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Healing From Intergenerational Trauma – A Way to Start

Zsofia Corfmat
Passionate Linguist | Mother of Two

In my forties, I’ve come to realize the importance of comprehending and healing from intergenerational trauma in order to lead a better, healthier life. There was a time when I couldn’t fathom why I lost the zest for life that had always been a part of me. For years, I worked long hours, which took its toll on my personal life and led to burnout affecting my health and well-being. I was stuck and wanted to understand why I let this happen to me and my family. 

As I delved into the roots of my anxiety and persistent workaholism, I realized that merely examining my own experiences wasn’t sufficient. By exploring both my parents’ life events and my own, I uncovered that the origins of feeling stuck were rooted in my past.

Three generations of women in the same family.
Trauma impacting multiple generations.

As children, the relationships we witness, including how our parents communicate, shape our perception of normalcy in life and relationships as adults. Often, without deeper reflection, we accept these patterns unquestioningly, living by ingrained habits for years. However, there may come a point where we find ourselves perplexed by our experiences, prompting us to reevaluate our understanding.

This article aims to provide an overview of ‘transgenerational trauma’, also known as ‘intergenerational trauma’, enabling you to grasp its implications on your life. Armed with this understanding, you can begin delving into the history of preceding generations, seeking answers through family narratives and historical accounts.

Jump to section:

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

In most cases, we will be shocked to discover – and modern research confirms this – that the traumas, unresolved fears and relationship breakdowns of our ancestors do not disappear with their deaths, but live on in us.

Intergenerational trauma is like a heavy backpack of emotional pain and stress that’s passed down from one generation to the next. 

Imagine if your grandparents went through something really tough, like a war or a natural disaster, and the stress and sadness they experienced was so intense that it didn’t just stay with them; it also affected your parents and even you, even though you weren’t there. This doesn’t mean you inherit sadness the same way you inherit eye color. Instead, how your family members react to stress, express their emotions and cope with fear can be influenced by these past experiences and can shape the environment you grow up in.

There are a vast amount of different types of intergenerational traumas such as the persecution of war manifests itself in our lives in the form of depression, the trauma of displacement in the form of permanent mistrust, the loss of attachment of an orphaned great-grandmother in relationship breakdowns, the hidden history of a suicidal grandfather in panic disorder – to name just a few possible examples.

This can happen because families share stories, behaviors, and sometimes, without even knowing it, pass on their fears and anxieties. Also, the effects of trauma can make it hard for parents to provide the best emotional support to their kids, which can add to this cycle. 

Exploring your ancestors’ history could illuminate any physical symptoms, mental health conditions, or behavioral patterns that hinder your pursuit of health and wellness.

Understanding the Importance of Intergenerational Trauma

Why should you care?

Recognizing the patterns and talking about them can be a powerful first step to begin healing and lightening that backpack of emotional weight. 

Here’s how intergenerational trauma might be affecting you and your family:

  • Intergenerational trauma occurs when the effects of trauma experienced by one generation affect the psychological and emotional well-being of subsequent generations, even if they didn’t experience the initial traumatic events directly.
  • Trauma can be passed down through behavioral patterns, emotional responses, stories, attitudes, and even parenting styles. 
  • This type of trauma can lead to a variety of mental health issues in descendants, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. It can also influence behaviors, relationships, and one’s overall life outlook, perpetuating trauma symptoms across generations.
  • Intergenerational trauma is often linked to historical injustices, such as slavery, colonization, war, and genocide, affecting entire communities and cultures beyond just individual families.
  • Recognizing and addressing intergenerational trauma is crucial for healing. Through therapy, community support, and sometimes cultural reconnection, individuals and families can work to understand and mitigate its effects for future generations, with guidance from a mental health professional.

Transmission of Trauma Across Generations

This transmission isn’t through genes but through behaviors, emotions, and the environment at home. 

For example, a grandparent who lived through a war might become very protective or anxious, which can shape how they raise their children, a scenario common among complex trauma survivors. These children might grow up with certain fears or beliefs about the world without experiencing the original event. They might then pass these feelings onto their own kids, through how they parent, the stories they tell, or even how they react to everyday stresses.

"Survivors can pass on their fears and beliefs"

Related article: War’s enduring legacy: How does trauma haunt future generations?

It’s like a storybook of fears and hopes passed down, shaping how each generation sees the world and interacts with it. Recognizing this pattern is the first step in healing and changing the narrative for the better, making it possible to heal from historical and complex trauma.

