A few weeks ago, my mother accompanied my children and me on an errand. We were in a familiar store, and my 6-year-old went up the escalator ahead of us and then walked off. My mother started to panic and stormed up the escalator, muttering that someone would take off with my daughter. At that moment, I, too, had felt unnerved but was trying to self soothe and remind myself that I knew exactly where my daughter was beelining, that we would be reunited in moments. Looking at my mother and seeing the external expression of the anxiety I was experiencing internally made something click. For years I have felt nervous when at the park or in a public space with my children, accounting for their every move. Even before I had children, when I worked as a nanny, I would pay close attention to the location of every child in the park so if their caregivers were looking for them, I could point them in the right direction and ensure their safety. I thought I had watched too many episodes of Law & Order SVU and Unsolved Mysteries (which may still be the case). When we were moving up that escalator, and I saw my own fear painted on my mother’s face, I realized that what I was experiencing was due to intergenerational trauma.
What is Intergenerational Trauma?
Psychologists first conceptualized intergenerational trauma in the 1960s. However, it is still being researched and understood, and there’s still a lot we are learning about it. What is intergenerational trauma? Intergenerational trauma, generational trauma, transgenerational trauma, and multigenerational trauma all refer to the passing of trauma from one generation to the next. Just as our definition of trauma has expanded, so has our understanding of intergenerational trauma. Those impacted by intergenerational trauma may share the symptoms, reactions, patterns, and emotional and psychological effects of trauma experienced by previous generations.
We can’t talk about intergenerational trauma without first defining trauma. Trauma can be understood as an emotional response to a terrible event. For years, when we thought about or spoke about trauma, we referred to “big T trauma.” War, a plane crash, rape, and the sudden death of a loved one, are under this category. We now understand that trauma doesn’t stop there. “Small T trauma,” which can be more challenging to capture, can be just as impactful. These incidents can include painful interpersonal experiences, like rejection and emotional abuse, harassment, and microaggressions. Some studies indicate that emotional abuse and neglect may be more harmful long-term than physical abuse. And like with most things, there aren’t just two categories but a spectrum of traumatic experiences, all of which can negatively impact one’s mental health.
What these experiences have in common is that they prompt a trauma response in the body. While you may be familiar with the fight, flight, or freeze responses, some theorists also include the fawn response. All are ways our body automatically responds to threats so that we can survive challenging situations. These are unconscious and automatic, fast-acting physical responses. The fight response is when we face a perceived threat aggressively, the flight response is when we run away from the danger, and freezing is when we are unable to move or act. Fawning is immediately taking action to please to avoid the threat or conflict. These are all adaptive responses in the face of a traumatic experience. However, some trauma survivors, including those who have experienced chronic abuse and neglect, may develop an overactive trauma response. This is like a sensitive alarm system. It keeps them safe, but it can also make it difficult to function daily and engage in the world.
What does it mean to have an overactive trauma response or a sensitive alarm system? It means that instead of only reacting to real danger (both physical and emotional), the alarm system may perceive danger when there isn’t any, or it prompts a response that is disproportionate to the perceived threat.
A few years ago, we had a humidifier set up in our bedroom to combat the cold, dry winter we were experiencing. One night we unknowingly put the humidifier right below the smoke alarm. In the middle of the night, the smoke alarm went off, and we were sure the house was on fire. In fact, my partner jumped out of bed and ran right into the wall. But there was no fire. Our alarm system was just sensitive.
Having an overactive trauma response is like having a sensitive alarm system that alerts you to a fire when it’s just moisture in the air or when you burnt the toast a touch and having this experience all the time.
When we consider what the trauma response can look like, we have to keep in mind the lengths we will go to to avoid it. That can look like compartmentalizing and avoiding the reality of what happened. In fact, for some, this can feel like the key to survival. The pain of their experience is often too great, and they feel unable to process their emotions, so they shut them away. The effects of trauma are persistent, however. They can carry on not only throughout an individual’s life but also throughout the lives of the generations that follow them.
