Generational trauma affects individuals, families, and entire communities. The consequences and potential causes of generational trauma are not entirely understood. However, researchers have proven trauma can be passed on from parents to children through social, psychological, behavioral, and biological means. Individuals experiencing generational trauma have a higher risk of developing substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health issues. In addition, according to Frontiers in Psychiatry, “Women who reported childhood trauma and substance use and co-occurring disorders are at increased risk of developing an intergenerational cycle of abuse.” Emerge Recovery TX provides trauma therapy to help women heal from trauma and reduce their risk of continuing the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
Defining Generational Trauma
Generational trauma refers to psychological distress passed down through generations. The side effects of generational trauma are often caused by group or parental exposure to highly traumatic events. Individuals who experience or witness traumatic events while also struggling with generational or historical trauma have a higher risk of developing severe, complex, or persistent mental health issues.
The Historical Context
Researchers have proven descendants of individuals who experience severe trauma are more likely to develop trauma-related physical or psychological health issues. According to World Psychiatry, “The concept of intergenerational trauma was introduced in the psychiatric literature through descriptions of behavioral and clinical problems in offspring of Holocaust survivors.”
The Origins of Generational Trauma
Generational trauma starts when an individual or community is subjected to traumatic events. Often, trauma impacting future generations is compounded by multiple distressing events happening consecutively or concurrently. For example, a mother may experience domestic abuse and malnutrition due to a lack of access to regular meals. The combination could affect any children she has while experiencing the effects of those traumas.
Traumatic Events in History
Many traumatic events have taken place throughout history with a prolonged effect on following generations. Some examples of traumatic events in history include:
- World War I and II
- Vietnam war
- Korean war
- Boston Marathon bombing
- AIDS pandemic
- Colonization of America
Descents of the communities involved in these events may struggle with generational or historical trauma. A few of the most common effects of generational trauma include fear, anxiety, and depression.
Communities Historically Affected
Historically, minority communities are more likely to be affected by generational trauma. A small handful of the minority communities in America subjected to generational trauma include:
- Indigenous tribes
- African Americans
- Religious minorities
- Hispanic and Latino Americans
- Asian Americans
American history is littered with instances of individuals, communities, and cultures being mistreated and abused. Trauma resulting from those interactions may have caused some individuals to pass down trauma-related behaviors and mental health issues.
The Science Behind Generational Trauma
Mothers may pass on trauma to children. According to Complex Psychiatry, in one study, it was revealed that “the offspring of young mothers who had experienced greater stress had increased psychiatric morbidity than those whose mothers had experienced less traumatic stress.” Not all children of parents with a history of trauma experience mental health disorders and symptoms related to trauma. In some cases, people remain healthy and able to cope with stressors regardless of any trauma their loved ones or community may have faced in the past.
The Brain and Trauma
Trauma has a significant effect on the brain. According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, “Stress results in acute and chronic changes in neurochemical systems and specific brain regions, which result in longterm changes in brain ‘circuits,’ involved in the stress response.”
Areas of the brain most affected by trauma and chronic stress include:
- Prefrontal cortex
Changes to the brain may affect how people experience and cope with everyday stressors.
Epigenetics and Genetic Memory
Trauma is passed down through generations in various ways. Epigenetics are potentially heritable changes within a person’s genome caused by environmental events, including trauma exposure. According to the previously mentioned article by World Psychiatry, despite evidence epigenetics may be influenced by parental trauma, “Research on epigenetic inheritance of effects of trauma faces many scientific and methodological complexities, not to mention conceptual issues regarding interpretation of transmitted effects.” Currently, there are no hard facts about the contribution of epigenetics and genetic memory on trauma responses in adults. More research is necessary in this area of study.
Generational trauma may cause some behavioral changes to influence the next generation through biological and behavioral methods of transference. According to Communications Biology, “[T]rauma exposure during pregnancy induces in mouse offspring social deficits and depressive-like behavior. Normal pups raised by traumatized mothers exhibited similar behavioral deficits to those induced in pups raised by their biological traumatized mothers. Good caregiving by normal mothers did not reverse prenatal trauma-induced behaviors, indicating a two-hit stress mechanism comprising both in-utero abnormalities and early-life poor parenting.” The research into how trauma spreads through generations makes it clear future generations are impacted by the community’s response to the health and well-being of each individual.
