What is Transgenerational Trauma?

We are familiar with many things that get passed down through the family line. Transgenerational trauma is a new field of study, referring to the passing down of symptoms resulting from traumatic events. Researchers continue to discover more about the impacts of trauma passed on from generation to generation.   

Defining Transgenerational Trauma

Transgenerational trauma is trauma extending from one generation to the next. Clinical psychologist Melanie English, Ph.D., explains, “It can be silent, covert, and undefined, surfacing through nuances and inadvertently taught or implied throughout someone’s life from an early age onward.” For example, transgenerational trauma was first recognized following the psychological distress within children of Holocaust survivors. 

Even the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors represented an overwhelming rate of psychiatric care referrals. It is believed that high levels of psychological stress can have adverse effects on children and grandchildren. In many cases, this may result in depression, anxiety, and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Many professionals agree that trauma impacts genetic processes, “leading to traumatic reactivity being heightened in populations who experience a great deal of trauma.”

When Does Unresolved Trauma Become Transgenerational?

The main idea of transgenerational trauma is that when someone experiences trauma, they may pass the behaviors and symptoms on to their children. This may be reinstated to a point where it is continuously passed throughout the family line. 

A standard example of transgenerational, or intergenerational, trauma is childhood abuse. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for abuse to pass through generations. Childhood abuse sometimes causes a cycle of anxiety and abuse from generation to generation. Other examples of trauma that may become transgenerational include:

  • Violent or sudden death within the family
  • Crime against a family 
  • Extreme poverty 
  • A parent who fought in a war
  • Torture of a family member 

Historical trauma is another form of transgenerational trauma. This refers to collective trauma experienced by many people or an entire generation, and this goes back to the Holocaust example. Similarly, Native American children within Canada or the United States face generational trauma. Other examples may include:

  • Famine
  • Slavery
  • War
  • Terrorism
  • Natural disaster
  • Displacement

Who Is Vulnerable?

Any person is susceptible to transgenerational trauma, though specific populations are more vulnerable because of their histories. Enduring continual poverty, racism, or abuse is enough to cause genetic changes. Studies show African Americans in the United States are particularly vulnerable. 

In terms of natural disasters, the 2004 tsunami in Asia is believed to have a traumatic impact for generations to come. Countries that have been in war for decades are reported to be more vulnerable to transgenerational trauma. Another subgroup vulnerable to this type of trauma is people who continuously face sexual abuse, domestic violence, or hate crimes. 

Symptoms of Transgenerational Trauma

Those who experience transgenerational trauma may express a variety of symptoms. These symptoms may include:

  • A sense of a shortened future 
  • Aloofness
  • Mistrust
  • Panic attacks
  • High anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nightmares
  • A sensitive fight or flight response
  • Insomnia
  • Self-esteem and self-confidence issues 

Experts believe that trauma can have a severe impact on the immune system. Trauma may lead to an overactive or not active enough immune system. It can also influence the microglia, which is the brain’s immune system. In a trauma-reactive state, instead of enhancing growth and getting rid of damage, microglia eats away at nerve endings. This may translate into anxiety, depression, and dementia. After a long period, this can translate into changes within an individual’s genetics, which can ultimately be passed down generationally. 

Transgenerational TraumaHow Is It Diagnosed?

Transgenerational trauma does not have a specific diagnosis. It is understood that trauma can manifest itself through flight or flight, stress, or anxiety. Trauma is capable of expressing itself through behaviors, ingrained patterns, and beliefs, too. Experts believe this type of learned belief can impact an individual’s views of the world, relationships, personalities, parenting, and communication. 

Unresolved trauma in families, especially where trauma is continuously repeated, somehow enables particular trauma to continue. Incest is an unfortunate traumatic experience that is often generationally repeated. Experts believe the awful experience becomes accepted over time as the family becomes desensitized and powerless about it happening again and again. This can create a cycle that inadvertently enables the trauma to continue generationally. 

Inheriting Trauma

Trauma can’t be passed along in a literal sense. No person can experience what another has gone through. Since each person is unique, there are no two exact feelings or experiences between different people. What is passed on, though, is the symptoms that occur after surviving a traumatic event. 

