Can You Stop the Cycle of Generational Trauma?

Generational Trauma

We clearly see the physical attributes we receive from previous generations, like hair or eye color, but there’s so much more we inherit that we don’t see—including our family’s emotional history. Your parents’ or grandparents’ anxieties, fears, prejudices, phobias, and more, often become yours too, passed down through behaviors, cultural expectations, and even your genes.

 

 

For those who have never experienced trauma firsthand, yet suffer from inexplicable symptoms of PTSD and other mental health issues, it can be a great relief to learn that generational trauma may be the source. Click To Tweet

In the same way previous generations pass on genetic characteristics to you, research shows that they also pass along “acquired” or epigenetic characteristics born out of emotionally charged, traumatic experiences. It’s called generational trauma (or ancestral trauma), and it can be a powerful influence in your life as it can increase your vulnerability to a number of mental health conditions.

For those who have never experienced trauma firsthand, yet suffer from inexplicable symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues—such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, dissociation, hypervigilance, shame, guilt, and more—it can be a great relief to learn that ancestral trauma may be the source.

UNDERSTANDING GENERATIONAL TRAUMA

Generational trauma may begin with a traumatic event affecting an individual, or a traumatic event(s) affecting multiple family members, or collective trauma affecting the larger community, cultural, racial, ethnic, or other groups/populations (known as a historical trauma). While ancestral trauma has the potential to affect us all, those at the greatest risk are in families and groups that have experienced significant forms of abuse, neglect, torture, oppression, and racial disparities. It’s common in the progeny of war refugees and victims of enslavement, genocide, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty.

Researchers first noted generational trauma in the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the Holocaust. Findings from a study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research show that children and grandchildren of survivors are at higher risk of anxiety disorders and PTSD.  Another study in the American Journal of Psychotherapy found that among referrals to a child psychiatry clinic, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented by 300% compared to their peers. Research has shown similar effects in the descendants of many other historical traumas. That’s not surprising since children of a parent struggling with PTSD are 3 times more likely to have PTSD themselves.

Generational trauma is also present in families where there has been significant emotional trauma such as divorce, tragic accidents or losses, abandonment, parental incarceration, substance abuse, a death by suicide, or early death of a family member. These traumas have lasting consequences. For example, with early death, the nervous system can be so deeply impacted that it changes the nature of family members’ genes, which can affect offspring for generations.

Negative parenting behavior can be a source of trauma as well. When parents have unresolved trauma, their parenting can be negatively impacted by depression, substance abuse, mental illness, and other conditions. They can become less attuned as parents and model negative coping skills. They may even become perpetrators of their own trauma; sexual abuse is often repeated in families for generations.

Ancestral trauma has been shown to affect the brain. A large 2019 study found that the children of parents with depression had smaller volume in the pleasure centers of their brain, which placed them at risk of developing depression themselves.

STOPPING GENERATIONAL TRAUMA

The great news is that ancestral trauma can be stopped, but it will not go away on its own. Families can make resilience their new legacy by actively seeking to address the trauma. Building resilience through open and loving communication between generations is one of the best ways to loosen generational trauma’s grip. Healing happens when family members speak up and work through any hurt, pain, or abuse from the past.

If you are a parent, mental health experts suggest that you seek your own support and share your trauma openly with your children and possibly your grandchildren too. Tell them your story and whatever you know about what happened to your parents and your grandparents.

If you are an adult child of parents or grandparents who may have trauma, ask them about their experiences. Find out as much as you can about your ancestry. Notice any automatic patterns, beliefs, or narratives from your family that you continue to portray. Talk through them with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist and consider new ways of being and communicating. Start creating a future for yourself without the pain of inherited trauma.

Innovative therapies can be very helpful in resolving generational trauma. For example, somatic therapy is a type of trauma therapy that involves paying close attention to your inner body sensations as a way to regulate emotions. Also, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can be a very powerful treatment for people who have been emotionally traumatized. It uses eye movements or other alternate hemisphere stimulation to remove the emotional charges of traumatic memories.

If you suspect generational trauma may be affecting you, reach out to a qualified mental health professional for help. The anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues you experience may not be all yours.

Generational trauma and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

17 Comments »

  1. Circumcision of recent generations is getting less common. Would it show in a brain scan where clothing stimulates the bare glans which the organism somehow consciously or not has to suppress?

    Comment by Brian Sandle — April 29, 2022 @ 3:54 AM

  2. As a LMFT, I have worked with children who were adopted at birth due to parental inability to keep their children safe. I noted while the adopted child was raised in a positive environment, the child exhibited PTSD/anxiety behaviors.

    Comment by Elaine Pike — April 29, 2022 @ 6:26 AM

  3. Both parents lost their Dads at 6 or 7. Saved everything, Both poor.
    Reared frugally. Good steward of money.
    Grandmother told me to have and keep my money in my name only.
    She was so right. Thank the Lord, my daughter did the same.

    Comment by Nancy Friel Huey — April 29, 2022 @ 6:46 AM

  4. I have always known I had issues because of my childhood. My father was horribly disabled,my mother supported us. I am an only child who used food as comfort when I came home from school with no one but my father until 5 pm. I was teased because of the aforementioned issues.

