In the same way previous generations pass on genetic characteristics to you, research shows that they also pass along “acquired” or epigenetic characteristics born out of emotionally charged, traumatic experiences. It’s called generational trauma (or ancestral trauma), and it can be a powerful influence in your life as it can increase your vulnerability to a number of mental health conditions.
For those who have never experienced trauma first hand, yet suffer from inexplicable symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues—such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, dissociation, hypervigilance, shame, guilt, and more—it can be a great relief to learn that ancestral trauma may be the source.
UNDERSTANDING GENERATIONAL TRAUMA
Generational trauma may begin with a traumatic event affecting an individual, or a traumatic event(s) affecting multiple family members, or collective trauma affecting the larger community, cultural, racial, ethnic, or other groups/populations (known as a historical trauma).
While ancestral trauma has the potential to affect us all, those at the greatest risk are in families and groups that have experienced significant forms of abuse, neglect, torture, oppression, and racial disparities. It’s common in the progeny of war refugees and victims of enslavement, genocide, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty.
Researchers first noted generational trauma in the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the Holocaust. Findings from a study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research show that children and grandchildren of survivors are at higher risk of anxiety disorders and PTSD.
Another study in the American Journal of Psychotherapy found that among referrals to a child psychiatry clinic, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented by 300% compared to their peers. Research has shown similar effects in the descendants of many other historical traumas. That’s not surprising since children of a parent struggling with PTSD are 3 times more likely to have PTSD themselves.
Generational trauma is also present in families where there has been significant emotional trauma such as divorce, tragic accidents or losses, abandonment, parental incarceration, substance abuse, a death by suicide, or early death of a family member.
These traumas have lasting consequences. For example, with early death, the nervous system can be so deeply impacted that it changes the nature of family members’ genes, which can affect offspring for generations.
Negative parenting behavior can be a source of trauma as well. When parents have unresolved trauma, their parenting can be negatively impacted by depression, substance abuse, mental illness, and other conditions. They can become less attuned as parents and model negative coping skills. They may even become perpetrators of their own trauma; sexual abuse is often repeated in families for generations.
Ancestral trauma has been shown to affect the brain. A large 2019 study found that the children of parents with depression had smaller volume in the pleasure centres of their brain, which placed them at risk of developing depression themselves.
STOPPING GENERATIONAL TRAUMA
The great news is that ancestral trauma can be stopped, but it will not go away on its own. Families can make resilience their new legacy by actively seeking to address the trauma.
Building resilience through open and loving communication between generations is one of the best ways to loosen generational trauma’s grip. Healing happens when family members speak up and work through any hurt, pain, or abuse from the past.
If you are a parent, mental health experts suggest that you seek your own support and share your trauma openly with your children and possibly your grandchildren too. Tell them your story and whatever you know about what happened to your parents and your grandparents.
If you are an adult child of parents or grandparents who may have trauma, ask them about their experiences. Find out as much as you can about your ancestry. Notice any automatic patterns, beliefs, or narratives from your family that you continue to portray.
Talk through them with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist and consider new ways of being and communicating. Start creating a future for yourself without the pain of inherited trauma.
Innovative therapies can be very helpful in resolving generational trauma. For example, somatic therapy is a type of trauma therapy that involves paying close attention to your inner body sensations as a way to regulate emotions.
Also, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can be a very powerful treatment for people who have been emotionally traumatised. It uses eye movements or other alternate hemisphere stimulation to remove the emotional charges of traumatic memories.
If you suspect generational trauma may be affecting you, reach out to a qualified mental health professional for help. The anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues you experience may not be all yours.
Generational trauma and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Sundardas Naturopathic Clinic, we’re here for you.
Prof Sundardas D Annamalay
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“Psychosomatic experiencing is about working directly with your nervous system. You are about to become intimately familiar and comfortable with your inner survival system. You will learn how to shift the different emotional states to a manageable level within a few minutes.
When our emotions are running our lives, we are not in a state of calm aliveness. Rather, there are imbalances in the nervous system that cause problems. It causes imbalances in other systems and organs in our body. Not to mention how these imbalances influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours towards ourselves and others.”