Genes and biological traits are often passed to younger generations. However, adverse childhood experiences and traumatic events can also have a ripple effect within families, creating a cycle of learned behaviors and poor mental health outcomes. This is referred to as generational trauma. Breaking the cycle of generational trauma can be extremely difficult, especially if it’s been embedded in your family for several generations. However, with the right guidance, it’s possible. Learn the generational trauma definition and healthy ways to promote hope and healing.

Generational Trauma Definition

Generational trauma, or intergenerational trauma, refers to traumatic situations or stressors passed down from one generation to the next. It typically results from a person or collective group experiencing direct trauma, witnessing a stressful or harmful situation or residing in an environment with an ever-present threat of violence. According to research by the National Council for Behavioral Health, about 70% of people experience a traumatic event at least once in their lives.

Examples of Generational Trauma

Any stressful or anxiety-provoking situation can cause lasting changes in thoughts, behaviors or beliefs, but generational trauma manifests when those situations cause cultural, economic or familial distress. Examples include:

  • Oppression. Historical oppression or violence against a group of people can pass chronic stress or fear to future generations. Examples of oppression include racism, sexism and homophobia.
  • Cultural dislocation or genocide. Being forced to leave your homeland due to the threat of violence, persecution or death can cause rippling feelings of loss and isolation. Examples include Holocaust survivors and Indigenous communities.
  • Intergenerational poverty. Poverty and lack of educational or professional opportunities can also cause generational trauma. For example, if your parents grew up poor, they may not have had access to certain resources, including education or health care, to pass down.
  • Domestic violence. People exposed to violence in early childhood may pass long-lasting trauma symptoms to their children by becoming perpetrators or victims of domestic violence as adults.
  • In utero exposure. Exposure to toxic stressors in utero can alter brain structure and functions, resulting in developmental delays. This can impact emotional regulation and learning ability, which can affect future generations.

The Impact of Generational Trauma on Individuals and Families

The effects of generational trauma can manifest in many ways, resulting in learned behaviors, epigenetic changes and physical or mental health issues. Trauma can change the way people view the world, causing them to lose trust in other people or systems and struggle with forming healthy relationships. They may feel stuck in survival mode and have difficulty letting others in or accepting help. Children who grow up around these beliefs and behaviors may adopt and pass them down to their own offspring.

Generational trauma can also be passed through genes. Epigenetics explores how gene expression can change due to environmental factors and certain behaviors. Generational trauma can cause physical and mental health issues for the individual who initially experienced the trauma and their offspring. Trauma can cause feelings of chronic stress, resulting in increased exhaustion, tense or constricted muscles and heart disease.

Some people may adopt unhealthy habits, including consuming drugs or alcohol, to cope with trauma or stress, especially if they also have a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Without proper treatment, a parent may fail to adequately care for their children or pass down mental health and substance abuse struggles.

Strategies for Addressing Intergenerational Trauma

Generational trauma can be difficult to process, especially if your family has never discussed it or gotten help. However, addressing it is the only way to move forward and heal. It may feel awkward, uncomfortable or even frustrating at first, but over time, it may become easier. Here are some strategies for addressing generational trauma within your family:

  • Acknowledge it exists. You can’t move forward without identifying and acknowledging the effects of past trauma. Talk about it with a trusted friend or family member, or try journaling to organize your thoughts and feelings.
  • Learn your family history. Learning what happened to previous generations in your family can help you understand or process your own experiences. It can also help you feel more connected to your family.
  • Connect with others. Discuss your findings or thoughts with a close family member or others who share similar experiences. They may validate your feelings and have suggestions for healthy coping techniques.
  • Stay patient and empathetic. Some family members may be reluctant or uncomfortable discussing generational trauma. While this can be frustrating, it’s important to be patient and acknowledge that everyone processes things differently. Let them know you’re available to talk, but don’t force them to do anything before they’re ready.

Breaking the Cycle of Generational Trauma

Healing from generational wounds isn’t easy. It’s a gradual process that involves acknowledging difficult experiences, thoughts and emotions. However, learning how these issues affect you and finding strength to move forward can be rewarding and prevent generational trauma from impacting those born after you.

First, take as much time as you need to process any trauma. Join a support group or reach out to trusted loved ones to vent or seek advice. Establishing healthy self-care practices can provide emotional or physical support during this time. Consider exercising, meditating, practicing yoga or finding a creative outlet, including writing or drawing.

If coping becomes too difficult, it may be helpful to seek professional treatment, such as therapy or counseling. A mental health professional can help you talk through your trauma, identify other mental health issues impacting your ability to heal and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Family therapy is also an option if trauma is disrupting or harming familial relationships.

If you’re just discovering the generational trauma definition, it isn’t too late to seek help. At Sunlight Recovery, we offer a range of mental health and addiction treatment services to help you process your experiences and learn healthier ways to cope. Don’t let generational trauma define your life. Contact us today to see how our services can help you move on.