top of page

Generational Trauma: What is it and How Can it Impact Our Lives?

Updated: Feb 23

Generational trauma refers to the psychological effects that the trauma experienced by one generation can have on subsequent generations. While this topic has garnered increasing attention in the realm of mental health, its impact on our work and personal lives is a conversation that is just beginning to unfold. In this blog post, we delve into how generational trauma can subtly, yet significantly, affect our lives and provide insight into breaking the trauma cycle.

Defining and Understanding Generational Trauma

older hand touching younger hand through pane of glass

Generational trauma is more than an historical footnote; it is a legacy that intertwines pain and loss with resilience and growth. It is particularly prevalent in families where cycles of abuse, neglect, or other dysfunctional systemic patterns are prevalent, as well as the descendants of those who have survived major historical traumas, such as wars, genocides, or colonial oppression. The impact of these traumas does not simply fade away; instead, the effects leave lasting imprints on future generations (Van der Kolk, 2014). These imprints can be transmitted through various channels, including psychological, biological and sociocultural.


Psychological Transmission

The first layer of understanding generational trauma comes from psychology. Behaviour and attachment styles can be traced back to trauma that is passed down from parent to child, across multiple generations.


  • Behavioral Patterns: Children often learn and mimic behaviors from their parents. If a parent has unresolved trauma, they may display behaviors like hyper-vigilance, social isolation, or aggression, which can be internalized by their children. This concept is supported by the theory of social learning (Bandura, 1977), which suggests that people can learn new behaviors through observation and imitation.

  • Attachment Theory: According to Bowlby's attachment theory, the bond between a parent and a child lays the foundation for future relationships. Traumatic experiences can affect a parent’s ability to provide secure attachment, leading to potential attachment difficulties in children (Bowlby, 1969). Generational trauma can also directly influence parenting styles, and may lead to emotional neglect or maladaptive coping styles, which may affect children in ways that persist into adulthood (Danieli, 1998).


Biological Transmission

The biology of generational trauma is rooted in the study of epigenetics, which refers to changes in gene expression that do not involve alterations to the genetic code itself. Below is a brief overview of these biological transmissions.


  • Epigenetic Changes: Research has shown that traumatic experiences can lead to epigenetic modifications. These changes can affect how genes are expressed (read and interpreted by our cells), and some of these epigenetic markers can be passed down to subsequent generations ((Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018). For instance, studies on the descendants of Holocaust survivors have revealed epigenetic changes associated with stress response (Yehuda et al., 2016).

  • The Stress Response System: Trauma can alter the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates the stress response. This alteration can predispose the children of stressed parents to increased risk of developing stress-related disorders (Weaver et al., 2004).


Sociocultural Transmission

The transmission of trauma is not only psychological or biological but is also deeply embedded in sociocultural contexts.


  • Narrative and Storytelling: The stories and narratives shared within families and communities about past traumas can shape an individual's worldview and sense of identity, influencing their perception of stress and adversity. Family stories, community narratives, and cultural practices can perpetuate the memory and impact of trauma (Hirsch, 2008).

  • Socioeconomic Factors: Trauma is often intertwined with socioeconomic conditions. For instance, communities that have faced historical trauma (e.g., colonization, slavery) often contend with systemic inequalities that perpetuate stress and trauma.


The Importance of Addressing Generational Trauma


Understanding generational trauma is crucial for several reasons. It helps in recognizing patterns of behaviour and mental health challenges within families, workplaces and communities that may have roots in past traumas. Addressing these issues is essential for healing and breaking the cycle of trauma, which is not only significant for individuals but also for societal advancement (Williams-Washington & Mills, 2018).


As we explore this topic, we gain insights into the depth of human resilience and the ways in which addressing and healing from past traumas can contribute to building a healthier future. Generational trauma is a reminder of our interconnection and the enduring impact of our histories on our present and future lives. This exploration is a journey towards healing and empowerment, highlighting the importance of acknowledging and addressing the deep-rooted traumas that shape our lives.