    Comment by Beth Marjean Rickert — April 29, 2022 @ 9:55 AM

  5. Therapy & EMDR has been instrumental to my trauma healing! No matter your trauma, Jesus heals all who come to Him. Surrender all to Him and He will meet you where you are. He will embrace you, love you & care for you like no one on earth can because He is your Creator. He is your Heavenly Father. I have learned first hand to live from a place of already being loved by Jesus, and that is enough, vs needing to be loved. Jesus is the only one that can fill that emptiness with love His Love.

    Comment by Pam Selders — April 29, 2022 @ 10:07 AM

  6. I suffered from anxiety throughout my life. Thanks to doing genealogy over the decades I discovered that some of my ancestors went through the Irish famine, had committed suicide, were alcoholics, went through violent earthquakes, went through the Great Depression and other poverty, and one was violently murdered. Some were probably slaves as well. I stay away from alcohol, make sure I have enough food and money, don’t go out late at night, and keep bugout bags near the front door.

    Comment by Alisa Austin — April 29, 2022 @ 10:38 AM

  7. I’ve always had a problem when in my eyes someone wasn’t doing the “right” thing. If I felt slighted etc I would quit a job. Although I was aware my childhood left me scarred until now at 70 yrs have I put it together my attitude with companies and bosses had a lot to do with my childhood

    Comment by Linda Brown — April 29, 2022 @ 11:02 AM

  8. Elaine,
    In my 35 years of private practice, I have encountered many children and adults, with these types of symptoms of anxiety and depression for which the only explanation I could see was intergenerational trauma. I have successfully worked with them with Neurofeedback, training their brains into better self regulation and resiliency. It has been rewarding work.

    Comment by Hanno Kirk — April 29, 2022 @ 11:38 AM

  9. I find your comment “If you are a parent, mental health experts suggest that you seek your own support and share your trauma openly with your children and possibly your grandchildren too. Tell them your story and whatever you know about what happened to your parents and your grandparents.” scary. This should have included a caveat regarding appropriateness to the age and maturity of the children, discernment regarding the context and degree of what is shared, and that there are risks/benefits with the disclosure, e.g., possible abreaction when children may not know how to handle what’s being disclosed. Working with a therapist to proceed with such disclosure would be prudent. No question that appropriate openness in the right way can be beneficial, but it needs to be well thought through before undertaken.

    Comment by Robert Campbell — April 29, 2022 @ 1:54 PM

  10. I am an adult child of deceased alcoholic parents who were in AA. My mother was also bipolar and she had been sexually abused as a child. I had many years of therapy as an adult. There aren’t enough words to thank the therapist for all of her help.

    Comment by Anne — April 30, 2022 @ 5:50 AM

  11. I notice that when most people think of trauma they can only think of the Holocaust which was definitely a travesty. But. What about the trans Atlantic slave trade and Slavery itself?

    Comment by Lawana King Obi — April 30, 2022 @ 8:02 AM

  12. I find this absolutely fabulous.My family has a history of the most horrific issues in both sides as the elder s passed the family has been disconnected,We have the young actually acting out on their grandparents and parents,disrespectful even criminal.But I’ve seen it for years and have taken steps to heal my immediate family.

    Comment by Denise Eugene — April 30, 2022 @ 5:14 PM

  13. Me. R. Campbell ‘s approach to generational trauma is very wise. Consideration of the children ‘s ages and emotional maturity is a factor that cannot be ignored. If revealing all past trauma is done inappropriately more harm than good could be the result. You mean for the revelations to heal not harm. I personally feel that type of process should be done carefully.

    Comment by Lilla E. Wuerpel — April 30, 2022 @ 5:37 PM

  14. It may be helpful to explore epigenetics. Genes can be silenced by environment such as starvation of the potato famine. Or activated I am not sure which. The body may prepare for famine by activating a “thrifty” gene then when food comes back to easily available the affected people may store too much fat. The silencing of a gene may be passed on to offspring through several generations. (Sins of the fathers?) So should look up whether exaggerated fear and flight response might be epigenetically inherited?

    Comment by Brian Sandle — May 1, 2022 @ 10:19 PM

  15. An addition to my comment at April 29, 2022 @ 3:54 AM: please remember clothing in Old Testament or Muhammad’s day would have been much more loose fitting.

    Comment by Brian Sandle — May 2, 2022 @ 4:50 AM

  16. I found this article extremely interesting. I had already considered that that the lynching of my great grandfather’s brother (while my great grandfather was hiding) because he was Sicilian, along with 2 other men affected first my great grandfather, which affected his children (14) and then my father who was raised until age 16 by his grandfather. My father had explosive rages, acute anxiety that was untreated until the last 6 years of his 91 years. Events in the lives of myself and my 2 sisters clearly reflect the emotional trauma that was created with that lynching and passed from generation to generation. We all had/have issues with generalized anxiety and forms of PTSD. Once I sort of figured out that this lynching on Aug 8, 1896 was affecting all those that came after, I began to be able to forgive. Thank you for this.

    Comment by Brenda N McLain — May 4, 2022 @ 9:57 PM

  17. Can u have trauma from going to the dentist before the cornivirus shots were available,and being nervous

    Comment by Lance Pacetti — May 20, 2022 @ 6:45 PM

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