Generational trauma: What it is and how to heal from it

We become who we are from traits passed down to us from generation to generation. Not only do your genetics get passed down to influence physical features like your eye color, but there are characteristics that you can inherit as well. For example, personality traits like your temperament and introversion/extroversion can be rooted in your genetic makeup. But it’s important to note how your family’s trauma can contribute to your mental health, decades — possibly even centuries — later.  

Generational trauma proves how essential it is to learn about your family’s history and how it affects who you are today.

Read on to learn about generational trauma, how it can affect your mental health and how you can heal from it.

What is generational trauma?

Generational trauma, also known as transgenerational trauma or intergenerational trauma, refers to the effects of trauma being transferred from one generation to the next. The aftermath of the traumatic experience causes a rippling effect of persistent issues throughout generations. 

It can be trauma that affected one person, or it can be collective trauma affecting a community or specific ethnic, racial or cultural group. 

Common types of triggers for generational trauma:

  • Domestic violence
  • Parental incarceration
  • Alcohol and drug addiction
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Poverty
  • Refugees
  • Hate crimes
  • Survivors of war-related trauma

The effects of generational trauma

We are who we are because of those who came before us, and it’s not always easy to recognize our own flaws if they’ve been instilled in us our whole lives. If the events of the trauma didn’t happen to you directly, there is no exact point in your life where you’ll start to recognize the potential mental health impact of the trauma. That’s why the psychological symptoms of generational trauma are often overlooked.

Generational trauma can manifest in a variety of emotional and psychological symptoms depending on the type of trauma, including:

The symptoms are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms from generational trauma

Generational trauma is seen as a cycle. If one generation doesn’t make an effort to acknowledge and alleviate the painful effects of trauma on their family, then it will be passed on to the next generation. This cyclical behavior often takes the form of two unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Common coping mechanisms that are passed on due to trauma are denial and minimization.

Denial refers to a person from an older generation in your family, such as a grandparent, ignoring the damaging impact that trauma had on them. The denial that they have trickles down to the younger generations as a coping mechanism when faced with their own trauma. Dissociation can also be a form of denial.

With minimization, a person acknowledges their trauma but ignores the impact it’s had on them or makes the impact smaller by brushing off the severity. Minimizing comments about trauma can include “It could have been worse” or “It wasn’t that bad.” 

How to heal from generational trauma 

Generational trauma is a pattern that can be broken. If you’re struggling with the pattern, there are ways you can treat the symptoms. There are some options that you can practice on your own, while others require assistance from a mental health provider.

Treatment options for trauma that’s been passed down include:

  • Education — Learning about your family’s history and the traumatic experiences that your elders endured can help you grasp an understanding of your own related issues. By educating yourself on the trauma and the circumstances that surround it, you can determine how you’ve been affected by it and how to adjust your mindset to alleviate harmful thoughts and behaviors.
  • Support groups — There is a type of support group for every traumatic experience. By talking with people who have been through similar experiences, either personally or in their family history, you will see that you’re not alone. It can be beneficial to see how others have been affected by the trauma and the different ways that people cope with it.

  • Self-care — One of the best ways to heal the negative mental health impact of trauma is through self-care. With activities like meditation, and lifestyle changes like a healthy diet and exercise, you can take care of yourself emotionally and physically. 
  • Therapy — The best way to treat mental health issues is often with psychotherapy. By speaking with a mental health provider, you can look at the trauma from every angle, figure out how it links to your mental health and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Since the trauma stems from familial experiences, it may be beneficial to seek family therapy as well as individual therapy.

Lightfully Behavioral Health can help treat generational trauma

Trauma can have a lasting impact on a family for decades that they might not even recognize. When you’re ready to break the cycle, give us a call.

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step to help treat trauma, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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