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Intergenerational Trauma - what is it and how to notice when we are affected.

June 2024

Often clients will come into my therapy room, feeling anxious or depressed with no tangible reason for why it is so. "I had a good childhood, my parents loved me and I was safe" - says the quizzical client - "but I can't shift this feeling". When this happens, my thoughts go to what else has gone on for those around my client. With have good jobs, living in nice apartments and enjoying good social support - why is the client feeling they depressed? Perhaps they are feeling the traumatic reverberations of family members who have not dealt with their own trauma. the affects of trauma do not die with the physical body - evidence is mounting that the effects of trauma live on in the lives of later generations of the family.

Think about your own family. You have a Mother, a Grandmother (her Mother) who both lived through very different times. Depending on your age, your Grandmother might have lived through World War 2. In this case, she will have certainly have lost loved ones too early, perhaps witnessed atrocities or been put under great stress, at the time, which in a "lest said, soonest mended" culture - may even have not been talked about at all. Where do these thoughts, feelings and experiences go? They are pushed deep down, however, they will certainly have affected the way she lives her life and how she parents your Mother - consciously or subconsciously - the trauma ripples on.

Science is now catching up with this idea. In her article (detailed below) Rachel Yehuda explains how we observe this to be biologically the case - trauma can be past down the generations as some adaptive survival trait - in a way we learn to accept the trauma and adapt ourselves physically and emotionally. This adaption may or may not continue down the line due to a number of factors. Post the Twin Towers tragedy, her team was involved in the assessment and monitoring of the unborn foetuses of pregnant women who had witnessed the event. They hypothesised the women would experience PTSD, but was curious about the effect on the unborn child. This would be intergenerational trauma in real time. The researchers were able to track the women and their babies and the evidence showed babies born at a lower birth weight and a lowering in cortisol levels for both mother and baby - indicators of PTSD. The article follows other later generations of survivors of traumatic events - including the Holocaust and the Vietnam War - and reveals a similar, repeating pattern of trauma being passed down the generations.

If you are concerned about how you are feeling is not matching up with your lived, family narrative maybe it is worth considering have those conversations again and exposing whatever trauma was experienced by a parent, a grandparent or other family member. In telling and retelling, as part of the therapy, the story will be heard, felt and experienced. In the relationship, the client and therapist will work together to resolve the generational trauma.

"It didn't start with you: how inherited family trauma shapes who we are and who we end are and how to end the cycle." Mark Wolynn


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