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What is Intergenerational Trauma?

epigenetics family dynamics healing trauma intergenerational trauma mental health toxic relationships Jan 18, 2021
Intergenerational Trauma
 

You have probably heard the words intergenerational trauma being thrown out there from time to time. If you're curious about what it is, then read below.

Intergenerational trauma generally refers to the ways in which trauma experienced in one generation affects the health and well-being of descendants of future generations.

And yes, you heard that right. A whole generation’s acute and chronic stress response can impact another generation. It happens at the intersection of what I like to call the nature nurture effects of intergenerational trauma.

For as long as psychology has existed, we have had theories on how nature (the biological aspects of our experiences) and nurture (the social aspects of how we live our lives) merge to create a psychological experience like trauma. The same is occurring with the world of transgenerational transmission of trauma. Let me break it down a bit for us.

On the nature side, the ways in which biologically we can become predisposed, or vulnerable to trauma responses, is being uncovered through our knowledge of epigenetic. Epigenetics is a field that has helped us understand the ways in which a person who has experienced trauma like abuse, discrimination, poverty, a divorce, and multiple others persistent and pervasive experiences of trauma, tend to have those traumas represented biologically in their bodies.

The body takes note of the stress levels a person experiences by secreting specific hormones (which we call stress hormones) namely cortisol, which tends to be either overproduced through chronic hyperarousal or underproduced through chronic underproduction, both of which are the result of a depletion of internal resources that come up when a person suffers extreme stress. When this is chronic, it has the capacity to then impact the ways that our genes express themselves and create something like a mutation. This becomes the new genetic markers that we carry and that then a mother would then carry in utero and pass on to her baby. The parent’s gene expressions then become the baby’s genetic expressions. 

Now let’s take it to the nurture side. The social factors that are on the other side of intergenerational trauma.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Our assumption here is that we have a parent that has their own trauma. And with trauma, come trauma responses. An example of how a trauma response in a parent is usually in the area of emotional misattunement. This is when the parent has so much internal preoccupation and hyperarousal, that they may miss the mark on tuning into their baby. This can lead to a baby experiencing this misattunement as abandonment or neglect, even if it’s very subtle. This, as many have been able to see, can lead to parent wounds and other types of emotional traumas. Fast forward to when this baby is an adult and they experience stressful life events, because they had an emotional vulnerability, they now also experience trauma.

The symptoms a person can have are symptoms of trauma. Trauma symptoms include but are not limited to the below (please don’t self-diagnose without the help of a trained medical professional):

Mood-Based Symptoms:

  • guilt, shame, anxiety, fear responses, depression, loneliness, loss of interest

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • hypervigilance (coupled with mistrust), irritability, outbursts/hostility, social withdrawal, self-sabotage

Psychological Symptoms:

  • flashbacks, unwanted (intrusive) thoughts, emotional disconnect

Metabolic Disturbances:

  • insomnia or nightmares, lack of desire to eat or overeating

One of the major ways in which intergenerational trauma becomes unnoticed is by way of it becoming normalized in culture. It then becomes the culture itself and is harder to see because it remains out of conscious awareness. That’s a part of the danger of this type of trauma. It’s that if a person is walking earth with these psychological and physical complexities and doesn’t know it, they can’t acknowledge it and then proceed to do something about it.

What sucks is that we can’t say, there’s that intergenerational trauma coming my way, I have to stop it. But we can bolster ourselves emotionally and take care of ourselves enough to try and offset the effects of high stress situations.

That means that your parents handed down not only those genetic markers of trauma but some genetic markers of resilience to help you in the very ways that they helped themselves. You also learn resilience so there’s always opportunity to increase your resilience to stress.

Resilience can be bolstered through daily practices that cater to the soul. The soul is comprised of the mind, the body, and the spirit. So giving space to caring for each of these dimensions aids the healing process of intergenerational trauma.

 

Some Mind, Body, Spirit Practices that you might want to consider for Intergenerational trauma Healing are:

  • Drawing a Narrative Genogram of your lineage and extended ancestors
  • A letter to yourself where you are rewriting your narrative
  • Listening to music of a different era and reflecting upon what those experiences were like
  • Doing a body scan and progressive muscle relaxation for body awareness and ease
  • Speaking to people in your family and community about the collective pain and resilience
  • Practicing grounding techniques
  • My book on Intergenerational Trauma will cover this type of healing more extensively. Click here to join the book waitlist!

 

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