Understanding And Healing From Intergenerational Trauma

Updated October 22, 2021

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

We often hear people say, “This runs in my family” or, “This has been passed down from generation to generation.” Sometimes family members or a cultural group may pass along the effects of trauma from generation to generation; a transmission called transgenerational or intergenerational trauma. Trauma is the response to a distressing, devastating, or deeply disturbing event or events. Harmful results of trauma experienced by a relative, relatives, or a cultural group in years past can impact generations to come. However, there is reason for hope—effective treatments and other interventions are available to help with healing.

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Effects And Examples Of Intergenerational Trauma

Individuals, families, and groups affected by the trauma of an ancestor (or group of ancestors) can experience emotional, physical, and cognitive reactions, and traumatic stress. Reactions to trauma may include anger, fear, sadness, shame, a lack of emotions, high-risk behavior, Substance Use Disorder, eating disorders, or learned helplessness (inability to control the personal environment or feeling unequipped to take action), among other post-traumatic effects. Younger generations may also experience trauma-related physical health issues; sleep disorders or gastrointestinal issues (such as chronic stomach pain) are just two examples. Cognitive effects related to thinking or reasoning may linger for generations after trauma; for instance, a person might incorrectly think safe situations are dangerous, experience intrusive thoughts about the trauma, or be distrustful.

Examples of trauma that can be intergenerational or transgenerational are domestic and childhood abuse. Subsequent generations of parents and partners in relationships might repeat the abuse they (or other relatives) experienced or witnessed as a child, continuing a vicious cycle. Even if the abuse itself is not repeated, the effects of abuse and traumatic stress can linger and trickle down from generation to generation in the form of fear, anxiety, shame, grief, unhealthy core family beliefs and behaviors, negative relationships, or unconscious cues and messages. Another example of trauma that can be passed from generation to generation is Substance Use Disorder. Negative behaviors of a family member who formed drug or alcohol dependencies can affect generations to come. Those living with Substance Use Disorders may have relatives in the past, known or unknown, who also struggled with this condition.

Historical Trauma

Historical trauma—sometimes called collective trauma or cultural trauma—is a type of intergenerational trauma experienced by a specific cultural group that has been systematically oppressed or harmed. The traumatic past of a group of ancestors can continue to impact descendants in the present and future. Examples of cultural groups who may experience traumatic stress and effects for generations include descendants of slaves, Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, and displaced First Peoples or indigenous groups.

The Importance Of Addressing And Healing From Transgenerational Trauma

The past, present, and future are intertwined with trauma that is passed from generation to generation. The mental health care community can address trauma to offer help, hope, and healing for those who have “inherited” post-traumatic effects. Understanding and intervening in trauma that spans generations is crucial to help heal from past harm, empower those living in the present, break free from the cycle for their mental wellness, and disrupt the harmful cycle so that the effects of trauma aren’t passed on to future generations.

Therapy For Recovery

Various types of therapy can help with healing. Individual trauma-focused therapy with a licensed mental health professional who is trauma-informed can help with processing results of past trauma and learning effective ways to address it in the present and future, heal from it, and gain strength to move forward positively and productively.

Family therapy can also be helpful. A family can work together with a therapist to address intergenerational trauma. Additionally, individual family members can look at the trauma in the context of the family and culture and learn to permit themselves to focus on self, to heal, to manage traumatic stress, and to separate themselves from the trauma of previous generations—and to accept other family members if they try to do the same. Parents or caregivers seeking treatment before or while their children are in therapy can be a productive therapeutic intervention.

Culturally responsive therapy can be very effective, and perhaps especially to those experiencing cultural or historical intergenerational trauma. A culturally responsive counselor who is aware of the client’s culture and uses culturally appropriate and relevant techniques may be a good fit for a client going through the process of healing. Intervention that is culturally sensitive and focuses on an individual’s and group’s strengths and resourcefulness can be valuable for helping those seeking treatment for historical trauma.

