Trauma-related mental health conditions can arise from various traumatic events. While individuals are often familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is another possible result of traumatic experiences with the potential to span multiple generations, often known as intergenerational trauma.
To understand how trauma can be passed down through generations, it can be helpful to examine intergenerational trauma in more detail, including its possible causes, how it manifests, its impacts on families, and how therapy may be a valuable resource for managing it.
What Is Intergenerational Trauma?
Intergenerational trauma is a term used to describe the idea that trauma may be passed down from one generation in a family to the next—for example, from a mother to her child. Other terms that have been associated with this concept include "transgenerational trauma," "multigenerational trauma," and "generational trauma."
The idea behind intergenerational trauma is that trauma may continue to have effects on the descendants of those who had a traumatic experience in the past. Some research suggests that a person may experience effects stemming from a traumatic event that happened to their ancestors, even if they did not directly experience it. For instance, a 2021 study found that the children of mothers who had adverse childhood experiences were at an increased risk of behavioral problems and depressive symptoms.
Intergenerational trauma may affect those whose parents, grandparents, or ancestors experienced systemic oppression, abuse, natural disasters, or other singular or general forms of trauma.
What Are The Causes Of Intergenerational Trauma?
Research on intergenerational trauma and its potential mechanisms is still evolving. However, several potential causes for trauma being passed down between generations have been proposed. These include the direct impacts of trauma on individuals in the family and a concept known as "epigenetics."
The CDC defines epigenetics as the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Epigenetics posits that experiences and other external factors may lead to genetic changes, which may potentially be passed on to one's offspring. For instance, a 2018 study found a higher mortality rate among the sons of fathers who had experienced severe hardship as prisoners of war during the Civil War, indicating that epigenetics may have played a role. However, the concept of epigenetics is still being studied, and much of the research is in its early stages.
More direct behavioral and mental health factors may also influence intergenerational trauma. For example, PTSD may impact how parents behave and interact with their children, as the disorder may lead to symptoms like social withdrawal, irritability, emotional distancing, or anger. These effects may influence how their children learn to view and interact with the world, potentially leading to unhealthy coping skills or reduced emotional control. This pattern could theoretically repeat itself when the children of trauma survivors grow up and have children of their own, potentially leading to a cycle of intergenerational trauma.
What Are The Possible Effects Of Intergenerational Trauma?
The symptoms of intergenerational trauma may vary depending on the form of trauma, how many generations it spans, individual coping skills, and other factors. For some, intergenerational trauma may manifest with symptoms similar to symptoms of PTSD, such as:
- Intrusive thoughts
- Depersonalization or derealization
- Hypervigilance or hyperarousal
- An increased use of substances
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability or anger
- Difficulty trusting others
- Emotional distancing
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Those affected by intergenerational trauma may also experience effects like:
- Abuse or neglect
- Challenges with relationships
- Challenges with memory
- Reduced ability to manage emotions or make decisions
- Lowered self-esteem
- Challenges at work or school
- Mental illnesses like depression or anxiety
Therapy As A Tool For Managing Intergenerational Trauma
While intergenerational trauma may have various potential effects, it could be possible for those affected to manage its symptoms and improve their overall quality of life. Therapy is one resource with this goal in mind. However, what works for one person may not be the same as what works for another, and there may not be a one-size-fits-all therapy modality for addressing intergenerational trauma.
For those who find it supportive, therapy may help individuals process traumatic experiences or develop strategies for managing their effects. Trauma-informed therapy aims to account for the effects of trauma on individuals' daily lives, behaviors, and responses.
The following modalities may also be beneficial:
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): The goal of EMDR therapy is to use specialized eye movements and bilateral brain stimulation to help clients process traumatic experiences without feeling their full impacts.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps clients identify unhelpful beliefs and thinking patterns, challenge them, and reframe them in ways that may better serve their mental health and well-being.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): Cognitive processing therapy is a specialized form of cognitive-behavioral therapy focused on thoughts and beliefs related to traumatic experiences.
- Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS): IFS looks at how trauma impacts the personality. Some trauma survivors experience splits in personality called "parts" (unrelated to dissociative identity disorder). IFS therapists help clients understand these parts and learn to come to terms with those that may remind them of unhealthy family dynamics or challenging circumstances to be fully integrated individuals.
Alternative Support Options
Traumatic experiences, whether direct or indirect, may sometimes result in symptoms that make it difficult to leave the house or commute to a therapist's office. In these cases, online therapy through platforms like BetterHelp may be an appealing alternative, providing the ability to attend therapy remotely through video calls, in-app messaging, or voice calls.
Online therapy has been studied for its effectiveness in treating various mental illnesses, including trauma-related disorders. For example, a 2017 study found that internet-based CBT was a valuable and cost-effective treatment for various mental health concerns, including PTSD.
“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.”
Therapy modalities like cognitive processing therapy or internal family systems therapy may be helpful resources for managing the symptoms and effects of intergenerational trauma. If you are interested in exploring therapy, consider contacting a provider online or in your area for further support.
How do people heal from intergenerational trauma?
Healing from intergenerational trauma (also called generational trauma) often involves acknowledging the impact of historical trauma on one's family. Recognizing the possible transmission of trauma across generations is often part of this first step. Next, it may help to seek mental health support by meeting with a trauma therapist or attending group therapy so that you have a safe space to explore and process the effects of trauma.
Engaging in mutual healing efforts and breaking the trauma cycle through therapy, support groups, and preventative measures may contribute to healing generational trauma.
What is intergenerational trauma and how do you heal from it?
Intergenerational trauma refers to a transmission of trauma across generations, often stemming from historical events or prolonged family trauma cycles of mental, physical, or sexual abuse. Healing from intergenerational trauma involves addressing the unresolved trauma responses that an individual might have inherited from their family.
Seeking mental health services is often beneficial, as it allows individuals to explore and understand the impact of inherited trauma on their mental health. By breaking the trauma cycle, you might be able to spare future generations from the same trauma.
What are 5 key symptoms of intergenerational trauma?
Symptoms of intergenerational trauma may manifest as complex trauma, impacting mental health in various ways. Common trauma symptoms can include anxiety, depression, difficulty forming healthy relationships, recurring nightmares, and heightened sensitivity to stress. Identifying these signs is often beneficial for recognizing and addressing the potential impacts of trauma on mental health.
How do you stop the cycle of intergenerational trauma?
Healing generational trauma can help stop the trauma cycle. Seeking mental health support and participating in therapy are often ideal first steps. You might pair this with preventative measures to defend younger generations, such as preventing adverse childhood experiences.
Addressing the root causes may help individuals prevent the perpetuation of the same trauma experiences.
What are the long-term effects of intergenerational trauma?
The long-term effects of intergenerational trauma may manifest in the form of mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals might also experience struggles forming healthy relationships, and the impact can extend to future generations if the trauma cycle is not addressed.
Seeking mental health services and support may help break the cycle and prevent the same trauma from affecting future generations.
How does intergenerational trauma affect the brain?
Intergenerational trauma might affect the brain. Research suggests that trauma can alter the brain's structure and function, often in areas related to stress response and emotional control. These changes may contribute to the transmission of trauma across generations, emphasizing the potential benefits of healing from intergenerational trauma through therapy and mental health support.
How far back does intergenerational trauma go?
Intergenerational trauma can have roots in historical events. Its impact may extend over several generations. The trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors is an example of intergenerational trauma that has affected subsequent generations.
How do you know if you have generational trauma?
Recognizing generational trauma often involves being aware of trauma symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and difficulties in forming healthy relationships. If there is a pattern of trauma within a family, seeking the assistance of a trauma therapist or mental health professional may help individuals understand and address the potential effects of inherited trauma.
Can trauma change your DNA?
Research suggests that trauma can have epigenetic effects, potentially influencing gene expression without altering the underlying DNA sequence.
Can generational trauma skip a generation?
While generational trauma typically follows a pattern of transmission, it may be possible for it to skip a generation. Factors such as resilience, support systems, and access to mental health services might influence the likelihood of trauma transmission. Breaks in the trauma cycle, through healing efforts and preventative measures, may contribute to interrupting the transmission of trauma to future generations.
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