What Is “Intergenerational Trauma”?
Intergenerational trauma, also known as generational or transgenerational trauma, is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as unconscious grief from historical trauma passed down from generation to generation.
According to the (APA), intergenerational trauma is “the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, resulting from massive group trauma.”
The APA notes that this theory is widely understood through the lens of the catastrophic events inflicted on Indigenous communities due to colonialism in North America—forced relocation, land dispossession, and loss of spiritual practices, language, and culture.
The APA explains that collective trauma responses might include substance abuse, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and suicidal thinking.
The Trauma Response
Humans have survived for thousands of years by evolving the ability to adapt. For example, if you live with chronic stress or have lived through a traumatic event, specific responses activate to help you survive—these are known as trauma responses.
Although these responses are helpful for short-term survival, being in that “survival mode” headspace is harmful to both physical and mental health in the long term.
Traumatic events can have a lasting impact on individuals and families. The trauma response can be physical, emotional, behavioral, or all of the above.
Research shows intergenerational trauma is a form of psychological trauma passed down from one generation of survivors to the next. Even though the second generation did not experience the trauma firsthand, they may still suffer from its effects.
This kind of trauma is transmitted through epigenetics, which studies how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes are expressed. This means that intergenerational trauma can be passed down through changes in gene expression, which can then be passed on to future generations.
Symptoms of intergenerational trauma often manifest as difficulties in relationships, mental health problems, and chronic stress. Thankfully, there is growing awareness of intergenerational trauma and its effects, and more and more resources are becoming available to help survivors heal.
“It Runs in the Family”
No family or individual is immune to the intergenerational impact of trauma. When thinking about trauma and its effects, many people think about war veterans. However, 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one traumatic eventduring their lifetime.
These traumatic events can be but are not limited to: abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), neglect (physical, emotional), poverty, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, sizeism, and religious persecution/trauma. The list goes on.
Experiencing any number of traumas can have a lasting impact on the person as well as their family members trauma is passed from parents to children. In addition, symptoms are often tied to the parents’ child-rearing since their trauma symptoms influence how they raise their child.
Intergenerational trauma can be seen in increased rates of mental health issues, substance abuse, and violence. It can also lead to difficulties in developing trusting relationships and establishing a sense of self-worth.
The coping skills, mental health issues, and life skills developed from the tragedy or trauma are passed down from one generation to the next. Much like cultural habits or customs are passed down, these difficult to deal with traits associated with intergenerational trauma can have a powerful influence on the lives of those who experience them.
Intergenerational Trauma and Addiction
Trauma of any kind forces people to do things they may never do otherwise. When we try to remedy things ourselves using drugs and alcohol, we may not even know from where the pain originates, just that it exists.
Intergenerational trauma and substance use disorders go hand-in-hand. One reason is that parents with substance use disorders (SUD) often struggle to provide a stable and loving home environment for their children.
As a result, their children may grow up feeling neglected or abandoned, leading them to develop their own substance use disorders to cope with the pain.
Another reason why intergenerational trauma is a risk factor for addiction is that trauma can lead to changes in the brain that make individuals more susceptible to developing substance use disorders.
Additionally, intergenerational trauma can disrupt family relationships and lead to generational cycles of abuse and violence. Dysfunctional family dynamics can create an environment where addiction is more likely to develop.
You Can Heal Your Trauma
Trauma, of any type should be addressed as soon as possible with a trained mental health professional. This therapist or counselor should be specifically trained in trauma care or trauma-informed care.
When it comes to intergenerational trauma, the patterns and behaviors may be so well ingrained in the individual that it’s difficult for them to see how their actions impact their lives and those around them.
Specialized treatment that acknowledges the historical context of intergenerational trauma is essential for healing to begin. Without this level of care, intergenerational trauma will continue to be passed down from one generation to the next.
If you or someone you know is struggling with intergenerational trauma, please reach out for help. There is no shame in seeking counseling services and getting the support you need to heal.
The intergenerational cycle of trauma and substance abuse is difficult to break. But it is possible. It starts with deciding to address the pain instead of continuing to numb it. Nobody is forcing you to be the person to manage this pain. If you would like to keep living your life as it is, that is your own choice. However, the good news is that if you find yourself tired, stuck, and ready to move forward – you will have the opportunity to enact meaningful change in your family for generations to come by seeking help. Restoration Recovery Center offers trauma-led substance use disorder treatment on a continuum of levels of care, from detox and residential treatment to aftercare groups and support. If you or someone you love is struggling with trauma or substance use, don’t hesitate to reach out. Call Restoration Recovery Center today at (888) 290-0925.