Epigenetics, or Nature
Often, when people discuss intergenerational trauma, they turn to atrocities such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Holocaust, and the genocide of Indigenous populations to describe how the effects of trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. Survivors of these crimes against humanity were irrevocably changed by their experience, and studies support that their children were too. Scientists are now finding that trauma may cause change on the genetic, or rather, epigenetic level. In other words, years of research by biologists and geneticists suggest that prolonged exposure to trauma can change how our genes function. A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Mount Sinai discovered that out of a group of 40 children of Holocaust survivors, all had epigenetic changes to a gene that deals with cortisol, the hormone involved in our stress response. Their parents’ extreme stress and trauma throughout the Holocaust changed how they were born to handle stress themselves.
The studies on intergenerational trauma and epigenetics are telling; however, they are limited. It is difficult to come to firm conclusions based on people’s experiences, mainly because it would rely on the varied ways individuals process trauma and their accounts of those events. There is no ethical way to create a study that intentionally exposes some individuals to trauma but doesn’t expose the control group, only to study the impact on their genes. So, scientists have figured out how to replicate the ways that intergenerational trauma can occur using mice. Several studies on mice offer a clear illustration of the epigenetic component of intergenerational trauma, supporting the theory. In one study, the researchers blew acetophenone, which smells like cherry blossom, through the cages of adult male mice while simultaneously zapping their feet with an electric current. After doing this a few times, the mice associated the smell of cherry blossoms with pain. These males were then bred with female mice. When their pups smelled the scent of cherry blossom, they became more jumpy and nervous than pups whose fathers hadn’t been conditioned to fear it. The pups were raised by unrelated mice who had never smelled cherry blossoms to rule out that this was a learned response from their parents. The grandpups of the traumatized males also showed heightened sensitivity to the scent. Neither of the generations showed greater sensitivity to smells other than cherry blossom, so it seems clear that the inheritance was specific to that scent.
In another study, the researcher separated mouse mothers from their pups at unpredictable intervals and would confine the mothers in tubes or drop them in water, both stressful experiences for mice. When the mothers returned to the cage and their pups, they were frantic and distracted. They would often ignore the pups, compounding the stress of the separation on their offspring. Here we can see the traumatic response to the stress experienced by the mothers, and their pup, in turn, displayed altered behavior as adults. The intergenerational effects? The behavioral changes persisted in the offspring’s offspring. The researcher thought this could result from nurture: that mice traumatized as pups could have struggled due to their mothers’ struggles, replicating the neglect they experienced in childhood, passing on a behavioral legacy. The researcher studied only the male line to rule out that possibility, breeding untraumatized female mice with traumatized males and then removing males from the mother’s cage so that their behavior did not impact their offspring. The mice were raised in mixed groups to prevent them from reinforcing each other’s behaviors. And the symptoms were present intergenerationally, sometimes going out six generations.
A Response to Behaviors aka Nurture
The effect of intergenerational trauma does not stop there; beyond the more complex ways that our genes can be altered and changed by trauma, our thoughts and behaviors can be affected as well. The people who managed to live through the inhumane circumstances named above did not have access to mental health care. With no help to process what they had experienced, they weren’t given any option but to move forward as best they could. Many attempted to suppress their memories of what they had been subjected to. Still, they often battled severe depression and anxiety in the aftermath of the trauma they faced, and in some instances, they developed PTSD. With no framework for managing their symptoms, the ways they responded to their trauma were modeled for their children and adopted as learned behavior. In effect, they lived the rest of their lives in an acute state of traumatic stress response and unintentionally passed their survival tactics on to their children as a way of life.
The children of Holocaust survivors, for example, demonstrated that they over‐identified with their parents, had impaired self‐esteem, experienced the tendency to catastrophize, and feared that their parents’ traumas would be repeated. They also exhibited behavioral disturbances such as experiencing anxiety, nightmares, dysphoria, guilt, hypervigilance, and difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Children of Vietnam veterans displayed similar symptoms, and at the time, this was thought of by health professionals as “secondary traumatization.” The understanding was that the stresses of living with an individual who experienced trauma would, in turn, traumatize their families. The alarm or trauma response develops initially in reaction to a genuine threat. Then it continues to remain activated in both the generation that experienced the trauma first-hand and in the generations that follow, even if the danger no longer exists or doesn’t exist in the same way.
