The Echoes of Pain: Understanding Generational and Intergenerational Trauma

A graphic illustration of a family tree, with white figures connected together by blue lines that represent tree branches on a brown, wooden-textured background.

Some folks may have a knee-jerk reaction to the words “intergenerational trauma.” How can the traumatic experiences of one generation be passed down or experienced by those who haven’t shared the same experiences?

 

However, social research has shown that generational and intergenerational trauma very much exists. Ancestral pain and family history can continue to impact generation after generation, particularly people who have been enslaved and abused and who continue to experience overt and covert racism, microaggressions, and other traumatic events.

 

What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is ancestral trauma. If I have been oppressed and abused because of my identity, historically, that may result in behaviors and beliefs that are passed down to my children, my children’s children, and so forth. It may stem from post-traumatic stress disorder born of a traumatic event or built up through years of trauma that came before us.

 

Dr. Joy DeGruy, a preeminent researcher and educator on the effects of generational trauma, has done some amazing work, including her book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury & Healing.” She is one of the most helpful voices in understanding collective trauma and the way that family members share and pass down transgenerational trauma.

 

At the heart, trauma stems from having one’s power taken away. Powerlessness is the essence of trauma. When people have been historically oppressed, their power has been taken, which then results in behaving in a way to get by. That behavior may be implicitly or explicitly taught to their children, who then take on the behavior. It is critical to note, as Dr. DeGruy teaches, that this is an adaptive behavioral loop resulting from living in a toxic environment and can be unlearned. Unlearning the patterns of adaptive behaviors to any type of trauma is the path toward healing. The communities identified in this post are amazing examples of healing and resilience.

 

Generational trauma has been identified in many groups, including the children of holocaust survivors, the ancestors of enslaved people, indigenous communities, and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

 

As Dr. DeGruy explains, the discussion of generational trauma and intergenerational trauma requires an openness and a recognition that it can become uncomfortable. It’s in that discomfort that we grow and learn. Even though there have been some gains regarding equity in our society, there’s still significant inequity all around.

 

Great inequity exists within our world, particularly for BIPOC communities. We can look at health disparities, income inequities, educational opportunities, police profiling, and many more issues that lead to this sense of powerlessness and lack of safety. While generational trauma isn’t limited to BIPOC communities, it’s disproportionately experienced in the community based on the history of genocide and enslavement.

 

The Long-Term Effects of Trauma

Historical trauma may be passed down from generation to generation. So even if a person didn’t experience the Holocaust, genocide, or being enslaved, they may still be very much impacted by those experiences through their ancestors, their community, and their interactions.

 

The societal implications of generational trauma are vast. It results in confusion and miscommunication. It’s hard for people who haven’t experienced intergenerational trauma to tune into what it’s like to be in that space. Many people may be insulated from these effects and not recognize or understand them.

 

Intergenerational trauma can manifest in many different ways—emotional, behavioral, and relational patterns. It can impact future generations in a way that may seem unclear or unrelated from an outside perspective. When individuals or communities experience significant trauma like war, genocide, displacement, cultural oppression, and other forms of severe adversity, the ripple effect is vast and far-reaching.

 

The question arises: does generational trauma pass down genetically or just behaviorally? There have been epigenetic studies that show a strong correlation to a genetic component of trauma.

 

In studies with mice, scientists showed that mice generally don’t have an aversion to certain floral scents like cherry blossoms. However, they took female mice, exposed them to the smell, and gave them an uncomfortable electric shock. Later, when they introduced the scent again but didn’t zap them, the mice still scurried away. The female mice had babies who were never shocked, but the babies still ran away from the scent with an aversion—even if a different mother raised them! This demonstrates that epigenetic changes can be part of trauma responses in younger generations, even without direct adverse childhood experiences.

 

While the idea is still being researched and explored, it shows how trauma may alter our genetics or cause stress that passes down through our genes and becomes encoded in our DNA. These changes can impact our physical health and our mental health, and they can continue to impact our own children and descendants unless it is healed. The work we do on healing ourselves impacts not only us but those who come after us.

 

Breaking the Trauma Cycle

As mental health professionals, educators, community organizers, and human service providers, how do we support communities and individuals in breaking and overcoming the cycle of trauma?

 

An essential first step is recognition and reverence of a person’s identity, history, and culture. Those working in human services must be going through a process where we’re practicing DEI, Cultural Humility to Cultural Reverence (CH2CR), and other culturally reverent approaches. As we learn about the concept of generational trauma, we can see why some of our clients are in “survival mode,” and we can start to shift our approach to honor and support that.

 

If we implicitly or explicitly diminish someone’s identity in our behavior, attitude, or general “vibe,” that’s going to reactivate and reopen that trauma. Trauma is a wound that can continue to hurt and be reopened over and over each time powerlessness is experienced. Our stress responses to different types of trauma can lead to anxiety disorder, mental health issues, and low self-esteem. It’s crucial that during the healing process, we recognize the impact of intergenerational trauma and how that chronic stress may impact core beliefs and may be deeply woven into someone’s identity.

 

Awareness and empathy are crucial. We might be working with a client with an adaptive behavior that no longer serves them. However, it can be tricky to address and navigate this conversation. One of the best places to start is to offer education and understanding about generational trauma. It’s our role to provide a safe space where people are empowered to work through and explore their journey to well-being.

 

Sometimes trauma is just there hanging on with a low hum in the nervous system, and sometimes it spikes. When folks experience these spikes, they need to have a plan to receive care, and service providers need to empathize and support the person through that experience. They need a group to talk to and a safe space to process their feelings. They must have an opportunity to voice themselves in an empathetic, compassionate, and above all––equitable space.

 

Learning and growing on our journey of Cultural Humility to Cultural Reverence requires us to look at our own biases with an unvarnished, brave lens. It’s a lifelong commitment.

 

Supporting and Better Understanding Intergenerational Trauma

As care providers and those in human services, we must work toward having an understanding of intergenerational trauma so we can offer effective support to individuals and families who may be grappling with the consequences.

 

Some key considerations to help us better understand include:

 

  • Historical Context: Understanding the client’s background. What are the historical events and experiences that may have directly or indirectly contributed to trauma within their community and/or family? What are their family dynamics and communication patterns?
  • Cultural Reverence: How can we better recognize and respect the unique cultural, ethnic, and familial aspects of our clients’ experiences? We must foster awareness and explore the cultural norms, values, and traditions that influence our clients’ worldviews. How can we support culturally relevant healing practices, rituals, and support in our approach?
  • Trauma-Informed Care: By adopting a trauma-informed approach to our therapeutic practice, we recognize the prevalence and impact of trauma. We can start to understand the coping mechanisms individuals develop and apply that understanding to create a safe and supportive space.
  • Focus on Empowerment and Resilience: As care providers, how can we empower and recognize resilience in our clients? Acknowledge the strengths and strategies that have allowed folks to endure, survive, and thrive despite the challenges.
  • Community Collaboration: How can we work with other professionals, cultural experts, and community and religious leaders to gain additional perspective and support for our clients? How do we empower and connect the community on their journey?
  • Ongoing Professional Development: How are we keeping ourselves informed on current research, literature, training, and thought leadership related to intergenerational trauma? Are we engaged in professional development to enhance our skills and understanding of best practices in this area? Are we doing our own work of healing? Are we supporting the wellness and healing of our teams?

 

Each individual’s experience is unique. By taking a culturally reverent, trauma-informed, and individualized approach to our work with those we serve, we can help provide space for folks to heal intergenerational trauma.

 

If you’d like to explore ways to support and work with your team, Share can assist. Reach out to learn how we can facilitate professional development for your organization.

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