Unraveling generational trauma: A guide to understanding and healing

Trauma can have huge impacts on the life of the person who experienced it, but it can also have echoes in families for generations. Generational trauma occurs when someone experiences a traumatic event and the impact it has on that person is “passed down” or continues to be experienced by later generations in the family line.

Though it can be incredibly difficult to discern the presence of generational trauma in one’s life and extricate its influence from one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, generational trauma can be healed with help from a mental health professional.

Can Trauma be Passed Down Through Generations?

Yes, it absolutely can be and often is passed down through generations — both emotionally and, sometimes, physically. Trauma causes physiological and psychological changes in the individual and impacts thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 

Humans engage in social learning patterns, and we observe, respond, and develop our own schemas, attitudes, and beliefs about life by observing our parents or caregivers. Thus, we can adapt those trauma-altered behaviors through observational learning as well as a genetic predisposition to carry remnants of trauma in our genetic and biological systems.

What Is Generational Trauma? Defining Generational Trauma

Generational trauma is trauma that has been “passed down” or experienced throughout generations of a family line. Generational trauma typically occurs when one individual in a family line experiences a traumatic event that impacts them for the rest of their life, and in turn, impacts their children and their descendants through the parent’s emotions, behaviors, and beliefs. 

Generational trauma can take many forms, and the initial trauma(s) can be either singular or enduring, such as experiencing war or oppression. The impact those events have on the individual can then have lasting psychological and even physiological effects on the sufferer’s children, grandchildren, and even distant descendants.

Who Suffers from Generational Trauma?

Anyone can suffer from generational trauma regardless of their age, race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status (SES), or ethnicity. Those who at a higher risk of experiencing generational trauma are those with ancestors who have experienced and/or witnessed a traumatic event(s) such as: 

  • War
  • Oppression
  • Persecution
  • Acts of violence
  • Prolonged exposure to chronic stress

Further, you are more likely to experience the effects of generational trauma if you and/or your ancestor who experienced the trauma did not have many protective factors, such as a supportive social network, professional counseling, and healthy coping skills.

What Are Common Signs of Generational Trauma?

Signs of generational trauma are highly specific and individualized to each individual, their lived experiences, and the experiences of their ancestors. 

However, some common signs that you might have generational trauma can include: 

Physical health conditions and patterns and symptomatology that are present generationally can also indicate the presence of generational trauma, such as IBS, seizure disorders, high blood pressure, stroke, and, potentially, autoimmune disorders.

How Do You Know If You Have Ancestral Trauma? Recognizing the Signs Within Families

One of the best ways to explore if you have ancestral trauma present is to discuss and engage in helpful activities with a licensed mental health professional. One of the best tools a licensed mental health professional will do is create a genogram. 

Genograms not only identify family members and generations of family members, but also ask to identify relationships that each family member had with each other (if known to each other). Then, when the genogram is completed, you will look at patterns and trends of relationships and events that happened in each person’s life. You can find patterns of mental conditions, for example, and even struggles with substance abuse, abortion, divorce, or sexuality

What Are 5 Key Symptoms of Intergenerational Trauma?

While it’s hard to limit signs and symptoms to simply five, there can be five symptom criteria that are present and can indicate that one suffers from intergenerational trauma. Some researchers posit that demonstration of these symptoms can show (but do not diagnose) potential for intergenerational trauma: 

Of course, many of these symptoms can be individually indicative of other mental illnesses or forms of trauma, so it’s important to consult with a trained mental health professional. But, if you’re experiencing these symptoms chronically, they can be indicative that you’re experiencing complications of intergenerational trauma. 

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What Are the Triggers of Generational Trauma?

What can trigger behavioral and emotional expression tied to generational trauma in an individual is specific not only to that individual but to the individual’s life circumstances and environment. Some triggers can include: 

  • Childhood trauma
  • Abusive parents/caregivers
  • Domestic violence in relationships
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

There is a widely accepted model that explains the expression of psychological distress called the diathesis-stress model. The diathesis-stress model states that there are a certain number of vulnerabilities that predispose someone to the expression of disordered behaviors and emotions when exposed to a traumatic event. These include: 

  • Biological factors
  • Psychological conditions already present
  • Genetics
  • Childhood trauma/any past trauma experienced

These vulnerabilities can deprive individuals of protective factors while also exposing and increasing the severity of these vulnerabilities, making them feel more intense and harder to deal with. 

Generational Trauma and Its Impact on Mental Health and Well-Being

Generational trauma has a significant, direct impact on mental health and well-being due to how it often remains undetected through generations of family behavioral and emotional patterns and trends. 

Generational trauma significantly increases an individual’s likelihood of experiencing mental disorders like PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other related disorders. 

Further, generational trauma that’s left untreated can predispose someone to carry negative, maladaptive thoughts and beliefs about themself and others that can increase the likelihood of distancing and withdrawal behaviors. The point is, unless someone takes steps to heal generational wounds present in themselves (i.e. speaking with a mental health professional), generational trauma will continue to impact current and later generations.

Strategies for Healing and Breaking the Cycle of Generational Trauma

Generational trauma is most effectively healed through engagement in professional counseling services. 

During your engagement in counseling for generational trauma, you can expect to explore behavioral and emotional patterns and trends within your family relationships, as well as take time to track your moods and behaviors while noting which aspect of them could be maladaptive. Certain moods and maladaptive behaviors can impair one’s life and daily functioning in impactful, but sometimes subtle, ways, so it’s important to be aware of them.

Next, you begin to identify triggers and stressors that increase the likelihood of you engaging in these maladaptive behaviors and identify coping strategies to replace these patterns with ones that are adaptive and healthy.

A mental health professional can guide you through these processes, tailoring them to what works best for you and your concerns. Though it’s difficult and takes time, you can end the cycle of trauma in your family and choose to live the life you want and deserve.

 

Table of contents

Can Trauma be Passed Down Through Generations?

What Is Generational Trauma? Defining Generational Trauma

Who Suffers from Generational Trauma?

What Are Common Signs of Generational Trauma?

How Do You Know If You Have Ancestral Trauma? Recognizing the Signs Within Families

What Are 5 Key Symptoms of Intergenerational Trauma?

What Are the Triggers of Generational Trauma?

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  • Rahal, H., Videlock, E. J., Icenhour, A., Shih, W., Naliboff, B. D., Gupta, A. R., Mayer, E. A., & Chang, L. (2020). Importance of trauma‐related fear in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and early adverse life events. Neurogastroenterology and Motility, 32(9). https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.13896

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