What Is Generational Trauma? Here’s How to Understand It and How to Heal
Give yourself time and grace as you work toward healing from these wounds.
All of us inherit characteristics from our parents that make us who we are. From eye color to personality, our given traits come from the DNA of our families of origin.
But while sparkling blue eyes and an outgoing personality are easy qualities to identify, other characteristics we receive from our families are more subtle, and can even be detrimental to our mental health. In fact, the pain and stress our parents (and ancestors) went through can actually be passed down, too.
These days we have a world for this below-the-surface, inherited suffering: generational trauma. While we may not experience exactly what our family members did, the memory and psychological effects of what they lived through can still live deep in our bones.
Here’s what you need to know about generational trauma, as well as how you can overcome it and break the cycle in your family.
Defining Generational Trauma
Also known as transgenerational trauma, or intergenerational trauma, generational trauma is defined as the psychological effects of collective trauma that was experienced by a group of people that gets passed down to the next generations of that group.
This trauma can come in different forms. On the macro level there’s historical trauma, like the trauma of slavery, segregation and racism upon Black Americans or the trauma of survival, genocide and anti-Semitism upon Jewish people.
On a micro level, generational trauma can be family-specific stemming from child abuse or neglect, alcoholism or even a car accident.
These collective traumas become part of a family’s collective memory and can define a family’s identity and influence habits. Left unresolved, trauma can lead to a passing down of depression, unhealthy coping strategies, anxiety, perfectionism and distrust of other people or groups as generational after generation repeats these patterns.
Generational trauma remains a relatively new concept and the impacts of it are still being researched. One of the first mentions of generational trauma appeared in a 1966 scholarly article about the high levels of psychological distress among Holocaust survivors’ children. While most of the research to date has been centered on this particular group, more and more studies are being done to better understand generational trauma within different populations.
How Generational Trauma Is Passed Down
Even though there is still much to be uncovered about generational trauma, researchers have made strides in determining how it is passed down from older generations to younger ones.
One method of transferring generational trauma is explained through epigenetics, which is “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epigenetics do not change your DNA—and can be reversed—but they can affect how your body reads your DNA. Research shows that things like cultural conditioning, memory and even micro-aggressions can cause our bodies to respond to these changes in our environment, which can then get passed down.
There’s also evidence of this happening in utero. Trauma experienced during pregnancy can trigger a woman’s stress hormones, particularly cortisol. Some studies have shown that this exposure to cortisol in the womb can lead to infants with abnormal cortisol levels.
How Generational Trauma Can Affect You
Generational trauma can present in various ways through your actions and your mental health. Here are just a few of the ways you might notice it coming up for you:
Anxiety and depression
If there’s a history of anxiety or depression in your family, you may notice those conditions in yourself. You might also see these conditions come up in response to the way you were raised, particularly your attachment style (which is largely created from how your parents treated you growing up).
Self esteem issues
Generational trauma can affect your confidence levels. This can happen as a result of comparisons made between your parents’ or ancestors’ trauma and upbringing to your own, especially if your life has been much “easier,” according to the older generations.
Negative coping strategies
When trauma happens, people cope with it in different ways. When it’s not addressed or worked through directly, people might turn to various coping strategies to find relief. You might struggle with addiction, for instance, as a way to deal with the unspoken or unrecognized trauma in your family, particularly if you learned these coping habits from your parents or older family members. Numbing with food, alcohol or shopping, for instance, are typical trauma response behaviors.
Constantly assessing threats around you or being on high alert constantly is another symptom of generational trauma. This can even lead to OCD-like behaviors like checking locks multiple times or washing hands constantly out of fear of getting sick. Especially if your childhood experience was marked by parents who are always on high alert, you might find that you inherited this quality as well. This might also show up as a general mistrust of new people and situations, or always assuming negative intentions of others.
Another way generational trauma can come up is as a detachment from feelings and emotions. You might have a hard time connecting with your feelings or communicating them to others. You might be more standoffish or withdrawn, subconsciously (or even consciously) not wanting to get close to other people.
Ways to Heal From Generational Trauma
Unlike the genetics that express eye color and other traits, the epigenetics of generational trauma are changeable. Healing is possible for families and communities who have borne the weight of this collective stress.
Here’s are three ways to get started:
Acknowledge the trauma
The first step toward healing generational trauma is to recognize that it exists. Especially if your family is the type to not discuss issues out in the open, you may have never heard their trauma actually expressed but more felt by their actions and way of being.
Talk openly with family members
The next thing you can do is try to open a dialogue between your parents and you about the history of family trauma they experienced (or that your ancestors experienced). This may be extremely difficult if your parents don’t want to go there and relive painful memories. Finding honest communication about these collective traumatic experiences, however, can take away some of the stress and taboo associated with them.
Work with a therapist to develop healthy coping strategies
Whether or not you’re able to find healing as a family, it may be important to work with a therapist as well to further discuss how to heal from generational trauma. Together, you and your therapist can discuss how to deal with trauma triggers and develop healthy coping strategies to support your mental health.
Breaking the Cycle
Generational trauma may feel overwhelming but it’s not insurmountable. Finding compassion and empathy for your family amid their struggle can allow you to find healing and see your loved ones (and yourself!) as humans worthy of love and joy. Give yourself time and grace as you work toward healing from these generational wounds.