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I invite you to remember a time when a friend, family member, or newscaster told a story about a life-threatening event and you went along for the ride. For some, this results in the body tensing up. Jaws clench, shoulders compress, and legs feel heavy. Feet tap nervously, hands sweat profusely, and the heart thumps audibly. Others might look over their shoulder or become more easily startled. Perhaps the thought of the world being unsafe surfaced or the belief that others cannot be trusted came to mind.
What if the story was never told to you? If a grandparent experienced exposure to extreme adverse events, can that carry over to a grandchild? Is it possible for post-trauma symptoms to impact a person even if they have not faced a Trauma first-hand or ever heard the story second-hand? Can Trauma be transmitted like eye-color or height? Consider a group subjected to genocide, a race enslaved for generations, a religious group that lived through a holocaust. What lasting effects do the prior generations’ Trauma hold?
Cue in…Intergenerational Trauma (ITT): where a psychological trauma experienced by a parent, family members, or a large group of people adversely affects the mental well-being of their offspring or a future generation.
How does ITT occur?
Extensive research has demonstrated that epigenetics is a primary driver of intergenerational Trauma. Epigenetics is the study of how one’s environment and behavior patterns impact genes. The hopeful note about epigenetics is that the impacts of past Trauma are malleable! The silver lining is that YOU can break the cycle of ITT and change how your past will impact future generations in your family! Healing from your own trauma history means you will experience changes in the way you think, feel, and behave with yourself, your family, and your community. This will then impact how future generations will inherit and learn how to think, feel, and behave too!
Might you have a history of intergenerational trauma?
In what ways might it show up in your day-to-day life? Intergenerational Trauma can appear in the form of emotional numbness, decreased self-esteem, feelings of shame, a sense of lack of safety, and even in the form of PTSD. It also appears in the avoidance of certain people or places, difficulty trusting in relationships, and coping in unhealthy ways.
I think I am impacted by ITT, what next?
Acknowledging its presence and accepting its real-life impact is the first step to healing. Be kind to yourself, practice self-compassion, and hold the belief that change is around the corner.
Because it is! The power of epigenetics means you hold the pen to rewrite the instructions! For every individual, the doors to unlock will be different. Consider your personal goals. What behaviors or thoughts are holding you back? Is there a relationship you would like to nurture? What contribution can you make to a healthier home environment?
As a member of a family, community, and of a larger group the personal change you commit to, has transformative power. With each positive step, the family you belong to takes a step forward. A community is a collective of individuals. As a member who belongs to a community, your individual improvement holds the power to change the community!
Cerdeña, J. P., Rivera, L. M., & Spak, J. M. (2021). Intergenerational trauma in Latinxs: A scoping review. Social Science & Medicine, 270, 113662. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113662
Yehuda, R., & Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(3), 243–257. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20568
Raypole, C. (2022, April 20). Intergenerational Trauma: What It Is and How to Heal. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/intergenerational-trauma#causes