The scientific community has studied generational trauma for decades, but as you might guess, it takes at least two life cycles within a family to truly understand its effects. More current research reveals how trauma impacts multiple lives in many ways, especially regarding substance abuse.
What Is Generational Trauma?
Also referred to as intergenerational trauma, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines it as “a phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotional and behavioral reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself.” You might also hear it called secondary trauma, historical trauma, and multigenerational trauma.
The APA also notes initial research focused on descendants of survivors from the Dutch Winter Hunger Famine, the Holocaust, and Japanese American internment camps. Now, it includes American Indian tribes, families of Vietnam War veterans, and other large groups of mass atrocities.
Additionally, Duke University points to studies that reveal in-depth understanding of “generational challenges within families”—not only those who suffered in terrorist attacks and war, but also various forms of trauma, such as abuse, adverse childhood experiences, murder, rape, and other tragedies. A 2018 collective analysis of generational trauma studies indicated “there is now converging evidence supporting the idea that offspring are affected by parental trauma exposures occurring before their birth, and possibly even prior to their conception.”
One primary field of study that follows this concept is epigenetics, which examines environmental influences that affect gene expression. The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University states that “nature vs. nurture is no longer a debate: it’s nearly always both!” The center provides a rather fascinating outline of how the “‘biological memories’ associated with these epigenetic changes can affect multiple organ systems and increase the risk not only for poor physical and mental health outcomes but also for impairments in future learning capacity and behavior.”
However, the Harvard center also sheds a bit of positive light on the topic, indicating “recent research demonstrates that there may be ways to reverse certain negative changes and restore healthy functioning.”
How Might You Be Affected by Generational Trauma?
Studies indicate that children and grandchildren of survivors often suffer with various mood disorders—such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder—as well as PTSD. They have more risk factors for developing substance use disorder and alcohol use disorder as well. But why?
According to the APA, intergenerational trauma coupled with systemic racism compounds health issues for members of the BIPOC community, making healing more challenging. Extensive research conducted by clinical psychologist Monnica T. Williams at the University of Ottawa demonstrates that racism complicates anxiety-related disorders, heightens reactive coping, and essentially re-traumatizes individuals.
Some studies also suggest that individuals within the LGBTQIA2+ community suffer collective trauma from multiple angles, including “political battles over queer rights, hate crimes, and cissexism.” While slightly different than multigenerational trauma, current “regressive policies…e.g. religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, ‘bathroom bills’ impacting transgender people’s ability to access public space, and a ban on transgender troops from the military” place a sharper focus on the impact of widespread community oppression on mental health and substance misuse.
And to that point, researchers now understand how millions of Native Americans experienced historical trauma through extensive cultural oppression, forced displacement, and suppression of traditional customs and language. As a result, multiple generations have struggled with mental and physical wellness issues and substance abuse.
Additionally, some veteran studies on generational trauma indicate that “The offspring of war veterans showed increased psychological suffering as a function of their fathers’ war exposure intensity, but not of their fathers’ lifetime PTSD. These results could be used to suggest that mental health support for veterans’ offspring should consider the war exposure intensity of their fathers, and not just psychopathology. This could spare offspring’s suffering if this mental health support could be delivered early on, after veterans return from war.”
Symptoms of Intergenerational Trauma
One of the primary complications of this condition is many people don’t know how to express their trauma, much less begin healing from it, yet assume various attitudes and behaviors as a result of it. Duke University cites this example:
“A parent or grandparent who never truly healed from or explored their own trauma may find it very difficult to provide emotional support to a family member suffering from his or her own trauma. Sadly, many families ‘cope’ with intergenerational trauma by employing two unhealthy coping mechanisms: denial—refusing to acknowledge the trauma happened; and minimization—ignoring the impact of the trauma and making the traumatic experience appear smaller than it really is.”
Other maladaptive behaviors and attitudes include, but aren’t limited to:
- A detachment to nurturing others in their care
- A greater “fight, flight, or freeze” response
- A heightened sense of hypervigilance and mistrust
- A pessimist outlook on the future
- An inability to express deep emotions
- Challenges establishing self-esteem and self-confidence
In addition to the health issues listed above, many people with rooted trauma struggle with chronic health issues, insomnia, multiple autoimmune disorders, and higher rates of suicide ideation.
Whole-Person Care at Fair Oaks
Each one of us has underlying risk factors and catalysts contributing to the potential development of substance and alcohol abuse. The board-certified professionals at Fair Oaks Recovery Center in Sacramento are committed to providing in-depth solutions to address trauma and other considerations so you move on from the past and into a promising future of your design. Contact us today if you want a partner in this healing process.