Verbal Narratives and Storytelling
Storytelling is one way people communicate and process traumas. People share their trauma with new generations as a way to pass on lessons learned from traumatic events. Storytelling is a method of transferring traumas from one generation to the next. The pain of knowing what an ancestor experienced can cause people to develop unhealthy patterns of thoughts or behaviors. Generational trauma is often passed down, at least partially through storytelling.
The behavioral patterns of caregivers and other adults affect people from a very young age. Infants are often impacted for life by the behavioral patterns of parental figures. In addition, entire communities may adopt behavioral changes due to shared trauma and transfer them to the next generation, extending the effects of the trauma. For example, children who grow up in environments with domestic abuse may grow up to experience anxiety and have difficulty trusting others.
Cultural and Societal Norms
Social expectations and cultural traditions change when communities experience a shared trauma. According to Elsevier, “While personal, familial, social, and cultural factors can be a positive resource contributing to safety and well-being, they also can be a basis for placing the person, group, or entire community or population in harm’s way or at heightened risk of developing [post-traumatic stress disorder]” and other trauma-related issues. Societal norms have the potential to target cultures and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Communities reduce the effects of generational trauma by being mindful of how societal norms affect all individuals and their well-being.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of generational trauma vary significantly depending on multiple factors, including the type of trauma, how many people were affected, and the stigmas surrounding the trauma.
Emotional and Psychological Manifestations
Some of the psychological manifestations of generation trauma include:
- Fear of death or persecution
- Decreased ability to cope with stress
- Increased risk of substance abuse and mental health disorders
- Hyperarousal and hyper vigilance
- Increased risk of experiencing severe traumas, including domestic violence and sexual abuse
Some of the physical side effects of generational or historical trauma include:
- Chronic pain
- Increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and other severe health issues
- High blood pressure
The physical effects vary significantly depending on the cause of the trauma and how it was passed between generations.
Real-World Cases and Studies
According to the Administration of Children and Families (ACF), “Historical trauma is multigenerational trauma experienced by a specific cultural, racial or ethnic group. It is related to major events that oppressed a particular group of people because of their status as oppressed, such as slavery, the Holocaust, forced migration, and the violent colonization of Native Americans.” Historical trauma can manifest as physical, emotional, or behavioral issues. However, not everyone within the same cultural group will experience historical or generational trauma. Researchers are still uncertain why these conditions affect some people and not others. Multiple factors may play a role in determining who shares these forms of trauma.
Holocaust Survivors and Descendants
The Holocaust was a genocide of European Jews and other minority groups during World War II. According to the previously mentioned article in Elsevier, “The term historical trauma has been coined to describe the traumatic impact that racially or ethnoculturally based genocide has on not only the immediate targets but moreover on their progeny for generations afterward.”
Survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants have experienced significant mental and physical health issues caused by generational trauma related to the event. In 1966, psychologist Vivian M. Rakoff and her colleagues were some of the first researchers to use the term generational trauma when studying the effects of the emotional distress of families who survived the Holocaust. Researchers noted children of Holocaust survivors reported mental and physical health issues caused by their parent’s exposure to trauma.
Descendants of Slavery
In America, slavery primarily affected Black individuals and families forcibly brought into the country. Other minorities also experienced slavery. However, systemic racism within the institution of America has primarily affected African Americans. According to the Delaware Journal of Public Health, “Many African Americans in the United States have been impacted by structural racism since slavery and continue to experience trauma because of health disparities, economic disadvantages, and segregation.” The first step toward combatting generational trauma among African Americans includes acknowledging systemic racism and finding positive ways to address the deep hurt and pain caused to generations of Black Americans. Policy changes and community education are a few ways the country can address these issues.
Descendants of communities subjected to slavery benefit from having a space where they can share their thoughts and feelings about the cultural harm caused by systemic racism. Support groups, individual therapy, and professional mental health programs provide people with a safe space to explore various forms of self-expression. Emerge Recovery TX encourages women to engage with peers and find healthy ways to address the effects of generational trauma.