This brings me back to the escalator with my daughter and mother. My mother has survived considerable trauma throughout her life. She experienced countless abuses growing up, most of which she still prefers not to discuss, and later fled from her home country with her two-year-old son and sought refuge in a country she had never stepped foot in prior. It would make sense that my mother has a sensitive alarm system, and that alarm system shaped me when I was growing up. Countless factors have influenced my alarm system, and it seems likely that my daughter’s alarm system may also be affected by family history.
So what do I do with this Information?
If you’ve read all of this and feel overwhelmed and hopeless, you’re not alone. I first began to address my mental health struggles in high school. I spent a long while trying to understand them. I thought that perhaps they were a response to my circumstances. A lot was going on when I was growing up, and I didn’t know how to cope, nor did I always receive the support that I needed. Later, I looked at my family and saw the prevalence of anxiety and depression in my loved ones. It seemed likely that we were genetically predisposed to these mental illnesses. But when I started to consider my family history and the workings of intergenerational trauma, it seemed likely that my mental health struggles are a result of epigenetic factors, my family’s experiences of trauma, and the circumstances and contexts that I have had to manage. And that’s a lot. I initially felt overwhelmed and defeated. And then, I kept reading and found that there is still hope, and there are actions I can take to create change and stop the cycle.
How Do I Know if I am Experiencing the Effects of Intergenerational Trauma?
Intergenerational trauma can be hard to identify because it’s so diffuse over time. For individuals from marginalized communities, it’s often not difficult to trace back and find where the initial traumatic event or events occurred. Still, in some instances, there is no easily identifiable origin point. And in either case, many people living with intergenerational trauma don’t know the signs because they’ve lived with them for their entire lives and have become desensitized to them. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for those who experience intergenerational trauma to experience their own first-hand trauma at some point in their lives, making it difficult to parse out where the symptoms are originating from. Some indicators that you may be living with intergenerational trauma include: difficulty relating to or trusting others, difficulty processing stress and challenging situations, and experiencing frequent periods of anxiety and hypervigilance. These would all be synonymous with having a sensitive alarm system. You might also find that you share these symptoms with other members of your family, even those who didn’t grow up in your same household.
How to Heal from Intergenerational Trauma and Stop the Cycle
Understanding and Acceptance
It is vital to remember that there is no single or correct path toward healing and that the act of processing and working through trauma, especially long-standing intergenerational trauma, will vary for different people. For many, the first step tends to center around acceptance. That can look like accepting that this trauma has been carried throughout the generations of your family, accepting that it has had tangible impacts on your life, and accepting that you had no control over the circumstances you were born into. Learning about how intergenerational trauma works can be disheartening because it can feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy or like you were doomed to relive the pain of your ancestors. Still, to find a path forward, you must find a way to accept the reality of your and your family’s experience.
An overactive trauma response, or sensitive alarm system, can make it challenging to engage in the world the way you want to. As you read above, it can impact your relationships, work, self-image, etc. And while it can be difficult, once you know that you have an overactive trauma response, you can try to be intentional about caring for it. That may mean doing everything you can to care for your body, including getting enough sleep, responding to your body’s hunger cues, and moving your body. Beyond that, there are different ways to regulate your emotions when tough, including grounding techniques, meditation, and accessing social support. Find the ones that work for you and practice using them.
For some, it can help to talk about intergenerational trauma and its impact on the family. One of the reasons intergenerational trauma can be so pervasive is that many people don’t talk about their history with trauma. They might not recognize that they’re living with the effects of trauma, but more often than not, they don’t want to revisit the pain and shame they carry, so they do everything they can to push it aside as a matter of survival. But the effects of trauma sadly don’t just fade away if left unaddressed, and by not addressing it, the cycle is left to continue. Having conversations with your family about this shared trauma has the potential to be incredibly healing. It can help you feel less isolated and alone in your experience. You and your family can support each other in grieving what was lost to the trauma and celebrating the resilience shown in the face of the trauma.
Lastly, I would encourage people from a lineage of trauma to seek the guidance and support of a licensed professional. Because intergenerational trauma can be so all-encompassing, many people ultimately find that they need specific trauma treatment modalities like Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to manage their symptoms effectively. Finding a culturally sensitive therapist can help with this process, too, as they may be better equipped to help you understand and recognize the relationship with your intergenerational trauma within the specific context of your culture.
If you know that you’d like the help of a professional but don’t know where to start, please reach out. We would be honored to help you find the right therapist to set out to do this work.