Professional Challenges Stemming from Trauma Responses


Generational trauma can surface in numerous forms in the workplace, and can sometimes manifest in lost sleep, increased stress or burnout. It can be difficult to understand the origins of these responses.


  • Aversion to Risk: Traumatic experiences passed down from family members can instill a pervasive fear of failure, potentially causing individuals to shun risks and new opportunities, limiting both personal and professional growth.

  • Work-Life Imbalance: Traumatic backgrounds may lead to coping strategies like overworking or perfectionism, often concealing underlying anxiety and contributing to burnout.

  • Communication Hurdles: Trauma might result in increased sensitivity or defensiveness in communication, possibly leading to misunderstandings, difficulty with authority, or avoidance of confrontations. These issues can impede career development and workplace relationships.

Man working on laptop holding face in hands looking stressed.


Personal Lives: Echoes of Generational Trauma

The ramifications of generational trauma go beyond work, significantly affecting personal relationships and self-perception. Generational trauma can also impact emotion regulation, which can increase conflict in relationships.


  • Relationship Patterns: Historical trauma can influence personal interactions, potentially causing trust issues, fear of abandonment, or repetition of unhealthy familial patterns.

  • Parenting Approaches: Those affected by generational trauma might face challenges in parenting. From a place of deep love and caring, worries may often surface about transmitting similar traumas onto children, which can lead to over-protectiveness, unhelpful parenting styles or emotional distance.

  • Self-Identity and Confidence: Generational trauma can impact self-esteem and identity, often causing feelings of inadequacy, chronic self-doubt, or a lingering sense of not fitting in.


Father and son sitting together in a forest wearing brightly coloured raincoats

Approaches to Healing and Post-traumatic Growth

Consciously acknowledging the effects of generational trauma is helpful in addressing its impacts and developing post-traumatic growth. Here are some simple strategies:


  • Professional Therapy: Consulting therapists specialised in trauma can offer valuable insights and clarity into the origins of trauma-related coping mechanisms and stress responses. A trauma therapist can also provide support for developing resilience, establishing boundaries and learning helpful coping strategies.

  • Mindfulness and Self-Care: Regular mindfulness and self-care practices can assist in managing stress and emotional responses related to trauma. Mindfulness and self-care looks different for everyone, so it's important to identify what works best for you.

  • Education and Awareness: Learning about and understanding generational trauma can help individuals recognize patterns and initiate change.

  • Open Communication: Encouraging open conversations in both personal and professional settings can foster understanding and support.

  • Setting Boundaries: Establishing healthy boundaries across personal and professional relationships is essential in managing trauma's impact in all areas of life.

Where to from here?

Generational trauma is a dynamic, ongoing phenomenon that significantly influences our daily lives. Recognising and understanding its effects allows us to embark on a journey of healing and change, thereby breaking the trauma cycle and creating a legacy of resilience and optimism for future generations.


At Sentient Professional Wellbeing, some of our team are passionate about and dedicated to supporting clients who are ready to break free from generational trauma. We work alongside our clients to gain a deep understanding of their unique stories and histories that have shaped their lives and walk alongside in unwavering support as each personal journey unfolds and resolves.


For more information, or to book an appointment with a therapist for generational trauma support, please click below and visit our therapists' profiles:


holly shires, trauma therapist







rhiannon derrig, psychosexual therapist









References

  1. Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

  2. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

  3. Yehuda, R., Daskalakis, N. P., Bierer, L. M., et al. (2016). Holocaust Exposure Induced Intergenerational Effects on FKBP5 Methylation. Biological Psychiatry, 80(5), 372-380.

  4. Weaver, I. C., Cervoni, N., Champagne, F. A., et al. (2004). Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nature Neuroscience, 7(8), 847-854.

  5. Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking.

  6. Hirsch, M. (2008). The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press.

  7. Yehuda, R., & Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(3), 243–257.

  8. Danieli, Y. (Ed.). (1998). International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. Plenum Press.

  9. Williams-Washington, K. N., & Mills, C. P. (2018). Breaking the Chains: Examining the Endorsement of Modern Jezebel Images and Racial-ethnic Esteem Among African American Women. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 20(8), 945–959.

Comments


bottom of page