Transgenerational trauma is trauma that is transferred from first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further offspring of the survivors. Essentially, transgenerational trauma is understood as a process where unhealed issues of prior generations are carried over onto and expressed by the following generations.
In the context of transgenerational trauma, family /community /society as a whole act as a “holding environment”. Transmission of the trauma aims to resist disassociating from the family / community / society heritage and to “bring its full, tragic story into social disclosure”. How does transmission of the trauma happen? For extended period of time, research assumed that psychological factors (specifically parents’ child – raring behavior) was responsible for trauma transmission. However, recent research findings suggest that the trauma is also epigenetically transferred across generations.
History and recognition
The concept of transgenerational / intergenerational trauma originated in the western world decades after WWII. The concept “intergenerational transmission of trauma” was developed to address the far – reaching effects of the original trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors: children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors demonstrated certain symptoms of the trauma.
The tragedy of Holocaust was internationally recognized and dealt with within the confines of political arena and international law. In addition to validation of the traumatic experience, there were and continue to be numerous efforts to heal the psychological trauma directly and indirectly experienced by Holocaust survivors and their offspring. That said, over the course of the world history, Holocaust was not the first large scale traumatic experience. Traumas caused by slavery, colonization,l civil and domestic violence, political totalitarian control, clerical abuse in religious organizations might not have been openly validated.
Many Native American tribes have deeply rooted concept of transgenerational trauma which they often refer to as ancestral trauma.
|Trangenerational trauma manifestation
|Physical||DNA exists in the heart of each cell in our body and provide instructions for the new cells to be created. The more coherent the DNA, the better the instructions. Unresolved trauma degrades epigenetic structure of our genes which leads to lowering of the immunity and fertility while increasing susceptibility to cellular mutation
|Psychological||– Silence – the conspiracy of silence (society / community / individual) helps to maintain and exacerbate the effects of trauma. It might be an empathetic response to not stir up the issues or a parent might react with anxiety, extreme rage or flashback
– Over disclosure by adults to children – bearing witness to traumatic experiences can challenge even the most firmly held belief that the world is a safe place
– Identification – generally speaking children tend to feel responsible for parental distress (if only I was good enough, the parents would not have felt so angry or sad). Children themselves might experience survivor guilt
– Reenactment – trauma survivors tend to reenact their traumas.
Trauma is any event that is unexpected, disturbing, impactful and outweighs one’s ability (emotional and psychological skills) to cope with the situation. Trauma can come as a result of large scale impactful events (natural disasters, wars, genosides, etc) as well as events that impact people individually (extreme poverty, sudden and violent death of a family member, child abuse, sexual abuse, child neglect, etc).
Traumatic experience can trigger traumatic stress and potentially develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is important to know that whereas acute traumatic stress and chronic traumatic stress are symptomatic in nature, PTSD is a diagnosis.
Within one month of exposure to extreme traumatic stressor, human body starts to develop physiological reactions initiated by sympathetic nervous system. The initial acute response to trauma assumes short period of duration of symptoms (sleep disturbance, eating disturbance, hyper vigilance, anxiety, etc) that might be manifested in mild, moderate or severe form. If properly treated at this stage, the prognosis of one’s recovery is very high. If left untreated, acute traumatic stress becomes chronic which essentially means that the symptoms are continuously present: they are pervasive and increase in intensity overtime. If chronic traumatic stress is not healed, it becomes part of one’s life affecting one’s physical and mental health. Eventually, if chronic traumatic stress is not healed, it could trigger PTSD as well as wide range of other physical and mental health issues. In the context of transgenerational trauma, it is important to mention that even though the descendants of the person who survived the original trauma might not develop the exact same disorders; they are very vulnerable to anxiety, stress and depression. With this in mind, fair question comes to mind: “How does unnamed / unmanaged / unhealed / repressed traumatic experience become a problem / task for the future generations to deal with?” Transgenerational trauma is believed to be propelled by psychological factors (due to social learning, familial ties, etc) and epigenetics (due to changed hormonal profile).
- Psychological: Unresolved trauma can be passed from generation to generation by means of emotional ties between children and the rest of the family.
- i) Emotional ties
Transgenerational trauma does not mean that the pain experienced by one’s parents or grandparents will 100% determine who one is. However, as a child, one’s worldview and perception of self are largely shaped by means of social learning and emotional ties with the family which are also essential to development of one’s values. These emotional bonds often determine the answers to such questions as “Who am I?”, “What are my priorities in life?”, “Who can “we” trust?”, “Who are “our” enemies?”, “What ties me to my family?” etc. With this in mind, transmission of transgenerational trauma depends on one’s decision as to which emotional ties to nourish and which to reject.