Indigenous Peoples and Colonialism
The Indigenous peoples in America have been subjected to some of the most brutal traumas in the country’s history. The abuse directed at Indigenous peoples has rarely been acknowledged and continues to have a devastating effect on individuals and families.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “Over the past century, the U.S. child welfare system has had a history of continuous violations against American Indian families and children in the name of ‘helping.'” In addition, “Members of Tribal nations have experienced many inequities resulting from child welfare intervention, including through Federal Government policies that forced the removal of Native children from their homes and placed them in boarding schools, which led to the separation of families.”
The boarding schools where Indigenous children were placed forced them to stop practicing cultural traditions, stripping the children of their cultural identity. Indigenous peoples continue to experience systemic racism and the effects of historical trauma.
The Impact on Identity
A person’s identity is often tied to their culture and family history. Below are several ways historical and generational trauma impacts a person’s identity.
#1. Personal Identity and Self-Worth
Individuals with low self-worth have a higher risk of developing substance abuse and mental health disorders. Generational and historical trauma impact how a person views themselves and their place in the world. Many people struggle with low self-worth when they are a part of a family or community affected by past atrocities.
#2. Community and Cultural Identity
Many cultures value community engagement and rely on community interactions to retain traditions and pass them on to future generations. Historical and generational trauma can stop traditions from being shared. In some cases, entire communities lose their cultural traditions.
Interventions and Healing
Healing from the effects of generational trauma takes time and hard work. Emerge Recovery TX uses evidence-based methods, trauma-informed care, and alternative holistic therapies to help women process and heal from generational trauma.
Therapy and Counseling Approaches
Individual therapy and counseling help clients process traumas and find healthy ways to manage the side effects caused by generational trauma. Some of the most common therapeutic methods include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Mindfulness-based therapies
- Alternative holistic therapies
Emerge Recovery TX collaborates with clients to determine which treatment approach and services provide the best support. Clinicians use therapy and counseling to help women heal and reconnect with their culture or family history.
Community Healing and Group Interventions
Communities affected by historical or generational trauma benefit from coming together and supporting one another. Peer engagement and group interventions are excellent ways to empower one another while acknowledging the pain of past trauma. Emerge Recovery TX uses group therapy and support groups to help clients navigate recovery and share their journey with peers.
Cultural Reconnection and Revival
Cultures affected by historical trauma can unite and find ways to revive lost traditions. Indigenous tribes and other groups often incorporate cultural connections into local communities.
Prevention and Breaking the Cycle
Breaking the cycle is the best way to avoid future generations being harmed by past traumas. Communities and individuals reduce the risk of descents experiencing substance abuse or mental health disorders by preventing the next cycle of generational trauma. Individuals and community leaders are responsible for educating and supporting people affected by generational and historical trauma.
Educating the Next Generation
Schools, families, and communities can educate the next generation to ensure they avoid causing trauma and learn to effectively cope with any lingering psychological effects of trauma experienced by past generations. Education should be objective and state the facts of past events instead of sugarcoating them or using a false narrative to push a specific ideology. Factual, historically-based education allows people to understand the origins of past trauma without repeating it.
The Role of Society and Institutions
Society should treat everyone with respect and compassion. However, often systemic racism and other issues cause society and institutions to mistreat or abuse specific individuals and communities. Societal changes start with individuals. Everyone plays a role in reducing systemic racism and other social problems.
Individual and Collective Responsibilities
Everyone is responsible for treating others with respect and civility, regardless of cultural background or personal beliefs. Society would benefit from taking collective responsibility for protecting future generations from the horrors of the past. According to Frontiers in Psychology, “Collective trauma is a devastating event in a group’s history that has far-reaching effects and profoundly influences both perpetrator and victim groups many years after the events have ended.” Each group can collectively acknowledge the trauma and find a healthy path forward. Emerge Recovery TX uses evidence-based treatments to help women navigate recovery from individual and group trauma.
Generational trauma affects millions of individuals and families each year. The effects of trauma can be passed down from generation to generation through biological, behavioral, and psychological mechanisms. Everyone responds to generational trauma in different ways. Many people experience increased stress and anxiety in their everyday lives due to the traumas of previous generations. The best way to reduce the negative side effects of generational and historical trauma is through community support and education. Emerge Recovery TX uses evidence-based methods to help women recover from trauma and related issues. Clinicians help clients connect with their cultural community and recover from the effects of generational trauma. To learn more about our programs and services, call us today at (737) 237-9663.