October 11, 2018

Transgenerational Trauma: Is It Possible to Inherit Trauma & Stress?

Abuse & Trauma
Anxiety & Depression

Perhaps you have parents who have immigrated to America from another country or parents who have experienced a specific historical event or time period. Maybe you have noticed that you have felt an overarching anxiety throughout your life but unable to pinpoint what these fears are towards. Know that you are not alone in this, and you are certainly not “crazy.” This is more common than you think, and Transgenerational Trauma is especially present amongst the second generation of a family.

What is Transgenerational Trauma?

It refers to trauma that passes through generations. It is the idea that not only can someone experience trauma, they can also pass down the symptoms and behaviors of trauma survival on to their children, who then might continue to further pass these along the family line; generation to generation. What kind of trauma? It may be particular to a family suffering a loss, shared response to a collective trauma, abuse, slavery, extreme poverty, war, and so on. A psychoanalyst in Paris, Haydee Faimberg, wrote a book on trauma transmission called The Telescoping of Generations. It centered on the claim that one family member’s experiences could slide into another’s like the cylindrical sections of a collapsible hand telescope. Many of these studies have looked into the children of Holocaust survivors and their interviews regarding their own felt experiences and symptoms from the Holocaust, even though they hadn’t lived through them. Even if parents never speak of their trauma, it is found that children can still be able to pick up on the silences, the gaps, in their narratives and become worried about something that is unspeakable. Whether it is through a heavy pause at the kitchen table, squeezes on the hand, avoidance of certain stories or places, or even off-putting anecdotes.

But, How is it passed down? Is that even possible?

Symptoms of Transgenerational Trauma can be learned behavior, unconsciously, or even through parenting styles and approaches directly towards children. These symptoms don’t just show up behaviorally, but epigenetically as well. It’s not that the DNA is changed, but more as if side instructions are added to the manual to dictate whether certain parts of the DNA become used or not used. In one study particularly, it was discovered that extreme and traumatic events can impact children a generation or two later through RNA strands. Mice that were exposed to traumatic experiences sparking depressive-like symptoms and behaviors, were then transferred to the next generation through the RNA in sperm. Similarly, some studies also look into blood sampling of Holocaust survivors and their children. The children actually had different stress hormone profiles than others, in ways that made them more susceptible to post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Breaking The Cycle

Untangling yourself from a generational tie, and perhaps even epigenetically, can be a difficult and continual process throughout one’s life. But, with awareness plus interpersonal and systemic work, it is possible to begin to address and break the cycle of transgenerational trauma. You can start by asking questions such as:

  • What ideas of the world do I have that I learned from my parents?
  • Are these ideas actually true?
  • Who am I, as an individual, separate from my family?

The personal work you are willing to do in gaining awareness about your own motives and personal sources can enhance a fuller view of what’s connected to you over the past, present and even future generations. Additionally, silence can be deadly and a profound channel of transmission, especially when it comes to trauma and unspoken anxiety or fear. Many parents may see silence as a protective factor from their children, but it may not be beneficial in the long-term. You can’t solve a problem you don’t know about and you can’t deal with an unspoken enemy. When you bring a narrative into the light, it can be profound not just for the present, but for the future as well.

I would love to join you in this journey toward exploring and seeking understanding of what may be a generational trauma, please do not hesitate to contact me for more support and consultation!

Written by therapist Tina Choi

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