Topics Covered in This Post
• Why we don’t begin life as clean slates.
• What is inherited trauma?
• What is intergenerational trauma?
• The impact of historical trauma.
• Is it the trauma or the effects of trauma that are inherited?
• Can trauma be inherited genetically?
• Dealing with inherited trauma.
• Tips for dealing with inherited trauma.
The suggestion that we begin life with a clean slate (tabula rasa) is an old-fashioned belief that is no longer supported by scientific discoveries. We now know that much of who we become is determined before we even leave the womb by our genetic makeup. There are also other factors that were there prior to our birth that will be play a large part in who we become – one of these factors may be trauma that we inherit.
What is Inherited Trauma?
Trauma is a type of psychological stress that we experience when we are faced with something that overwhelms us. The symptoms can include shock, anxiety, disassociation, confusion, disorientation, and physical changes such as elevated heart rate (This response to a traumatic event will usually pass within a few hours, but it can lead to a more lasting condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Inherited trauma is where the triggering event was not something that we personally experienced (https://elemental.medium.com/scientists-are-discovering-how-trauma-can-be-inherited-f6bde9430675 ). It may even be passed down from generation to generation like some kind of toxic family legacy. It could mean that some of us will be at greater risk of developing depression, anxiety disorders, addiction issues, and poor physical health due to something that happened to our parents, grandparents, or even older ancestors.
It is now well established that untreated trauma can lead to all kinds of complications in an individuals life. It can negatively impact both physical and mental health. Research is now suggesting that it doesn’t just stop with the person who experienced the traumatic event. If left untreated, trauma may be passed down to future generations.
What is Intergenerational Trauma?
Intergenerational trauma (aka transgenerational trauma or generational trauma) is a term that is now being used to describe trauma that is inherited. It occurs when a parent or grandparent experiences extreme or prolonged periods of stress. It can mean that the descendants of the victim of trauma may experience symptoms such as:
- Anger issues
- Low self-esteem
- Addiction issues
- Fear of dying young.
- Relationship difficulties
- Problems with trusting other people.
- The sense that life is unsafe.
- Eating disorders (e.g. due to previous generations experiencing famine).
- A fight/flight response that is easily startled.
The Impact of Historical Trauma
Historical trauma is a type of intergenerational trauma. It occurs when something horrible happens to a specific ethnic, racial, or cultural group (https://www.acf.hhs.gov/trauma-toolkit/trauma-concept), and the trauma is then passed down to future generations. It was first identified among the descendants of the holocaust, but it has since been found within many other groups.
Is it Trauma or the Effects of Trauma That Are Inherited?
The experience of trauma can impact the way a person thinks and acts. One way this can happen can be in regards to attachment. For example, a child who is abused or neglected may respond to this be being aloof and distant in relationships. If this person then goes on to have children, this attachment style is likely to then impact that relationship. The question then is whether it was the trauma or the behavior in response to the trauma that is being passed on? Support is growing for the claim that it isn’t just the behavior that is being passed on but that trauma can be inherited through changes in DNA.
Can Trauma Be Inherited Genetically?
The science of intergenerational trauma is relatively new, but perhaps the most striking claim is that the experience of trauma can alter a person’s DNA code. The idea is that this happens when certain tags are added or removed from this code due to changes in the environment (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190326-what-is-epigenetics ). This altered DNA is then passed onto the next generation. More research is needed to fully understand what is going on here, but it does provide a tantalizing explanation for the mechanism of intergenerational trauma.
Dealing with Inherited Trauma
“By developing a relationship with the painful parts of ourselves—parts we have often inherited from our family—we have an opportunity to shift them. Qualities like cruelty can become the source of our kindness; our judgments can forge the foundation of our compassion.”
Mark Wolynn – It Didn’t Start With You
When we make the decision to deal with inherited trauma we are not only making a stand to improve our own life but also future generations. There can also be the sense that we are doing it on behalf of previous generations of our family. Our ancestors may not have been in a position to heal this trauma, but we can do it for them.
Nobody can really blame us for not dealing with this traumatic inheritance that was passed onto us. The easy thing to do is to just pass it onto the next generation. It takes real courage to not do this.
It can be helpful to think of inherited trauma as like a puzzle that is passed from one generation to the next. It can seem so unfair that we are left with such an inheritance – after all, we already have enough to deal with in our own life. There is another way of looking at it though. This puzzle can be a gift because solving it can lead to greater compassion and joy in life. This then becomes a gift that we can pass onto future generations.
Tips for Dealing with Inherited Trauma
“All of this suggests that one of the best things each of us can do—not only for ourselves, but also for our children and grandchildren—is to metabolize our pain and heal our trauma.”
Resmaa Menakem - My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies
- It is important to be open to the idea that trauma can be inherited from previous generations. Reluctance to accept this possibility might mean that the symptoms of this legacy go untreated.
- If you suspect that you are impacted by inherited trauma it can be helpful to work with a therapist. It is recommended that you choose a therapist that is familiar with inherited trauma.
- Self-compassion is one of the most important skills that can help us deal with any type of trauma – including inherited trauma.
- It can be helpful to think of trauma as an opportunity to improve our life rather than just something painful that we need to get rid of. The skills that we need to develop to heal from trauma can benefit us in every area of our life. This is why some people will claim that trauma can be a gift in disguise.
- Approaches such as family systems therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness, and genogram work (similar to a family tree).
If inherited trauma is an issue in your life, it may be worth considering joining our trauma program at 180 Sanctuary. Our internationally recognized approach makes use of the most effective treatments with a proven record of treating trauma. Contact us now for a no-obligation chat.