How is trauma passed on from one generation to the next?

How is trauma passed on from one generation to the next?

(Video: Jessica Marx for The Washington Post)

Intergenerational trauma has become a hot topic as people try to explain the poor state of mental health among younger generations

The idea that trauma can be passed down through generations originating in long-dead relatives and passed down to future great-grandchildren can be a difficult concept to grasp.

But with regular reports of mass shootings, covid deaths, police killings and climate disasters, a growing number of therapists and their patients, particularly among the millennials and Gen Z cohorts, are turning their attention to the far-reaching impact of trauma, past and present.

The Academy Award-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once and television shows like Transparent addressed how trauma spreads in families. Popular non-fiction books like What Happened to You?, by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry, brought the ivory tower concept of intergenerational trauma to the general public, said Sandra Mattar, a clinical psychologist and trauma-informed therapy specialist.

The medical community has taken note. In April, more than 100 psychiatrists, psychologists, residents and other physicians gathered virtually for a Boston Medical Center Grand Rounds educational event focusing on intergenerational trauma. Mattar, who chaired the session, said the high turnout reflected a heightened interest in the topic.

I believe trauma is at the heart of so many mental health issues, said Mattar, who is also director of education at Boston Medical Center’s Immigrant and Refugee Health Center.

The good news, experts say, is just as trauma can be passed down from generation to generation, so can resilience. But tapping into that resilience often requires a deeper understanding of the original source of trauma and the transmission pathways through families and society.

Intergenerational trauma can arise from biology, learned behaviors, and even the collective experiences of a group. Some research suggests that trauma can affect a person’s DNA and potentially affect the health of future generations far removed from the traumatic event.

Researchers studied whether Holocaust survivors and their children showed changes to what are known as epigenetic markers, chemical tags that attach to DNA and can turn genes on or off, which in turn can influence inherited traits or diseases.

Tip: How to talk to your (skeptical) family about therapy

These studies, led by Rachel Yehuda, director of the Center for Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Trauma Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, compared blood samples from people who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust with those from Jews living outside Europe during the war.

Through molecular analyses, the researchers discovered an important difference: the mothers exposed to the Holocaust showed changes in the activity of a segment of DNA involved in regulating the response to stress. Their children, who weren’t directly exposed, also showed these changes.

The implications of this research are far from conclusive, but they do suggest that environmental wounds inflicted on one generation can be passed on to the next. Clearly there’s a hint of something interesting happening at the molecular level with intergenerational trauma, said Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience. It will take a while before you understand everything.

It’s not the traumatic experience that’s being conveyed, it’s the survivors’ anxiety and worldview, said Ed Tronick, a developmental and clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School in Worcester. Many Holocaust survivors have developed the idea that the world is a dangerous place where terrible things can happen at any moment. Their children intuitively sensed this fear. Babies are like anxiety detectors, Tronick said, and they pick up on and adapt to these cues.

Even the great-grandchildren of enslaved people can experience the anxiety their parents feel about the danger of sending them into the community. In response to parental behavior, a child’s body has already begun to perceive the world as dangerous, even if it doesn’t understand the dangers at that age, Tronick said.

Researchers have found that a variety of toxic environmental and social exposures during pregnancy, whether it’s the ingestion of drugs and alcohol, or the stress of living in poverty, can also be transmitted in utero.

Studies show that an abusive childhood can profoundly affect future generations.

Researchers interviewed Nurses Health Study volunteers about the levels of abuse inflicted on them during childhood, whether they were hit with a belt, left with bruises, or sexually or verbally abused.

The imprint of this violence had a lasting impact on the children of women, the researchers found: rates of depression were 1.7 times higher and chronic depression 2.5 times higher among children of women who had suffered severe child abuse compared to children of mothers who had not experienced such abuse. abuse.

Childhood abuse has a profound impact on adult mental health, which can then affect family members, said Andrea Roberts, the study’s lead author and senior research scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Bessel van der Kolk, author of the best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score, characterizes trauma not only as an event of the past but also as something that has a lasting imprint on the mind, brain and body.

In an interview, van der Kolk said that intergenerational trauma can be traced in how children adjust to parental behavior. When your mom freezes in response to your laughter, you learn not to laugh in front of your mom, she said.

Collective intergenerational trauma and racial trauma refer to the psychological distress transmitted across generations as a result of historical events, including colonization, slavery, and other forms of oppression.

This type of trauma goes far beyond individuals and families and is a shared experience within a particular group, such as the descendants of the 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese citizens who were held in POW camps during World War II.

Such trauma can manifest itself in many ways, from heightened anxiety, depression, and insomnia to other mental and emotional health issues.

Thema Bryant, a trauma healing specialist and president of the American Psychological Association, said many people are faced with multiple forms of trauma at the same time.

She said her worldview was filtered through her experience growing up in Baltimore with descendants of the transatlantic slave trade and a grandfather who was a World War II veteran with PTSD. She has also endured a lifetime of racism and survived sexual assault. I am both a survivor of trauma in my lifetime and of intergenerational trauma, Bryant said.

In the memoir What My Bones Know, Stephanie Foo tackles a personal history of punitive abuse and, after being diagnosed with complex PTSD, explores how trauma can be inherited across generations.

We are all products of our history, he said in an email interview. I really don’t think it’s surprising that we bring our fears and traumas and tics and insecurities and pass them on to their children to some degree, whether it’s a depression-era recipe for potato salad or a deep fear of abandonment.

Foo’s great-grandmother and grandmother survived the Japanese occupation of Malaya during WWII and a brutal warfare with Britain known as the Malayan Emergency.

I personally believe that because my great-grandmother and grandmother had to scramble desperately to survive, Foo said, it contributed to the hustle and creativity I’ve possessed in building my career and survival skills here in America. It probably also contributed to my intense anxiety.

Helping people deal with generational trauma

A holistic approach is often needed to break the grip of generational trauma, experts say.

  • Awareness: Jason Wu, a Bay Area psychologist and son of refugee parents, he said the first step is to build awareness. A patient may have internalized the belief that he is not good enough, but after unpacking it, he can see how his parents, and perhaps even his parents, constant criticism and lack of warmth or praise are the source of this belief.
  • Mind-Body Therapy: Somatic or body-based therapies such as yoga have been shown to be effective for trauma. Increasingly, expressive arts therapies that employ movement, music, or the visual arts are being used to help patients find more adaptive ways to cope, said Ccile Rve, co-founder of ARTrelief, a center that provides these arts-based therapies.
  • Rewording: Foo said it was important to reframe the damaging stories she was told as a child. My mother’s voice said, “You’re worthless, you’re not lovable, you’re stupid,” she said. I think the essence of healing has been an effort to rewrite that narrative into something more loving and forgiving and kind.
  • Break the cycle: Studies suggest that even children who haven’t experienced parenting can overcome this history if, as adults, they consciously adopt positive parenting strategies with their children.
  • Activism: Directly addressing sources of trauma, such as gun violence or racism, through activism and advocacy are also powerful tools for overcoming its grip, said Bryant, president of the APA.
  • Tell me about it: How trauma is discussed in families can also be important. Is it never discussed and then labeled unspeakable? Or is it a part of the family history owned and claimed by each family member? asked Arielle Scoglio, an assistant professor of health studies at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. The second response dispels trauma-related shame and integrates it into a flexible narrative.

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