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How Our Parents Can Affect Us: The Austinite's Guide to Intergenerational Trauma

Trauma is a response to certain situations that have enabled us to survive as a human species. When confronted with stress, we respond in a way that helps us cope in that moment, although living in survival mode can negatively impact our mental health.

So then, what is intergenerational trauma? Also referred to as multigenerational trauma or historical trauma, intergenerational trauma is trauma that has been passed down from a survivor to future generations. This is not simply limited to close family members like parents or grandparents; there are often many generations of responses to traumatic events.

For example, if a parent grew up in a household with lots of yelling, they are more likely to repeat this cycle with their own children. This same situation can also apply to mental health problems or substance abuse.

Health Effects of Intergenerational Trauma

Some Examples of Intergenerational Trauma

Treatment and Coping for Intergenerational Trauma

Strategies For Healing Intergenerational Trauma

How We Can Help Generational Trauma

Health Effects of Intergenerational Trauma

People who experience intergenerational trauma can have symptoms similar to those of PTSD symptoms, because they are dealing with the results of a traumatic event. They may be hypervigilant, anxious, or have difficulty regulating their emotional and behavioral reactions. However, because they did not personally experience the traumatic event, they don't have intrusive memories or flashbacks.

Intergenerational trauma can also cause physical health consequences. Those who experience generational trauma are at greater risk for certain health conditions such as stroke, heart disease, and even early death.

Some Examples of Intergenerational Trauma

There are some extremely wide-reaching examples of intergenerational trauma that effect thousands, or even millions of people based on a series of events or systemic injustices.

Generational trauma in Indigenous Communities

The erasure of native culture for those who were indigenous to North America has created decades of generational trauma for this population. Indian residential schools took native children from their parents and subjected them to physical and sexual abuse.

Even today, indigenous communities endure systemic racism and stigma from governments while still trying to heal from the collective trauma of the past. Mental health suffers, with the descendants of the residential schools at greater risk of anxiety and depression, substance abuse, and even thoughts of suicide.

Generational Trauma in Holocaust Survivors

Holocaust survivors are another large group of generational trauma survivors. Torture and genocide are some of the most traumatic events that a population can face, and millions suffered under the Nazi regime. Holocaust survivors passed down the trauma to subsequent generations, leading to chronic stress, psychological distress, mental health conditions, and physical health problems.

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Black Communities

Years of enslavement, systemic abuse and racism, and current injustices make intergenerational trauma a serious and continuing problem in Black communities. Hyperawareness is common with historical trauma, as are increased anxiety, depression, and cortisol levels. Traumatic experiences can affect one generation to the next, and even now, many of the current generations are living in survival mode.

Other Examples of Intergenerational Trauma Effects

Stress responses to large, complicated traumatic events such as natural disasters, war, genocide, and displacement can also start the ball rolling on trauma symptoms that can affect family members for generations.

War in general is one example of a traumatic event that affected families all around the world for generations. Soldiers come home with PTSD, and their own children learn to adapt to mental illness that goes largely untreated. Trauma transmission may have led to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and any number of other mental health conditions, particularly for the Baby Boomers and their children.

Treatment and Coping for Intergenerational Trauma

A mental health professional is often required to facilitate healing intergenerational trauma. Trauma responses that go beyond personal trauma can be complicated and have deep roots. Intergenerational trauma affects family members in ways that generally require more than simple coping strategies.

A person who has experienced intergenerational trauma often also deals with adverse childhood experiences as an effect of parental trauma. A clinical psychologist can help by identifying and guiding the client through their traumatic experience and helping them learn coping responses to manage stress. Family therapy may also be recommended to address generational trauma.

Strategies For Healing Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma can be healed by creating circumstances that will stop it from continuing to affect families into the next generation. Community resources for domestic violence, a child protection system, and public health initiatives can help put a stop to the trauma responses.

Therapy for Intergenerational Trauma

Therapy is a good start for working through adverse childhood experiences as well as creating an environment for your own family to heal in. Intergenerational trauma can be stemmed at a personal level by creating an environment of healing within your own home. Therapy can offer the skills required to change your reactions and behaviors to triggers from generational trauma.

Coping Through Family Closeness

Parents trauma symptoms can be better managed with therapy, and in turn, they can create a family environment that offers closeness, love, and healthy coping mechanisms to the next generation. Intergenerational trauma is complicated, but it can be stopped with love and some effort.

Other Coping Mechanisms for Intergenerational Trauma

People who have experienced generational trauma have used any number of coping responses over the years, both adaptive and maladaptive. Some adaptive responses include humor, resilience, and family bonding. Maladaptive practices include things like substance abuse, avoidance, and a heightened sense of danger.

Cultural awareness of what earlier generations did to manage their historical trauma can help deal with the trauma responses of today. This can include things like song, dance, spiritual practices, healing circles, writing, art, or storytelling.

How We Can Help Generational Trauma

Even people who aren't dealing with the effects of historical trauma can help those who are. We can support those who inherit trauma by advocating for community programs that target the disparities that propagate the intergenerational transmission of trauma, and seek to end these disparities.

Therapy with a licensed Austin professional can also help to curb the immediate symptoms of intergenerational trauma.

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