Family acts as a “holding environment” and the task contiously or uncontiously pitched by the transgenerational trauma is to “bring its full, tragic story into social disclosure”. If one identifies with familial trauma and deep unacknowledged grief (conscious or unconscious), one will perpetuate the cycle by carrying and communicating the grief to the future generations. People with greater emotional openness and heightened capacity for identification with parental / ancestral feelings are usually very vulnerable for transgenerational transmission of parental / familial trauma. On the other hand, if one is able to recognize how one’s own experience has been authored and how one has been authorized to carry parents’ injury into the future, one is able to separate “self” from “we” in the context of the family, look beyond the familial story and eventually create one’s own identity and life experience. The process might feel like an identity crisis since it involves breaking of emotional chains. That said, once one is able to raise above the remnants of ancestors’ trauma, one is able to heal self and future generations.
- ii) Parental reflective function
Parental reflective functioning is the capacity to perceive and interpret human behavior in terms of intentional mental states such as needs, desires, goals, beliefs, etc. Such mentalization is imperative for healthy human development. More importantly, it is born out of parent / child relationship. By means of mutual interactions and parental modeling, children are able to learn their own affects and cognitions as well as those of others in order to communicate them and empathize appropriately.
When the relationship becomes altered by the experience of traumatic events without the means to process and resolve the trauma, mentalization is one of the areas at risk of being compromised. In other words, unmanaged trauma might affect parents’ ability to understand emotional expressions and social cues. Also, parents might engage in less symbolic play with their children, exemplify less empathy for others as well as have poor coping and affect regulation skills. Absence of adequate parental mentilization of the child’s experiences, negatively affects child’s sense of coherence and the way the child comes to understand self and the surroundings.
- Epigenetics: Unconfronted grief and unmanaged trauma cause changes in one’s hormone profile which can also affect gene expression (DNA methylation). For example, elevated levels of cortisol in the body during pregnancy negatively affects the development of fetus (the child becomes vulnerable to a variety of illnesses and emotional disorders).
Overall, transmission of trangenerational trauma is well fitting the continuous debate of nature vs nurture.
When a person faces a traumatic event that outweighs one’s coping skills, one comes to a place of brokenness. People might process the traumatic experience in numerous ways and in various degrees of being overwhelmed; however, if the trauma is to be addressed and healed, the person would usually go through the following 5 stages of grief:
Healing process might not necessarily be linear meaning to say that the person might move between the stages outside of the suggested order or revisit some stages multiple times in the process of healing. Once the person is mentally and emotionally able to process the trauma without losing control, the person is able to accept the trauma in some way, cope with the trauma and recognize the fact that he / she is safe now that the traumatic event is over.
Post traumatic growth stage is a learning stage which enables the person to adequately access self and surroundings, recognize appropriate avenues of personal development and develop a sense of profound personal safety despite occasional feeling of overwhelm echoing from the nature of the previous trauma.
Post traumatic growth is a product of one’s hard and strenuous work which comes out of existential necessity, not wanting life going to waste as a result of running continuous dysfunctional loops.
Offspring of people affected by the original trauma tend to be vulnerable to vicarious trauma due to secondary traumatization. Depression is often cited among those affected by vicarious trauma and transgenerational trauma in general. With that in mind, it is important to make a distinction between depression (pervasive medical diagnosis) and learnt helplessness (product of social learning).
|Condition stemming from person’s worldview (often affected by some traumatic event) which facilitates feeling of powerlessness
|Medical condition. In its most aggressive form, depression can be all – consuming and interfere with daily living|
|If you get rid of the obstacle that causes learnt helplessness, you can typically get rid of learnt helplessness
|Medical condition that should be treated (counseling, regressive hypnosis, etc.) and possibly medicated|
|Among underlying causes of depression
How deep learnt helplessness can be embedded in one’s mind? Well, children are developing their worldview through the communication with their family as well as through the “life lessons” taught by the family (parental reflection functioning) and given in turns of phases (as perceived by the person based on familial social learning).
Traumas that have been ignored or have never been resolved create problems in life of the person who originally experiences them and can be psychologically and biologically be passed on to the future generations. In case of secondary traumatization, i. e. trangenerational trauma being passed on, the original trauma does not belong to the person experiencing it which is why it is critical for the person to separate the trauma from oneself. By getting out of the trance of the story, the person is able to fully re-discover the traumatic event, trace evolution of trauma within the familial history and see its systematic effects on familial relationships. This newly found understanding does not deny the pain or excuse the behavior of those who passed on the trauma; however, it does lead to increased compassion and realization that the destructive behavior “wasn’t personal” but rather systematic piece of a bigger puzzle. By exploring the stories surrounding the trauma and healing the trauma /familial relationships, one develops immunity from repeating the patterns of the past.
Given that at its very core traumatic events outweigh one’s coping skills, healing the trauma on one’s own, by definition, might not have high potential for success thus only deeper embedding the sense of helplessness in one’s mind. There are numerous avenues supporting the effort of transgenerational trauma resolution so, if this topic rings a bell for you, stay always curious and be on a look out for your guides and mentors …