Breaking generational trauma begins with recognizing patterns and understanding their source. When someone experiences a traumatic situation, and its effects are passed to their children, grandchildren or other family members, it becomes generational trauma. If you’re being affected by generational trauma, you may not have experienced the initial event, but you’re still feeling repercussions from it.
Generational trauma is sometimes called intergenerational or transgenerational trauma. It’s similar to historical trauma, which impacts entire communities instead of individual families. Historical trauma can affect members of a group targeted or oppressed through actions like genocide, slavery or banning their language. It’s not uncommon for people to have both generational and historical trauma. Both types can have cumulative effects, with the results of traumatic events building on and reinforcing each other.
How The Effects of Trauma Are Passed On
The effects of trauma can be passed from one generation to another, including the following:
Mental health disorders
One explanation for how the effects of trauma are passed to future generations is that a history of trauma makes people more likely to develop mental health conditions. These affect how people interact with the world and those around them. Generally, people have the most intense and long-lasting interactions with family members, so the effects of mental health conditions show up most strongly in those relationships.
For example, people who’ve experienced trauma tend to have high anxiety levels. Parents with high anxiety are less able to teach their children to self-soothe. They may also communicate, intentionally or not, that the world is an unsafe place. As a result, the child may also develop anxiety. This, in turn, can lead to unhealthy ways of coping, such as with drugs or alcohol.
Mental health impacts generational trauma
People who’ve experienced trauma are also more likely to develop depression, and a depressed parent may not be as available as they’d like to be to their children. Children may feel neglected and have to care for themselves in ways that aren’t appropriate for their age.
Yet another way the effects of trauma can be passed on is through the phenomenon of dissociation, a coping mechanism for trauma survivors in which there’s a separation or splitting off of mental processes. There’s a disconnect between thoughts and memories, and people can feel frozen and unattached to their bodies.
The effects of trauma can be passed on through learned behavior. This is especially true in the parenting realm. Someone who wasn’t parented well may repeat the same harmful behaviors simply because of having no alternative role model. Even when someone has a conscious desire to do things differently, the power of parental modeling is strong. People learn coping mechanisms, communication styles, boundary setting and more from watching their parents.
An article on how intergenerational trauma impacts families explains that trauma bonding can reproduce unhealthy patterns. Trauma bonding often happens in situations where abusive behavior alternates with periods of positive attention and nurturing.
A publication on recognizing and breaking traumatic bonds explains the processes at work. When faced with a traumatic situation, our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, which cause us to feel uncomfortable tension. Then we (usually unconsciously) choose the response that seems most appropriate: fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
For relationships where there’s unequal power, such as the parent/child relationship, freeze often seems like the wisest or only possible choice. You stay in the situation because there don’t seem to be any other good options. Since you feel stuck, you reduce the tension you feel by focusing on the positive aspects of the relationship and downplaying the negative.
The genes we’re born with are only part of our biological destiny. We’re also affected by epigenetic processes. These are the effects of things like nutrition, aging, and the environment on how our genes turn on and off. The National Institutes of Health notes that stress can also cause epigenetic changes. The changes aren’t limited to a single generation. As a Science Daily article notes, epigenetic changes can be passed on to future generations.
In an article on healing generational trauma, psychiatrist and author Gayani DeSilva explains that “trauma affects genetic processes, leading to traumatic reactivity being heightened.” In other words, the more trauma your parents and grandparents experienced, the more reactive you may be to trauma in your own life.
DeSilva also explains that trauma can affect microglia, the cells in the brain and central nervous system that make up most of its immune system. She says that during periods of trauma, “the microglia go haywire in the brain and cause depression, anxiety, and dementia. This can translate into genetic changes, which can be passed down to further generations.”
The Effects of Generational Trauma and Breaking the Cycle
The effects of generational trauma vary with the circumstances. Some of the common effects of trauma are mistrust, anxiety, insomnia, depression, panic attacks, nightmares and hypervigilance. People who’ve experienced generational trauma may also feel a sense of futility, a belief that their fate is determined and that nothing is ever likely to change.
On the other hand, unhealthy ways of relating and coping that have their genesis in untreated trauma may come to seem normal. This is especially true if many generations are affected. You may not be aware of the challenges that generational trauma has brought into your life because the way your family interacts with the world and each other is all you’ve ever known. Breaking generational trauma takes time and patience.
Breaking Generational Trauma with Help
There are both immediate and long-term goals when treating generational trauma. The immediate goal is to treat whatever challenges you currently face in a safe and trauma-informed manner. The long-term goal is to keep from passing trauma-related distress to future generations.
One of the challenges in treating generational trauma is overcoming mistrust. In an article entitled Breaking the Chains of Generational Trauma, a trauma psychologist notes that when people live under oppression, they can develop “survival messages,” including that it’s dangerous to ask for help. These messages may have been useful in certain circumstances, but they can be passed on and cause future generations to have a distrustful attitude in general. It’s important for counselors to work hard to build trust and help patients feel safe, protected, heard, and understood.
The kind of treatment that takes potential effects of trauma into account is known as trauma-informed care. It involves realizing that people may have faced circumstances or events that cause them to feel unsafe and that people are unlikely to make progress in treatment unless that’s addressed.
Making people feel safe involves paying attention to both the physical and emotional environment. A publication on trauma-informed care recommends the following:
- Keeping exits, parking lots and common areas well lit
- Monitoring who comes and goes
- Prohibiting people from loitering outside entrances and exits
- Making sure that there’s clear access to exit doors in exam rooms
- Maintaining a consistent schedule
- Giving plenty of notice and preparation when changes are made
- Focusing on respectful, open communication
- Involving patients in decision-making and treatment planning.
Are you looking for trauma-informed care? Generational PTSD care? Why not give us a call? We can help you determine if generational trauma may affect you and help you make a plan to address it. The chain of pain doesn’t have to continue, and you can be the one to break it. Call us today at 1.844.675.1022.