Inherited trauma can make deep imprints on your overall well-being. Here’s how digging into your past might help your present and future self.
The trauma responses you experience today can sometimes be rooted in past experiences you may not have been present for orginally.
Maybe you weren’t abused growing up, but your parents or grandparents were. Maybe you didn’t face discrimination or live through a war, but your great-grandparents did.
We all have different responses to stress and traumatic events, with the most common being fight, flight, or freeze. There are nuances of each different response, including hyper-independence and people-pleasing.
What happens during those stress responses may be related to intergenerational trauma and can affect both your mental and physical wellness.
Intergenerational trauma is essentially what happens when adverse events or experiences are passed down from one generation to the next, often in unspoken and deeply complex ways.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), intergenerational trauma is expressed when the descendant of someone who experienced a traumatic event presents challenging emotional and behavioral reactions that are similar to their ancestor or relative.
Historical trauma is closely related, as it is intergenerational trauma experienced by a specific cultural, racial, or ethnic group of people.
In other words, the root of our triggers can be as much — if not more — about the past than the present.
Anyone can experience intergenerational trauma, and some may argue that everyone experiences this phenomenon to some degree.
However, people from marginalized groups — such as People of Color and those in lower socioeconomic classes for generations — may have more pronounced experiences with intergenerational trauma.
Those who are descendants of people who have experienced violence from living in war zones and other hardships — such as World War II, effects of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, or conflicts in the Middle East — may also be more likely to experience intergenerational trauma.
Historical trauma and marginalized groups
Historical trauma was first discussed in relation to survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants. But this type of intergenerational trauma also affects many other groups of marginalized communities, including:
- Japanese Americans with ties to Japanese internment during World War II
- Black and African American people
- those of Vietnamese and Cambodian descent
- Australian Aboriginal tribes
- those belonging to North and South American Indigenous tribes, especially descendants of the Indian Reservation Schools in Canada and the United States
“We inherit pain. When it’s not coped with, it gets passed again,” said Merissa Nathan Gerson, author of “Forget Prayers, Bring Cake,” a visiting assistant professor of communications at Tulane University, and inherited trauma consultant for Amazon’s “Transparent” series.
Trauma can be transmitted in many ways — from our genetics to conversations at the dinner table.
The late psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff, PhD first introduced the concept of intergenerational trauma in his 1966 paper on children of Holocaust survivors. The conversation of exactly how trauma is transmitted was contested for decades following Rakoff’s paper.
Some experts in the medical community attributed intergenerational trauma to the stress of living with a traumatized person who may still be reliving horrific events. Others attributed intergenerational trauma to children becoming “containers” for their parents’ unwanted pain.
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.”
Some ways trauma can be passed down include:
- DNA modifications
- in utero
- 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
Intergenerational trauma can affect individuals and families in different ways.
How families are impacted
Intergenerational trauma can bring some families closer emotionally, while causing other families to drift apart.
There are many ways intergenerational trauma might affect families, including:
- impaired self‐esteem stemming from minimization of the child’s own life experiences in comparison to the parents’ trauma
- trauma bonding, or an emotional connection between an abuser and their target
How individuals are impacted
Author Merissa Nathan Gerson’s great-grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, and other relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.
When she was growing up on the East Coast of the United States, her family spoke of the horrors of gas chambers at the dinner table. To this day, she avoids saunas.
In a graduate school dance class in her mid-20s, Gerson’s professor instructed the class to dance freely. But Gerson couldn’t, and found herself balled up on the floor. When her professor later instructed the class to “listen to their bodies,” Gerson felt gripped with grief.
“It was very taboo for me to even claim that the grieving I was doing was related to what happened before my family got to this country,” she says.
“I was profoundly aware that the past was living in me. And I had to figure out the language to unfold that. It took me a decade to find the language to explain that,” she says.
Trauma and stress can increase the chances of chronic pain, certain illnesses, and behaviors that can impact wellness, including:
- depression and suicidal ideation
- poor sleep hygiene
- heart disease
- substance use disorders (SUD)
Black Americans are consistently discussed for a higher likelihood of chronic diseases and cancer, often with the solution including a better diet and accompanying exercise.
It’s true that moving your body and eating well are helpful for everyone and barriers to accessing tools for wellness are also highlighted within these studies and conversations.
However, the direct connection between intergenerational trauma — which is often exacerbated by the chronic stress of discrimination in the present — and these conditions often goes unnamed.
A 1997 study demonstrated the connection between descendants of those affected by Japanese-American internment camps and cardiovascular disease, and more recent findings on disparities of COVID-19 contraction within Black and Indigenous communities.
In addition to physical sensations of stress and illnesses, other symptoms of intergenerational trauma, according to the APA, include:
- a heightened sense of vulnerability and helplessness
- low self-esteem
- intrusive thoughts
- difficulty with relationships and attachment to others
- difficulty in regulating aggression
- extreme reactivity to stress
Even if someone with inherited trauma expects recovery to be an ongoing process, there are ways to care for yourself along the way. This can include practices that encourage being in tune with your body.
It’s important to note that healing intergenerational trauma often looks different for everyone. For Gerson, her journey was more about honoring the full story of her family in all of its complexity. “It’s a matter of finding a way to live with a story without obscuring or deleting it,” she says.
As with any form of healing or intervention, there is no one path to healing intergenerational trauma and no set definition of what it means to heal. Acknowledging the validity of the trauma and where it comes from is an important step in adequately holding space for those experiencing it.
What therapies can help for people facing intergenerational trauma?
For those who would like to seek traditional treatment options for intergenerational trauma, there are several therapeutic tools.
Certain types of therapy that are effective for addressing trauma may show promise for those with intergenerational trauma, such as:
- Psychoanalysis. Some
2020 researchsuggests that psychoanalysis can help reduce transmission of intergenerational trauma, both in people who have experienced it and their children.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Through gentle tapping, this treatment can help form new ways of thinking about trauma in addition to reprocessing traumatic events.
- Somatic therapy. Since trauma can live in the body, a somatic or body-centered approach to coping with trauma may not only help you become aware of your body, but can also reprogram your nervous system.
- Internal family systems (IFS). Therapists trained in internal family systems (IFS) can help you bring together various parts of your personality into one whole “self.” They may also incorporate genograms, a visual representation of a family structure, into the therapeutic process, which can help you understand your lineage in new ways.
- Prolonged exposure therapy (PE). Often used for PTSD, prolonged exposure therapy involves confronting the source of your fear to reduce anxiety around it.
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT). This form of therapy helps you challenge and shift unhelpful beliefs surrounding trauma that may make you feel “stuck,” and is often used for PTSD.
Through examining what intergenerational trauma you may carry, you have the opportunity to pass along new healthy coping skills to the next generation.
In his book “It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle,” author Mark Wolynn writes, “Remaining silent about family pain is rarely an effective strategy for healing it. The suffering will surface again at a later time, often expressing in the fears or symptoms of a later generation.”
Wolynn urges readers to consider the alternative of not honoring your whole story, both as individuals and as a society. “Until we uncover the actual triggering event in our family history, we can relive fears and feelings that don’t belong to us — unconscious fragments of a trauma — and we will think they’re ours.”
Creating space and supporting the coping needs of people who come from lineages of trauma is often the best move, rather than attempting to “fix” or remove the pain.
Cultural competency, which can be derived from intentional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work and adequate representation, can aid in these efforts.
Taking action in small steps over time to evaluate and gain awareness of intergenerational trauma while caring for yourself can help ensure that you pass healing on to the next generation.