What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Jan 18, 2021
Intergenerational Trauma
Photo by William Farlow 

You have probably heard the words intergenerational trauma, transgenerational trauma, collective trauma, and historical trauma being thrown out there from time to time. If you're curious about what it is, read below as I unpack it with you.

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 single event or multiple event PTSD, abuse, discrimination by way of having a socially targeted identity, the experiences of dearth of resources like existing in poverty and food desserts, collective trauma like genocide, slavery, racial cleansing, 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 transmutation 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. And when there is that hormonal vulnerability in the adult parent, this is then transitioned to the baby.

 So that gives you an imagery of how this impacts the person before they have even acquired a birth date. Which gives you an indication as to why some people, and some populations, particularly those who suffer chronic stress that’s imposed by society, are coming into the world with a biological vulnerability.

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

Photo by Austin Wade

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 can show up in a parent that a baby can then pick up on 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 a person’s lived experiences across life, the experiences of racial trauma, abuse, genocide, natural disasters, and so many others, present opportunity for more social markers of trauma to surface in a person’s life. And the nurture side (the social side) comes into the picture in a more solid way.

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

When the fabric of our very humanity is excessively compromised, (interpersonally) through emotional, verb, or physical abuse, (or systemically) through oppression, genocide, and other acts psychological, physical and spiritual violence, it creates a wound of the soul. Left unattended, it can become a wound that is carried through the lineage and sometimes even into entire communities.

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, because we aren’t taught about this part of our existence, particularly those who have adverse life experience or are institutionally marginalized, we can’t acknowledge it and then proceed to do something about it.

 It’s pervasive and many times it’s so normalized that it goes on unchallenged. And it when one generation is not able to heal those traumas (either because they didn’t have the privilege to or because they felt incapable of doing so), it becomes baggage that is then transported onto the upcoming generation.

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.

 We are talking about the process of reclaiming the joy of ourselves and our ancestors through our own emotional liberation. We offer ourselves and our lineage an opportunity for healing in the past, present, and future:

In Healing Back, we honor of our ancestors. Those who are rooting for you and want to see healing happen in your life in the ways that it couldn’t in theirs. Some people do this by bringing memorabilia that reminds them of their ancestors into therapy and speaking to the experience of holding onto something that belonged to a person who they share history with. Some people prefer to journal to their ancestors, almost as if they are writing a letter to them. Some people have altars. And the list goes on.

Healing Laterally is the way in which we heal in this generation to work on disembodying the trauma that is held in you. If you have the opportunity and privilege of healing that others who came before you didn’t have, then you can take that opportunity to heal in mind, body, and spirit. Meaning that in each of these areas of life, you are deciding to recalibrate and restore. 

Healing Forward is a way of working on healing the mind body and spirit can help in transforming the body’s trauma responses into healthy responses and influencing the transmutation of that epigenetic gene expressions that one holds. That way, the genetic expression that is being passed onto newer generations are ones that don’t reflect the expression of chronic stress and emotional vulnerability. In addition, since we know that there is a nature and a nurture aspect of intergenerational trauma, it will be important to help future generations by modeling liberated ways of dealing with one’s emotions rather than modeling a trauma response.

 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 to help keep you rooted in your truth
  • You can also work with me on my upcoming group coaching and courses. Click here to join the waitlist!

 And always remember that you are your ancestor’s wildest dreams.

May your inner revolution shine as bright as your outer revolution and may you be the one to heal the generations.

Dr. Mariel Buquè


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