It’s important to restate: not all behaviors expressed by us actually originate from us. They can easily belong to family members who came before us. We can merely be carrying the feelings for them or sharing them. We call these “identification feelings.

Mark Wolynn

Today, the impact of traumas due to world events is being widely researched, from the Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia to the mass starvation of Soviet Ukrainians. Read more about the research into the legacy of trauma from world events in this article by the American Psychological Association.

Possible Effects of Intergenerational Trauma on Subsequent Generations

Intergenerational trauma, often rooted in historical trauma, can happen through various mechanisms, including parenting practices, family dynamics, and socio-cultural factors. Here’s a list highlighting some of the key effects:

  1. Psychological Effects
  • Increased risk for mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Emotional dysregulation, including difficulty managing emotions and increased likelihood of emotional numbness or heightened emotional sensitivity.
  • Problems with self-esteem and identity, often stemming from familial narratives and inherited perceptions of self and community.
  1. Behavioral Effects
  • Higher incidence of risky behaviors, such as substance abuse, aggressive behavior, or self-harm, as coping mechanisms.
  • Challenges in forming and maintaining healthy relationships due to trust issues, fear of abandonment, or repeating patterns of trauma in relationships.
  • Difficulties with authority figures or institutions, possibly stemming from historical abuses of power experienced by the community.
  1. Physical Health Effects
  • Increased risk for various health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, which may be exacerbated by stress and coping behaviors (e.g., substance use).
  • There is a higher prevalence of somatic symptoms, such as chronic pain and gastrointestinal issues, which can be manifestations of psychological stress.
  1. Social and Economic Effects
  • Educational and occupational disparities, partly due to psychological burdens and systemic barriers that limit opportunities.
  • Social isolation or difficulties integrating into society, especially for historically marginalized communities.
  • Economic hardships, including poverty and lack of access to healthcare, are often compounded by systemic inequalities.
  1. Intergenerational Patterns
  • Perpetuation of trauma narratives, which can reinforce a sense of victimhood and despair across generations.
  • Transference of coping mechanisms, both adaptive and maladaptive, including specific cultural practices or rituals.
  • Challenges in parenting, with potential for either overprotection or neglect, stemming from unresolved trauma in parents, often mirror adverse childhood experiences.
  1. Cultural and Collective Effects
  • Loss or dilution of cultural identity and traditions, especially in cases where trauma involved forced displacement or cultural assimilation, akin to the experiences of Holocaust survivors.
  • Collective memory and grief can shape communal values and responses to external challenges.
  • Mobilization and resilience, where communities come together to heal, remember, and resist further trauma.

If you are interested in further studies on how adverse experiences can change future generations, I recommend reading this article about how parents’ trauma leaves biological traces in children on scientificamerican.com.

These are only possible effects on your family; they are not guaranteed. Someone in your family might have broken the cycle and prevented the trauma from being passed on to you.

3 Steps to Break the Cycle and Start Healing from Intergenerational Trauma

For much of my life, I’ve been in denial about how not knowing my father might have been affecting me negatively. Work has always been my primary focus, defining me entirely. My mother set the example with her passion for her job, which she pursued tirelessly. Following in her footsteps, I threw myself into work without reservation. Without the responsibilities of children, this lifestyle didn’t seem problematic; I always found time for friends, movies, and the theater. However, when circumstances prevented me from working, I struggled to find balance and happiness. It wasn’t until after my mother’s passing that I recognized my workaholic tendencies and the toll they were taking on me and my family. 

Healing from intergenerational trauma can take a long time, but already understanding its presence in your life can trigger the healing process and the feeling that you are getting a grip on your life.

"I'm still coping with my trauma, but coping by trying to find different ways to heal it rather than hide it."

Clemantine Wamariya

Let’s see how you can find and fix traumas in 3 steps.

"Three steps:
1. Discovery
2. Start healing
3. Seek help"

Step 1 – Discover the traumas in a family

Trauma can help explain why certain family members may exhibit certain behaviors or struggles, as it may be rooted in a form of trauma experienced by previous generations. By identifying and acknowledging collective trauma within a family, individuals can work towards healing from generational trauma and breaking the cycle of multigenerational trauma

Collecting family stories can be a starting point for understanding your family legacy. Here are four ways to collect family stories:

  1. Set aside dedicated time to sit down with your parents for informal interviews or conversations. Ask open-ended questions such as these about their childhood, family traditions, memorable experiences, and significant life events.
  2. Explore old photo albums, letters, documents, and other memorabilia with your parents. Use these visual aids as prompts to trigger memories and stories. Ask them to narrate the context behind each photograph or artifact, including the people, places, and events depicted. 
  3. Collaborate with your parents to build a family tree and conduct genealogical research. Discuss their ancestors, relatives, and ancestral origins. Encourage them to share stories passed down through generations, such as family legends, migrations, or historical events that shaped your family’s trajectory. Document these narratives alongside your family tree.
  4. Embrace technology to create digital storytelling projects that showcase your family’s history. Record audio or video interviews with your parents, complemented by photos, videos, and other visual elements. Use digital tools to collect and preserve family stories for future generations.