Additional Strategies For Strengthening Mental Health

While working with a licensed mental health professional is encouraged, if a person experiencing intergenerational trauma is not accessing therapy, they can use strategies to strengthen their mental health. Connecting with others can help with healing as isolation can be harmful to emotional health. In the case of intergenerational trauma, building meaningful connections with people outside of the family can offer a sense of support. These relationships can also give new and different perspectives on how others cope with problems. Joining a support group, volunteering, or forging friendships are ways to build positive connections to strengthen mental health.

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Self-care is another strategy to boost mental health when living with intergenerational trauma. For instance, getting enough regular sleep can help with emotional regulation. Exercise can help release endorphins to fuel positive feelings. Meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation can be soothing and offer a respite from negative thoughts and feelings related to trauma. Expressing gratitude can help us see the good and not focus only on the negative. Setting boundaries is another form of self-care. For instance, if negative family relationships co-exist with intergenerational trauma, setting boundaries with relatives can be a protective factor for mental health.

Building resilience can help with the management of mental health issues related to intergenerational trauma. Resilience can help us adapt in the face of difficulties. Learning from the past—from what impacted us negatively—can help us figure out how to move forward in a productive, strong way. Positive self-talk about personal strengths can help with resilience, as can purposefully, consciously form an optimistic outlook.

Efforts To Make Mental Health Care Accessible

Efforts should be made to make effective intervention options accessible to help those living with intergenerational trauma. People living with cultural or historical trauma are often part of racial or ethnic groups who experience disparities in mental health care. Research shows that racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes because their access to mental health care is often limited. They may feel a negative cultural stigma about seeking mental health care or believe that mental health professionals lack diversity. They may not have insurance or other resources for accessible mental health care. Those experiencing any type of intergenerational trauma may feel hesitant to reach out for help due to family attitudes about mental health care, privacy, distrust, or shame. Empowering those living with the results of trauma to seek treatment and communicating that there is help and hope available may open doors for healing.

Considerations For Counselors

Counselors who are trauma-trained may be the right fit for helping those experiencing intergenerational trauma. Additionally, a counselor experienced in culturally responsive therapy may be particularly helpful to someone living with historical trauma. A counselor may assess how the trauma is linked to cultural identity and how it might be linked to more individual issues. Counselors who work to establish trust and empower clients to discuss both their individual story and their relationship with their family and culture, when relevant, can help with recovery.

Supporting Those Living With Transgenerational Trauma

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Engaging individuals, families, and communities with conversations and information about intergenerational trauma and ways to heal from it is a big-picture intervention strategy that may ease hesitation about seeking help. Open communication about intergenerational trauma can help destigmatize it and empower people to seek treatment. Communication can help people recognize that they’re not alone in their experiences. Community and school programs that focus on strengths, speak openly and honestly about mental health conditions, minimize stereotypes of inferiority, and offer resources for mental health treatment can be effective. If you have a personal relationship with someone experiencing intergenerational trauma, supporting them with compassion can be helpful. Listening and offering to assist them in finding reputable resources for treatment and healing can be effective, respectful ways to show you care.

Accessible, compassionate mental health care is available at BetterHelp. Licensed mental health professionals are available to offer personalized care and help for healing.

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists, from people who have experienced intergenerational trauma. 

“I don't really even know where to begin. Kathryn has been my rock. I struggle with anxiety, depression, and have been focusing on healing some generational and childhood traumas. Kathryn is professional, supportive, knowledgeable, and approachable. The support and guidance Kathryn has given me without judgement has been crucial to my healing .”

Learn More About Kathryn Starratt

“Working with Darla has been life changing. She's helping me to understand how intergenerational trauma is impacting my personal and professional life, and how I can reframe my thoughts to better benefit me. I'm so thankful to have the opportunity to work with her.”

Learn More About Darla Roundtree


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