What is Generational Trauma & How Can you Heal It?
“Hold on a minute” …
“I can experience the symptoms of trauma when I haven’t been through any traumatic experiences?”
“yup”, I said.
Do you ever read the symptoms of trauma and start to feel uncomfortable as you recognise the feelings? You know them so well, but you also feel quite sure that you have not experienced a situation that warrants the feelings. At least you don’t think so.
Then you feel yourself go white as the blood drains from your face. You don’t know where it’s gone, but you feel sick to your stomach as you begin to lightly shake. Everything becomes hazy and you wish for a remote control that will turn off the worry with the push of a rubbery button.
The fear that something might have happened when you were a child. Something that you do not remember. Something scary that will change your whole life should you remember it.
That is what people say isn’t it?
That when ugly things happen, we push them away to the deepest darkest part of our brain. To a place where they remain, hidden from the world and even yourself. A survival technique to stop the pain and prevent any damage. It takes work with a therapist to uncover these memories and doing so is a huge step.
Well, yes that is possible and if so, it is ok to talk about it. It is also ok to not talk about it.
However, it is also possible that your memory is complete. That your childhood was unremarkable with no big story. The average childhood that most people hope for. Generational trauma could explain your connection to the symptoms of trauma.
What is generational trauma?
People sometimes appear surprised when I mention the impact of the environment on genes. It is true that your environment changes your genes. As explained by Robert Sapolsky in his book Behave,
“Stimulating environments, harsh parents, good neighbourhoods, uninspiring teachers, optimal diets – all alter genes in the brain”.
I know – you’ve already done the maths. If your ancestors’ experiences altered their genes, and you inherit your genes from your ancestors. Yes, absolutely – you inherit their unhealed trauma too.
In addition to this, your ancestors’ experience of trauma might cause them to build environments that create further trauma. For example, emotional numbness with the discussion of feelings out of bounds or a sign of weakness. Trust issues with people outside of the close community and in conflict, anxious or overly protective before a threat is present.
Generational Trauma Definition
Generational trauma is still in the early stages of research and the bulk of it explores the offspring of holocaust survivors. Therefore, there is very little in the way of a specific definition. Generational trauma is also called intergeneration trauma and transgenerational trauma. It is trauma that passes down through the generations.
Examples of generational Trauma
The current research explores historical collective traumatic experiences, such as the Ukrainian Holodomor in 1932 – 1922 and the sustained trauma of aboriginal communities in Canada. However, one article, published in Scientific American in 2015 offered a pictographic showing the transgenerational effects of trauma. A paternal grandfather overfed as a child has a grandchild that is more likely to die at a younger age. A paternal grandmother with extreme variations in food availability has a granddaughter at greater risk of heart disease and you guessed it – a mother that survived the Holocaust has a child with a possible higher risk for PTSD.
How to Heal Generational Trauma
Healing generational trauma is much the same as healing from trauma. Trauma is not the experience but the feelings that arise because of the experience. When you heal trauma, you work through the feelings rather than the experience itself.
To heal and break the cycle you must find a therapist with whom you feel safe. Trauma is mostly caused when you feel unsafe in a situation. With trauma often comes a feeling of shame. This feeling is destructive and unnecessary but hard to reject. The first step to healing from generational trauma is to realise it as something you were born with rather than a problem you created or caused.
It feels more comfortable to take the first step and book a consultation with a therapist when you know that your symptoms of trauma are real but not necessarily a result of an awful experience that you’ve locked away. In the therapy room you will get the safe space you need to heal from the negative symptoms of trauma that get you every day with seemingly little obvious reason.
Bierer, L. M., Bader, H. N., Daskalakis, N. P., Lehrner, A. L., Makotkine, I., Seckl, J. R., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Elevation of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 activity in Holocaust survivor offspring: evidence for an intergenerational effect of maternal trauma exposure. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 48, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.06.001
Weaver, I. C., Cervoni, N., Champagne, F. A., D’Alessio, A. C., Sharma, S., Seckl, J. R., … & Meaney, M. J. (2004). Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nature neuroscience, 7(8), 847-854. weaver.pdf (utexas.edu)
(2022). Retrieved 20 April 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=0A9A11AD-5C7A-4ACE-8AF4966172D2F855