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Generational Trauma

a teen cries with her grandfather because of trauma.What is Generational Trauma?

Generational trauma, also known as transgenerational trauma or intergenerational trauma, is the passing on the cycle of abuse from the firsthand victim(s) to subsequent generations. It can also mean that the residual effects of a trauma can be passed on to the next generations through the emotional patterns and behaviors of the original traumatized victim. This means the children or grandchildren of trauma survivors also exhibit trauma symptoms and related disorders, despite not having experienced the original trauma themselves. Survivors of the Holocaust, for instance, are usually referred to as 1st Generation Survivors because the after effects of surviving the concentration camp can manifest as anxiety or depression in children of holocaust survivors (2nd Generation Survivors), grandchildren (3rd Generation Survivors), or great-grandchildren (4th Generation Survivors) of the original survivors.

Trauma, which can be thought of as the emotional residue of wounding, can be transferred through a variety of mechanisms, including direct child abuse or neglect, the effects of parental mental health disorders, the impact of living in a traumatized community, and even through biological transmission, as emerging research in epigenetics suggests.

What is Bloodline Healing?

Bloodline Healing is a system of healing generational trauma developed by G. K. Hunter in his book Healing Our Bloodlines: The 8 Realizations of Generational Liberation. It includes home exercises for intergenerational trauma treatment through discovering the invisible burdens and unclaimed gifts from your family tree. It has been used in workshops to healing the cycle of abuse and repetitive traumatic events passed down through multigenerational trauma. Other systems of healing that directly address trauma generation included Internal Family Systems, Gestalt Therapy, and Family Constellations Therapy. Please consult a mental health professional about which treatment would work best for you.

Symptoms of Generational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma can manifest in various ways. Individuals who experience trauma themselves may experience one or more mental or physical health problems and symptoms, such as:

  • anxiety
  • depression and suicidal ideation
  • disordered sleep
  • heart disease
  • substance use disorders (SUD)
  • diabetes
  • shame
  • a heightened sense of vulnerability and helplessness
  • low self-esteem
  • dissociation
  • hyper-vigilance
  • intrusive thoughts
  • difficulty with relationships
  • difficulty with emotional regulation or impulsivity

Impacts on families include:

  • Emotional disconnection or detachment
  • Physical distance and estrangement
  • Denial
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Spousal/partner violence

Substance abuse is often used to mask the feeling behind cyclic traumatic events inflicted by family members, which can lead to mental health problems if left unaddressed. Outside help is often necessary to heal the underlying emotional wounds contributing to substance abuse issues.

What is Historical Trauma?

Historical trauma is a subcategory of intergenerational trauma which refers to the psychological wounds of an individual or generation caused by a catastrophic event. This term is often used in discussions about the long-term impacts of major, systemic violence against a specific group.

First used to describe the experience of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, other examples of historical trauma include:

  • Japanese Americans with ties to Japanese internment during World War II
  • The impact of slavery on African Americans
  • Those of Vietnamese and Cambodian descent
  • The impact of colonization, forced relocation and assimilation on Indigenous peoples, descendants of the Indian Reservation Schools in Canada and the United States, and Australian Aboriginal tribes
  • The children and grandchildren of people who lived through the Great Depression
  • Effects of the Cold War, World Wars I & II, the Vietnam War, or conflicts in the Middle East
  • Shaming of immigrants relocating from other countries that can be passed down to younger generations in the form of negative beliefs and harmful self-talk
  • Children of parents that committed suicide who will often be at higher risk of suicide themselves.

The concept of historical trauma includes the traumatic event itself and the aftermath which can continue to affect communities for generations. These consequences can include cultural dislocation, loss of language and traditions, systemic racism, poverty, and various health disparities.

What is Climate Change Trauma?

Climate change trauma, also known as ecological grief or climate grief, refers to the emotional distress caused by the negative effects of climate change. This can include feelings of loss, fear, frustration, anger, guilt, helplessness, and sadness linked to personal experiences or awareness of climate change and its impact on people, ecosystems, and the planet.

Climate change trauma is a growing concern for mental health professionals, as they recognize the need to help individuals cope with these emotions. The sources of climate change trauma can be diverse:

  1. Direct Experience: Individuals who have directly experienced climate-related disasters (like wildfires, floods, hurricanes, or droughts) may experience traumatic stress, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  2. Anxiety and Uncertainty: Even those who have not personally experienced a disaster can feel anxiety, stress, and fear about the future due to the predicted impacts of climate change. This is sometimes referred to as “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety”.
  3. Loss and Grief: Individuals may experience feelings of grief related to the loss of biodiversity, ecosystems, or ways of life tied to specific environments.
  4. Community Disruption: Climate change can lead to displacement, social instability, and community dissolution, which can be a source of trauma.
  5. Intergenerational Trauma: The impacts of climate change can also contribute to intergenerational trauma, as current generations worry about the world future generations will inherit.

 

How is Trauma Passed Down?

Trauma may be passed down in numerous ways. Some ways trauma can be passed down include:

  • DNA modifications
  • in utero
  • memory
  • cultural messages and conditioning
  • cultural patterns
  • cumulative emotional wounding
  • dominant family narratives
  • normalization of hatred, cruelty, and dehumanization toward others
  • parents bypassing or not coping with their trauma
  • aggressions and micro-aggressions

What is Epigenetics?

In the 1990s, researchers began to look at the biological mechanisms of intergenerational trauma via epigenetics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.”

Epigenetics provides a framework for understanding how a person’s behaviors and environment—like diet, stress, and trauma—can influence the health of an individual and their descendants. These factors can cause genetic changes, which may then be passed down to future generations. These changes in gene expression don’t involve alterations to the DNA itself; instead, they may turn certain genes ‘on’ or ‘off.’

The body responds to trauma by releasing stress hormones which leads to fight, flight, or freeze responses. If the trauma is particularly severe or chronic, it can affect the balance of hormones in the body that regulate gene expression. This alteration can then be inherited by the next generation, leading them to be more susceptible to stress or trauma.

These epigenetic marks can be altered throughout a person’s lifetime. In some cases, these changes may be reversed or mitigated through interventions such as lifestyle changes, therapy, and medication. In this sense, epigenetics offers both a note of caution, in terms of the potential long-term impact of our behaviors and experiences, and a message of hope, since it suggests the possibility of change and recovery not only for individuals but also for their future generations.

 

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References

Augustinavicius, J. L., Lowe, S. R., Massazza, A., Hayes, K., Denckla, C., White, R. G., Cabán-Alemán, C., Clayton, S., Verdeli, L., Berry, H. (2021) Global climate change and trauma: An International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Briefing Paper. Retrieved from: https://istss.org/public-resources/istss-briefing-papers/briefing-paper-global-climate-change-andtrauma 

Thompson, Joanna. (2023). Climate Trauma Is Rewiring Our Brains Into Something Alarmingly Worse. https://www.thedailybeast.com/climate-disaster-trauma-is-rewiring-our-brains-into-something-alarmingly-worse

Grennan, G.K., Withers, M.C., Ramanathan, D.K., Mishra, J. (2023). Differences in interference processing and frontal brain function with climate trauma from California’s deadliest wildfire. https://journals.plos.org/climate/article?id=10.1371/journal.pclm.0000125

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