Better Understanding And Healing From Intergenerational Trauma

Updated February 7, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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. This is the response, and subsequent impacts, of 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 a reason for hope—effective treatments and other interventions are available to help with recovery and attain emotional healing.

Don't Let Intergenerational Trauma Keep You Back From Living Your Life

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, anxiety disorders, 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 like an anxiety disorder. 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 of everything. These effects can be healed with the help of traditional or online therapy.

Examples of trauma that can be intergenerational or transgenerational are domestic and childhood abuse or the unexpected death of a close family member, which can result in decreased ability to love with confidence. 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 or harmful words themselves are 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 and lack control in this area 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.

The Collective Effect On Cultures

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 adults 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 recovery for those who have “inherited” post-traumatic effects. Understanding and intervening in trauma that spans generations is crucial to help everyone 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 recovery for a man, woman, or even a child. 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 recovering. 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.

Medications are also an option for those experiencing more severe symptoms, like PTSD. According to this study, medications like Zoloft and Pfizer can be extremely effective in helping men and women recover from PTSD. 

Additional Strategies For Strengthening Mental Health

While working with a licensed mental health doctor is encouraged, if a person experiencing intergenerational trauma is not thinking about therapy, they can use strategies and activities to strengthen their mind. Connecting with others can help with mental health 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.

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.

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.

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

Don't Let Intergenerational Trauma Keep You Back From Living Your Life
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 recovery can be effective, respectful ways to show you care.

Compassionate mental health care is available at BetterHelp. Licensed mental health professionals are available to offer personalized care and help for recovery.

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