What is Generational Trauma? And How to Break It


Generational Trauma is a term that refers to the transmission of traumatic experiences from one generation to another. This type of trauma can result from historical events such as war, genocide, slavery, or colonization and personal experiences such as abuse, neglect, or poverty. It can impact an individual’s physical and mental health, relationships, and ability to cope with stress and adversity. In this blog, we will explore generational trauma and how to break the cycle.

What is Generational Trauma?

Generational trauma is a type of trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next. It is often the result of a traumatic event or events that occur in a family’s history. This can include experiences such as war, genocide, slavery, colonization, and personal experiences such as abuse, neglect, or poverty. The trauma experienced by one generation can affect future generations’ behavior, beliefs, and attitudes, creating a difficult cycle of trauma to break.

The impact of generational trauma can be significant. It can cause depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in individuals who have never directly experienced trauma. It can also affect an individual’s relationships, causing intimacy, trust, and communication difficulties. In addition, it can impact an individual’s ability to cope with stress and adversity, making it difficult to manage everyday challenges.

Epigenetics and Generational Trauma

Epigenetics refers to changes in gene expression that occur without altering the underlying DNA sequence. Environmental factors, including stress and trauma, can influence these changes. Studies have shown that exposure to traumatic events can lead to changes in DNA methylation, which is a process that controls gene expression. Specifically, trauma can cause methyl groups to be added or removed from certain genes, activating or suppressing their expression.

These changes can then be passed down to subsequent generations through epigenetic inheritance. In other words, the epigenetic modifications that occur due to trauma can be transmitted to offspring, potentially affecting their susceptibility to certain psychiatric disorders or behavioral problems.

However, it’s important to note that epigenetic changes are not deterministic. Just because someone has inherited certain epigenetic modifications associated with trauma doesn’t necessarily mean they will develop mental health problems or exhibit other symptoms. Rather, epigenetic changes can be considered “risk factors” that increase the likelihood of certain outcomes.

Overall, the study of epigenetics has provided important insights into the mechanisms behind generational trauma. By better understanding how trauma can affect gene expression, researchers and clinicians may be able to develop more effective interventions and treatments for individuals and families affected by trauma.

Effects of Toxic Stress

Toxic stress can have significant and long-lasting effects on an individual’s physical and mental health. When a person experiences ongoing or intense stress without adequate support or coping strategies, it can lead to toxic stress.

This type of stress can impact a child’s developing brain, leading to behavioral and emotional difficulties and increasing the risk of developing mental health disorders. In adults, toxic stress can increase the risk of developing chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression.

It can also affect an individual’s ability to cope with stress and adversity, leading to difficulties in relationships, work, and daily life. Therefore, it is important to recognize the signs of toxic stress and seek support to mitigate its effects.

5 Ways Intergenerational Trauma Affects Families

Intergenerational trauma can have a profound impact on families. Trauma experienced by one generation can be passed down to future generations, creating a cycle of trauma that is difficult to break. The impact of intergenerational trauma can manifest in various ways within families, including:

  1. Behavioral and emotional difficulties: Trauma can lead to behavioral and emotional difficulties in children and adults. This can include mood swings, anger, anxiety, and difficulty with impulse control.
  2. Difficulty with attachment: Trauma can affect an individual’s ability to form healthy attachments with others. This can lead to relationship difficulties and a lack of trust in others.
  3. Repetition of trauma: Individuals who have experienced trauma may be more likely to repeat patterns of abuse or neglect within their own families.
  4. Disconnection from culture and identity: Trauma can lead to a disconnection from culture and identity, which can impact an individual’s sense of self and belonging.
  5. Physical health problems: Intergenerational trauma can also increase the risk of physical health problems, including chronic pain, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.

It is important to recognize the impact of intergenerational trauma on families and seek support to break the cycle of trauma. Therapy and support groups can help individuals process their experiences and develop coping strategies to manage the impact of trauma on their lives and relationships.

Breaking the Cycle of Generational Trauma

Breaking the cycle of generational trauma is not easy, but it is possible. Here are some steps you can take to break the cycle:

  • Acknowledge the trauma: The first step in breaking the cycle of generational trauma is to acknowledge that it exists. This means recognizing trauma’s impact on your family and how it has affected your behavior, beliefs, and attitudes.
  • Seek support: It is important to seek support from a therapist or support group. They can help you process your feelings and experiences and develop coping strategies for dealing with the impact of trauma.
  • Practice self-care: Engage in activities that help you relax and reduce stress, such as meditation, exercise, or spending time in nature. This can help you manage the impact of trauma on your physical and mental health.
  • Break the silence: It is important to talk openly about the trauma in your family. This can help break the silence around the trauma and create a safe space for others to share their experiences.
  • Create new traditions: Create new traditions and rituals that celebrate your family’s resilience and strength. This can help break the cycle of trauma and create a sense of empowerment and healing.

Generational Trauma as a Diagnosis

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not recognize generational trauma as a diagnosis. However, it is a term that is used to describe the transmission of trauma from one generation to another. While there is no specific diagnosis for generational trauma, the impact of trauma on mental health is well-documented. Trauma can cause depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other mental health conditions. Therefore, it is important to recognize the impact of generational trauma and seek support for any mental health concerns related to trauma. A therapist or mental health professional can help individuals process their experiences and develop coping strategies to manage the impact of trauma on their lives.

Generational Trauma Statistics

Here are some statistics on generational trauma, along with their sources:

These statistics highlight the prevalence and impact of generational trauma on individuals and communities. It is important to recognize the effects of trauma and seek support to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

Conclusion

Generational trauma is a complex issue that requires acknowledgment, support, and action to break the cycle. It is important to seek support from a therapist or support group, practice self-care, and break the silence around the trauma in your family. By taking these steps, you can create new traditions and rituals that celebrate your family’s resilience and strength and help break the cycle of trauma for future generations.

Dr. John G Kuna and Associates offer therapy in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. With 15 convenient locations across Eastern PA, we’re ready to meet you where you’re at. Contact us today to set up an appointment.

Brooke Lamberti


Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.