intergenerational trauma

Understanding Intergenerational Trauma

There may be moments when your mind and body react to recountings of stories of trauma from your parents or grandparents.  While you may understand why you are disturbed by their story, you may not be aware of the impact that their intergenerational trauma has on you.   Trauma can be passed down generationally and their experience of uncontrollable fear or suffering can stay with you in ways that you may not expect. Researchers believe that unresolved trauma can be passed on to their children and even their children’s children until the cycle is broken.

intergenerational trauma

What is intergenerational trauma

Intergenerational trauma (also known as transgenerational trauma or historical trauma) is trauma passed down through generations. In other words, if an experience is overwhelming, unresolved, or significantly impacts one’s life, it can be transmitted to one’s children and then their children for generations.  

There are several ways that trauma can be passed on through generations. Experiencing trauma can lead to maladaptive ways of coping with the unresolved emotions about the event. These coping mechanisms such as hypervigilance, hyperarousal or avoidance may appear as anger, panic, isolation, anxiety or depression.  This, in turn, will affect relationships. Because the human brain develops in direct response to the environment, the emotional responses of the parent will affect the developing brains of their offspring.  Trauma can produce neurochemicals in the brain that will alter brain functioning. These neurochemical changes can also be passed on. Intergenerational trauma such as slavery, genocide, surviving terrorism, and warfare have been widely studied. Individual trauma such as rape, physical abuse, extreme neglect can also have long-lasting effects over generations.   People who live through these events often go untreated. Most are unaware that they carry trauma, or that they may pass it on to future generations.  

An example of how this happens is through the parent/child relationship. A parent who has survived horrific trauma might carry constant fear, anxiety and a chronically dysregulated nervous system.  This can affect how the parent interacts with the child leading to an insecure attachment style. This insecure attachment style then sets up the child to feel unsafe, insecure and unable to trust the world. Through unconscious cues, such as a parent showing signs of fear or anxiety through bodily reactions when confronted by “triggers”, the child will feel the parents anxiety and fear. Trauma can also be passed on by the message of a parent’s storytelling as well. When trauma is untreated, it can manifest in physical and psychological disturbances. Symptoms of transgenerational trauma may include depression, anxiety,  substance abuse, low self-esteem, chronic dysregulation or self-destructive behavior 

Ways to work through intergenerational trauma

Generational trauma stems from reactions to unhealed trauma of previous generations.  Working with a professional trauma therapist can help in healing this hidden trauma.  Common in many types of trauma is an inherent feeling a loss of safety. When working with a trauma therapist you will be guided to process emotions and to gently explore their roots. With the guidance of a professional, the client can begin to understand their own story with new perspectives and meaning. A therapist can help uncover deeply held unconscious beliefs in order to allow the possibility to increase the capacity to feel safe. The therapists at Trauma and Beyond Psychological Center ® understand intergenerational trauma and the ways in which trauma-focused therapy can help break these generational cycles.

Call Trauma and Beyond ®  at (818) 651-0725 and get a free consultation on the phone.