It’s no secret that trauma is a global issue. According to a study done by the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 70% of people will experience a traumatic event at some point in life. Other research shows that more than half of the population will suffer some form of trauma in their lifetime. A less-talked-about, but potentially very damaging, form of trauma is known as intergenerational trauma (also called generational trauma or transgenerational trauma).
In short, generational trauma is psychological damage caused by exposure to traumatic events experienced by previous generations in a family or community.
Keep reading to learn more, as we answer the question: what is intergenerational trauma and look at signs and symptoms, causes, examples, and coping mechanisms you can use to heal from this type of historical trauma.
What Is Generational Trauma?
Generational trauma is the transference of traumatic experiences or stressors from one generation to the next. One of many types of trauma, it can happen through direct experience, witnessing violence, or living in an environment where violence is a constant threat.
“Generational trauma is the harmful effects of historical mistreatment or abuse. The symptoms of these traumas are passed down from generation to generation.”– Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, Ph.D., LCSW
This form of psychological trauma can lead to physical and mental health problems as well as social and emotional difficulties. For example, children who grow up in homes with domestic violence and experience childhood trauma may develop anxiety or depression as adults. They may also have trouble trusting people or forming intimate relationships — this cycle of unresolved trauma can affect generations to come.
Generational trauma can be passed down through DNA to family members. Some people may be predisposed to it, but it’s important to remember that not everyone who experiences intergenerational trauma has symptoms related to their experience. Many factors are at play regarding inherited trauma, including resilience, support systems, and resource access.
“Some of the trauma may or may not have been experienced by each person in the family, but how family members who’ve experienced the trauma raise their children or interact with other family members affects the path of others’ lives. This could be because a mother or parents were hit by their parents or live in an unsafe neighborhood and are fearful for their child all the time that their child develops fears associated with their parents’ fears. This can also be because their parents are using substances to block out some of the effects from the trauma, and the children learn not to discuss their feelings but to mask them using substances as well.”– Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, Ph.D., LCSW
The good news is there are ways to heal from generational trauma. With support, therapy, and time, it’s possible to break the cycle of pain and suffering caused by this type of long-term psychological damage.
Signs & Symptoms of Generational Trauma
Generational trauma can occur when a group is subject to a traumatic experience like war, natural disasters, racism, sexism, or oppression. The effects of the trauma can be passed down to subsequent generations through both genetic and cultural transmission.
“The symptoms of generational trauma include hypervigilance, fears of death or no hope for the future, mistrust of outsiders, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), low self-esteem, issues of addiction, domestic violence, and sexual abuse.”– Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, Ph.D., LCSW
There are many signs of generational trauma, including:
- Chronic pain
- Substance abuse disorders
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Low self-esteem
- Fear of death
- Anger issues
- Difficulty trusting others
What Causes Generational Trauma?
War, natural disasters, genocide, and slavery can all cause generational trauma. When these traumatic experiences are passed down from generation to generation, they affect how people think, feel, and behave. Many factors can contribute to generational trauma.
Historical oppression or violence against a particular group is a known cause of intergenerational trauma. African Americans who were enslaved may experience generational trauma because of the brutal conditions past generations were forced to live in and the constant fear of being separated from their families.
Another factor is cultural dislocation, which happens when someone’s forced to leave their homeland due to conflict or persecution. This can lead to feelings of loss and isolation that can be passed down through the generations.
Generational trauma can also be caused by poverty or difficult life circumstances that make it hard to thrive emotionally, mentally, or financially. An example might be if your parents grew up in extreme poverty and didn’t have access to adequate education resources or health care.
Lack of opportunity
A general lack of opportunity can create feelings of hopelessness that are passed down to future generations.
In utero exposure
Some research suggests that exposure to toxic stressors in utero might result in changes in brain structure and function and cause developmental delays. The long-term effects might impact learning ability and emotional regulation, which can impact later generations.
In addition to the above contributors, generational trauma is often accompanied by other disadvantages like racism, sexism, or homophobia, compounding the negative impact. People who suffer from generational trauma often face significant barriers to success in multiple areas of life.
Examples of Generational Trauma
There are countless examples of how generational trauma can occur. Some common examples include the following:
- War: Children who grow up in an environment of conflict may be more likely to experience PTSD than those who don’t. This could lead to passing on symptoms to their children.
