Breaking the cycle of trauma by healing for our ancestors
By now, you have probably heard the expression “to stop the cycle” (of generational trauma, abuse). From social media personalities (e.g. Nate Postlethwait), to movie hits like Encanto, to comedians like Kat P (latest Netflix special), everyone is talking about how trauma can trickle down from one generation to the next in both subtle and very powerful ways.
Trauma is an umbrella term and can often be referred to as a single traumatic event (e.g., an assault, natural disaster, car accident). There are also more complex forms of trauma including more repeated or chronic traumatic events (e.g., ongoing neglect, abuse). In addition, there are forms of trauma that are perhaps less understood or explored. These include historical and intergenerational traumas.
The term intergenerational trauma, also known as trans- or multigenerational trauma, occurs when a traumatic event takes place to either an individual, family, or collective community and gets passed down to subsequent generations. Traumatic events are often perpetrated by outside sources rather than within the family itself. Examples of this include generations that have been exposed to discrimination, oppression, violence, sexual abuse, accidental deaths, and suicide. The term was first acknowledged in 1988, when a study (Sigal et al., 1988) of Holocaust survivors found that they were overrepresented in psychiatric referrals by 300%. Its impact has since been demonstrated across various cultures and communities, including descendants of refugees (Sangalang & Vang, 2017), Native Americans who were forced to attend residential schools (Brave Heart, 2003) and African Americans who experienced generations of slavery, segregation, and institutionalized racism (Degruy, 2005). Intergenerational trauma implies that parents can pass down unresolved tension and feelings from their own families of origin onto their children. While the mechanisms of transmission continue to be studied, it is suggested significant contributors include epigenetics and parenting styles that have likely been impacted by traumatic events.
The Influence of Epigenetics
“Epigenetic research suggests that epigenetic modifications resulting from highly stressed environments have the potential to be transmitted across generations” (Yehuda and Bierer, 2009). The study of epigenetics has allowed for the increased understanding of how certain lifestyle factors (e.g., diet, exercise, stress) can influence the way one’s genes may be expressed. Research continues to support the notion that epigenetic changes (i.e. changes in gene expression) may be passed down from parent to child. In addition, these changes may account for affecting genes associated with risk for various medical and mental health conditions. Findings may also explain the adaptive coping and survival mechanisms that can affect the ability to self-regulate which is often observed within individuals experiencing historical and generational trauma.
Historical trauma is an example of intergenerational trauma and refers to the legacy of traumatic events that are experienced by a collective group of people. Often, these communities have faced oppression and the social and psychological effects can be observed among succeeding generations. The three main components that encompass historical trauma are: widespread effects to Indigenous communities, historic traumatic events that result in collective suffering within a community, and a purposeful, malicious intent of outsiders who inflicted these traumatic events (Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, 2004). The impact of historical trauma has been well documented, and the Historical Trauma Response (HTR) can present as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, violence, and difficulties with emotion regulation (Brave Heart, 2000; Evans-Campbell, 2008).
An example of historical trauma can be highlighted in the discrepancies observed with the infant mortality rate among black infants. Research indicated that the mortality rate among black infants was 2.4 times higher than that of white infants. In 2013, black individuals had almost twice the rate of sudden infant death syndrome than non-Hispanic counterparts. In addition, black mothers were 2.3 times more likely than non-Hispanic white mothers to begin prenatal care in the third trimester, or not receive prenatal care at all (Wallace et al., 2017). The research represents the historical trauma particularly related to the access, or lack thereof, to adequate medical care for black women.
What Treatment Options Are There?
One way to treat the impact of intergenerational trauma is using a family systems approach. This approach is designed to assess, intervene, and resolve patterns within the family system that can perpetuate trauma. For example, this approach facilitates conversations that allows older generations to tell their own stories and give context to relational dynamics. In turn, children can begin to make sense of their family’s origins while parents may then be more receptive to help younger generations process the family’s trauma history (Sells, 2018). Additionally, a culture-informed treatment approach should also be applied to allow for family members to discuss cultural ideals and norms that are specific to their family history. Providing the space to explore cultural values can facilitate discussions surrounding their impact and how it can be both a source of pride and pain.
Individual therapy is another option to begin the process of telling your story and exploring how you might be carrying the weight of the trauma your ancestors may have experienced generations ago. Having a trauma-informed provider who incorporates cultural humility and safety within the therapy room provides the strong foundation needed to facilitate change.
Intergenerational Trauma is considered a systemic issue that likely requires systemic solutions for effective change. By choosing to take the next step and working to break generational patterns, you become a part of the movement towards effective change. Today, we are not only navigating our own challenges but the compounded challenges our ancestors faced in past generations. Therapy is a mechanism to explore these ideas and gain a deeper understanding of how these adversities might continue to impact you in the world today. In addition, we will help you navigate these challenges and find alternative ways to make meaning of these adversities and learn new ways to find strength and create lasting, meaningful change.
Brave Heart, M.Y.H. (2000). Wakiksuyapi: Carrying the historical trauma of the Lakota Tulane Studies in Social Welfare, 21-22, 245-266.
Brave Heart, M.Y.H. (2003). The Historical Trauma Response Among Natives and Its Relationship with Substance Abuse: A Lakota Illustration, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 35 (1), 7-13.
De Gruy, J. (2005). Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Uptone Press.
Evans-Campbell, T. (2008). Historical Trauma in American Indian/Native Alaska Communities: A Multilevel Framework for Exploring Impacts on Individuals, Families, and Communities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23(3), 316–338. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260507312290
Sangalang, C. & Vang, C. (2017). Intergenerational Trauma in Refugee Families: A Systematic Review. Journal of immigrant and minority health / Center for Minority Public Health, 19. doi:10.1007/s10903-016-0499-7
Sells, S. (2018, October 12). A family systems approach to treating intergenerational trauma. Retrieved from https://familytrauma.com/a-family-systems-approach-to-treating-intergenerational-trauma/
Sigal J.J., Dinicola V.F., & Buonvino, M. (1988). Grandchildren of Survivors: Can Negative Effects of Prolonged Exposure to Excessive Stress be Observed Two Generations Later? The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 33(3):207-212. doi:10.1177/070674378803300309
Wallace, M. E., Green, C., Richardson, L., Theall, K., & Crear-Perry, J. (2017). “Look at the Whole Me”: A Mixed-Methods Examination of Black Infant Mortality in the US through Women’s Lived Experiences and Community Context. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(7), 727. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14070727
Wesley-Esquimaux, C.C. & Smolewski, M. (2004). Historic trauma and aboriginal healing. Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Yehuda, R., & Bierer, L. M. (2009). The relevance of epigenetics to PTSD: implications for the DSM-V. Journal of traumatic stress, 22(5), 427–434. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.20448