a more empathic approach to foster this understanding of our past and to limit parent blaming. The learning of healthier and alternative coping mechanisms.
Education around this topic can be very powerful. Discussing and talking about it to help with moving forward and with healing, not just with ourselves but perhaps in the family context as well. Knowing that you are not alone in what you are going through, and thus knowing that there is access to support, whether it may be loved ones or a professional.
Being patient with yourself and taking care of yourself throughout this journey. All journeys have ups and downs, and this is no different. Remember that all our learned behaviours have developed since childhood, and in this case, likely across generations. They have become default or automatic over time, things we don’t even have to think about doing. Any shifts in this would surely take time, motivation, attention, and intention.
Where there is a will, there is a way. We may feel stuck at times, like being in an endless cycle that we feel we cannot break out of. But this can just be a feeling.
There are ways to break out of it, and this is the important thing to remember when we are looking for long-lasting change in ourselves.
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