- Natural disasters: Those who survive a major national disaster — like an earthquake, major tornado, or tsunami — may suffer from long-term mental health problems like anxiety and depression. If they have children, it might be difficult to bond or provide adequate care because of their emotional difficulties. As a result, their kids may also struggle with similar symptoms later in life.
- Racism: Systemic racism can create an intergenerational cycle of poverty and violence that traumatizes individuals and entire communities. For example, people living in neighborhoods with high crime levels are more likely to develop types of depression and PTSD than those living in safer areas. This increased risk could be passed down through generations if not addressed.
Generational trauma doesn’t just affect individuals — as we can see, it can have lasting consequences for whole families and communities for generations to come.
How to Heal Generational Trauma
As noted earlier, it is possible to heal from generational trauma. The following tips show you how.
Coping mechanisms for generational trauma
Any population that’s experienced collective trauma has a risk for generational trauma. However, several coping mechanisms can help. Some strategies include:
- Identifying and acknowledging the effects of past traumas on your life. This is an important first step in healing from generational trauma. Talking about your experiences with someone you trust can be incredibly beneficial.
- Educating yourself about your history and learning about what happened to previous generations might help you make sense of your own experiences. Sometimes, it may become a source of pride and lead to a connection to those who came before you.
- Practicing self-care is essential. You must learn to care for yourself emotionally and physically. This might include exercise, relaxation techniques, outdoor time, and a healthy diet, for example.
- Connecting with others who’ve shared similar experiences and understand what you’re going through can be very beneficial. Support groups are often available for people affected by specific types of trauma.
- Seeking professional help if you feel like you’re struggling to cope, it might be time to consider talking to a therapist or counselor who works with trauma survivors. While talking through your trauma with peers can be helpful, partaking in trauma dumping can stimulate more negative effects. Trauma therapy can help you learn how to deal with trauma effectively.
Professional treatment for generational trauma
Though some people may not be aware of the term “generational trauma,” it’s a reality for many. Generational trauma can be best defined as psychological and emotional wounds that have accumulated over time and transferred to future generations.
Trauma symptoms can manifest in multiple ways, including:
- Substance abuse
- Relationship issues
It’s common for intergenerational trauma to go untreated. This might be attributed to people not even realizing that what they’re going through is a result of past unhealed trauma that’s been passed down through the generations.
Different types of therapy can provide support and guidance in working through complex emotions related to intergenerational trauma. If you’ve been affected by generational trauma, seek help from a trauma therapist or other mental health professional. They can assess your situation. There’s no shame in getting help — it’s incredibly courageous.
Taking steps to address your mental health is integral to taking care of yourself and working towards healing the wounds of the past. Most importantly, it’s instrumental in breaking the cycle so you don’t continue the pattern of passing down trauma to the next generation.
Work Towards Healing Generational Trauma with Talkspace
If you’re struggling, first, know that you’re not alone. Then, remember that help is available. Many people have survived and broken the generational trauma cycle.
While it may seem daunting, there are effective steps you can take. Coping mechanisms such as trauma therapy services, journaling for mental health, and spending time in nature can help you work through your emotions and start to rebuild your life. With time and effort, you can heal from generational trauma.
Talkspace can connect you to a skilled, qualified therapist to get started with mental health services. So don’t suffer in silence — get the help you need to heal and move forward.
- Kessler RC, Aguilar-Gaxiola S, Alonso J, et al. Trauma and PTSD in the WHO world mental health surveys. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. 2017;8(sup5):1353383. doi:10.1080/20008198.2017.1353383. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5632781/. Accessed November 23, 2022.
- Va.gov: Veterans Affairs. How Common is PTSD in Adults? https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp. Published September 13, 2018. Accessed November 23, 2022.
- Bowers ME, Yehuda R. Intergenerational transmission of stress in humans. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2015;41(1):232-244. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.247. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4677138/. Accessed November 23, 2022.
- Weisburd D, Cave B, Nelson M, et al. Mean streets and mental health: Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at crime hot spots. American Journal of Community Psychology. 2018;61(3-4):285-295. doi:10.1002/ajcp.12232. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6394830/. Accessed November 23, 2022.
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