The Rippling Effects of Generational Trauma

Generational trauma is passed down through epigenetics, the socio-ecological environment, and learned behavior, and reflects the psychological effects of traumatic experiences that took place centuries ago.

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It has been 171 years since Native Americans were forced to venture the Trail of Tears, 156 years since enslaved people were freed, and 76 years since Holocaust survivors returned home. Yet, through generational trauma, we still see the socio-ecological and psychological effects of these experiences in their descendants. Trauma, an event that creates physical, mental, or emotional harm to an individual, can take the form of anxiety, insomnia, intrusive thoughts, withdrawal from society, and more. However, generational trauma extends past the individual and is passed down. It is amplified when people are incapable of dealing with it in a healthy manner. They rely on their loved ones to take care of them, spreading the trauma and increasing the chances of it becoming generational.

Collective trauma can be passed on in multiple directions and shared by nations, ethnic groups, religions, and families. It is classified into vertical versus horizontal transmission, where horizontal transmission circulates trauma between people of the same generation, while vertical transmission passes trauma down generationally. The next generation must grapple with the trauma, find ways to represent it, and avoid transmitting it further.

Transgenerational trauma can be passed down through various means. Epigenetics, the study of change in organisms caused by the modification of gene expression rather than direct gene alteration, shows that trauma can leave a heritable chemical mark on people’s genes. Though it does not cause a genetic mutation, it alters the way the gene is expressed. For example, toward the end of World War II, the Nazis blocked the food supply to the Netherlands, leaving many to die of starvation. As a result, newborns during the famine came out a few pounds heavier than the average. Since the women nurturing the babies were starving, the melanocortin-4 receptor gene, vital to triggering metabolism, was quieted so that the fetuses would have enough nutrients to survive. However, this mark on their genes stayed with them throughout their lives and generally led to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and schizophrenia. These biomarkers can continue to be passed on to future offspring.

Trauma is also passed down through learned behaviors and socio-ecological aspects, such as the parenting and values that children grow up with. Additionally, oral transmission, though at times indirect, passes trauma through an unspoken narrative, such as behavior and body language. Traumatic legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between adult and child. Children then reconstruct a narrative of their parents’ trauma for themselves.

The symptoms of generational trauma are varied and can range from hypervigilance, anxiety, and depression, to issues with self-esteem. This has the potential to put people into a state of chronic stress, which throws off the body’s homeostasis and threatens normal but essential bodily functions. Generational trauma can also weaken the immune system. Microglial cells are a type of white blood cell that work in the central nervous system (CNS) to remove damaged neurons and maintain the health of the CNS. However, when humans are subjected to high trauma reactive states with high-stress levels, microglial cells eat away at healthy nerve endings, which can cause depression, anxiety, and dementia, and translate into genetic changes that can be passed down to further generations, who will be more likely to have weaker nerve endings.

Generational trauma is apparent in many groups of people in the United States, particularly minorities. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, outbursts of anger, and hypervigilance, are seen in higher levels in the Black community today. The feelings of fear and mistrust that many Black people experience can be attributed to both the experiences that they lived through and those they inherited. A prime example is the common belief that they must work twice as hard as a white person to be as valued. This philosophy is based on cultural conditioning and the lived experiences of their ancestors, as an enslaved person would have to work from sunup to sundown. Additionally, the general distrust in the medical system has caused generational trauma within the Black community. This is largely attributed to the many instances where scientists have performed unethical experiments on Black people, as well as the currently high infant and maternal death rates in the Black population.

Moreover, a study on young Native Americans showed that 34 percent experienced daily thoughts about the loss of culture and 35 percent were distrustful of the intentions of the dominant white culture due to the historical losses Native Americans have suffered. These thoughts can be attributed to not only the racism they experience today, but also to the generational effects of the inhumane wipeout of their people and culture due to European colonization.

However, by rising above the remnants of one's ancestors' trauma, one can help heal future generations. Financial and housing assistance, health care, education, and therapy can lead to successful cessation of generational trauma. To begin the process of psychologically overcoming generational trauma, therapy is highly recommended. When we process trauma healthily, we can then find coping mechanisms to heal, redefine ourselves, and reclaim a part of our lives.