From our parents, we inherit an incredibly wide range of characteristics. There are plenty of conversations to be had about eye color or the timbre of one’s laugh. But this process also means that emotional baggage can be passed down, through generations. Think of it as the gift that keeps on giving, until and unless it is understood through treatment.
The experiences and the emotions of our ancestors impact us in ways we may not even be aware of. Needless to say, not all of those emotions and experiences are positive. This is what we mean by “generational trauma.”
What is Generational Trauma?
Everyone endures some terrible experiences. Roughly 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will live through an event like:
- Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
- Loss of a loved one
- Being the victim of a violent crime
- Natural disaster
- Injury, illness, or disability
- Neglect or abandonment
- Domestic violence
- Living in a home where substance abuse is common
These events have the potential to cause trauma and thus, related mental health conditions. If this trauma is not processed and resolved, it can extend beyond any individual. We may recognize it in the patterns and behavioral strategies that a family shares.
How to Recognize Generational Trauma
Generational trauma isn’t always obvious. It’s not like those other qualities we inherit. Rather, it usually requires a close examination of family attitudes and patterns to discern its existence. To follow are broad categories of possible signs and symptoms:
- Mistrust of others
- Choosing to isolate oneself
- Anger and irritability
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Nightmares and flashbacks
- Unresolved grief
- Low self-esteem
- Memory loss
- Substance abuse
- Fixation on death and dying
A family struggling with generational trauma may display some or all of the following tendencies:
- Unwilling or unable to discuss feelings
- Don’t display overt acts of affection
- Lacking trust in outsiders
- Emotionally detached or numb
- Highly over-protective of each other (especially the children)
- Since trauma can weaken our immune system, such families may also “pass down” chronic illnesses, e.g. autoimmune diseases
How to Overcome Generational Trauma
After perusing the symptom lists above, you may see that these signs can signal the presence of several different issues. How then, do you know if generational trauma is the source? This process commences with a clear-minded focus on the patterns that seem to dominate your family dynamics. Some are obvious (domestic violence). Others require deeper attention to identify (subtle lack of physical affection). From there, you can take steps like:
Keep track of common reactions in yourself and other family members. Use this information to patch together an awareness of long-term but counterproductive patterns.
Interrupt the Patterns
Work with others in your family to find ways to rein in unhelpful reactions and thoughts before a negative cycle gains momentum. It could be something as fundamental as agreeing on a code word when things start to go off the rails.
The painful patterns of generational trauma are deeply embedded. It will take time — and patience — to address them. Resist the urge to rush the process or set unrealistic expectations.
You’ll Need Outside Help
Trauma is serious business. Healing from trauma requires the guidance of a mental health practitioner. While you and your family excavate the past, you must also see treatment for yourself. You can recover from trauma disorders but, once again, patience is your ally here.
Commit to a program of regular therapy sessions. You and your counselor can team up to ease the pain of trauma in your life. This is a giant step in making certain that the generational trauma ends with you. To learn more about recovery read about trauma treatment, and then reach out for a confidential consultation today.