Symptoms are passed on generationally by learned behavior. Since trauma can impact the way an individual parents, it directly affects the upbringing of their child or children. Parenting and how an individual acts affect the way a child behaves and thinks as they grow older. Trauma may have an impact on:

  • The stories an individual tells their children
  • The activities a parent decides to do with their child versus activities a parent decides not to do with their child
  • The parent’s ability to offer their child a healthy or unhealthy attachment
  • The inadvertent personal values, core beliefs, and perspective a parent teaches their child 

DNA and Transgenerational Trauma 

New studies suggest that people inherit trauma not only in a behavioral sense but also through epigenetics. Epigenetics suggests that DNA may change as a result of the way people lead their lives. The controversial study attempted to replicate studies done on animals that showed epigenetics concerning the transmission of stress from generation to generation. 

The study found a positive link between Holocaust victim’s blood samples and their offspring. The offspring sample showed different stress hormone profiles than others. The stress hormones made them more susceptible to PTSD. Ultimately, the results indicated a connection between “parental stress before a child is conceived, and epigenetic changes that appear in the child.”  

What is PTSD?

transgenerational traumaPTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder, is a disorder that occurs in people after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. Traumatic events vary in severity and vary from person to person since no two individuals feel emotions the same way. Common events that lead to PTSD are natural disasters, terrorist acts, serious accidents, war/combat, rape, near-death experiences, sexual violence, or severe injury. 

People with PTSD tend to have disturbing feelings and thoughts related to the experience long after the traumatic event occurred. In many cases, this is expressed through nightmares or flashbacks. Individuals with PTSD may avoid certain situations that trigger the sadness, anger, or fear they feel from the traumatic event. Those with severe PTSD may have intense reactions to minor events such as an accidental touch or loud noise. 

Four Main Symptoms of PTSD 

  1. Intrusion: Intrusive thoughts may feel like involuntary memories, or they may be distressing dreams or flashbacks of a particular event. Individuals with severe PTSD may feel as though they are constantly re-living the traumatic experience.
  2. Avoidance: To avoid triggering memories, people who have PTSD may avoid reminders of the specific event. This may include avoiding particular activities, objects, people, or places. 
  3. Alterations in mood and cognition: Being unable to remember the event clearly. Potential distorted thoughts about the event may result in wrongly blaming others or the self. Feelings of detachment and inability to experience positive emotions.   
  4. Alterations in reactivity and arousal: These symptoms may include angry outbursts or being irritable. In some cases, people may behave in self-destructive ways or act recklessly. 

What if I Have Transgenerational Trauma?

Unraveling the trauma and symptoms passed down from parents is generally a complicated and lengthy process. Working through trauma with a professional has proven to be the most effective way to deal with unresolved trauma. Transgenerational trauma is a form of PTSD. Specialized therapy programs work with patients with PTSD commonly. 

Treatment for Transgenerational Trauma

Certified and licensed therapists utilize several types of psychotherapy to work with patients with trauma-related issues. Cognitive behavior therapy and group therapy are excellent resources for those looking for help with unresolved trauma or emotions. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a form of psychological treatment that helps with various mental health or addiction issues. Studies show CBT works well in improving people’s quality of life and general functioning. CBT practitioners use CBT to help their patients:

  • Recognize one’s distortions that create problems within their life. Then reevaluate them with a healthier perspective
  • Gain an understanding of other people’s behaviors and motivations
  • Use coping and problem-solving skills to deal with difficult or uncomfortable situations
  • Learn to develop self-confidence and confidence in one’s abilities 

Support Groups

Support groups are beneficial for a variety of mental health issues. Group therapy involves a certified therapist and a group of two or more individuals. During a session, each participant will work through their emotions and challenges while accepting support from their peers. Group environments help create a real-world environment for individuals to practice healthy social and interpersonal skills. General benefits of a support group may include:

  • Feeling less isolated, lonely, or judged
  • Reducing fatigue, anxiety, depression, or distress
  • Ability to talk openly with accepting and open individuals about emotions
  • Improving skills to cope with challenges and uncomfortable situations
  • Staying motivated to work through and manage conditions 

Find Peace Through Addiction Intervention

Many people who deal with trauma look to unhealthy ways to cope with their problematic symptoms. At Addiction Intervention, we offer programs that treat the whole person and manage trauma from its foundation. No one deserves to battle addiction or mental health on their own. If you would like more information or need a resource for treatment, please call us today. 

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