Some families might no longer have access to stories from their family’s past. If you are lucky enough to have living parents and grandparents, don’t waste the opportunity of exploring their past. It’s not just for you and your curiosity – the impact of their experiences may yet be felt by your children and children’s children. 

When family discussions come across generational traumas, it’s crucial to pinpoint their exact origin.

What was that trigger event? 

Identifying the roots of some traumas, such as systemic discrimination, can prove challenging even after recognition. But doing so will help you with step 2 – healing.

Step 2: Start the healing process as a family 

The root of a challenge may lie hundreds of years back. The healing process is long overdue. Here are seven ways, armed with your newfound insights, to start healing from intergenerational trauma:

  1. Acknowledge the trauma: Recognize and accept that there is a cycle of intergenerational trauma within the family or community.
  2. Foster open communication: Create a safe and supportive environment where family members can openly discuss their experiences, feelings, and concerns.
  3. Educate yourself and others: Learn about the effects of generational trauma and share this knowledge with family members to increase awareness and understanding.
  4. Practice self-care: Encourage individuals to prioritize their mental, emotional, and physical well-being through activities such as exercise, mindfulness, and hobbies. Use relaxation techniques.
  5. Break harmful patterns: Identify and challenge negative behaviors and beliefs that perpetuate the cycle of intergenerational trauma, and work towards healthier ways of relating and coping.
  6. Build resilience: Focus on building resilience by fostering positive relationships, developing problem-solving skills, and cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning in life.

I’ve completed all the steps mentioned. I acknowledged the situation and engaged in discussions with my husband and my closest friends, who understand me deeply.

Additionally, I’ve begun prioritizing self-care, incorporating sports into my routine twice a week, indulging in my favorite weekly magazine, and consciously slowing down from the hectic pace I once maintained. My overarching objectives are to disrupt my old patterns and fortify my resilience for the long haul.

Step 3: Optionally, seek therapy or counseling 

To further help, I sought out a therapist and delved into two books on the subject for a better understanding of trauma symptoms. If you’re like me and don’t find the previous steps enough to heal, I recommend doing the same.

Here are seven therapies for healing from intergenerational trauma:

  1. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT): TF-CBT is a structured therapy approach that helps individuals, particularly children and adolescents, process traumatic experiences and develop coping skills. It combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with trauma-specific interventions.
  2. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a therapeutic approach that helps individuals process distressing memories and reduce their emotional impact. It involves bilateral stimulation (such as eye movements, taps, or sounds) while recalling traumatic experiences, which can lead to the reprocessing and integration of these memories.
  3. Narrative Therapy: Narrative therapy focuses on individuals’ stories about themselves and their experiences. It helps individuals externalize their problems, explore alternative narratives, and reclaim agency in their lives. In the context of intergenerational trauma, narrative therapy can help individuals understand how their family stories have shaped their identity and beliefs.
  4. Attachment-Based Therapies: Attachment-based therapies focus on exploring and healing disruptions in early attachment relationships, which are often implicated in intergenerational trauma. Therapies such as Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT) or Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) aim to strengthen secure attachment bonds and promote emotional regulation.
  5. Somatic Experiencing (SE): SE focuses on the physiological manifestations of trauma and helps individuals regulate their nervous system responses. It involves tracking bodily sensations, promoting grounding techniques, and facilitating the release of stored trauma energy through gentle movements and interventions.
  6. Family Therapy: Family therapy approaches, such as Structural Family Therapy or Multigenerational Family Therapy, can be beneficial for addressing intergenerational trauma within the context of family systems. These approaches explore family dynamics, communication patterns, and relational patterns that contribute to trauma transmission and offer opportunities for healing and reconciliation.
  7. Cultural and Indigenous Healing Practices: Some individuals may benefit from culturally specific or indigenous healing practices that honor their cultural heritage and traditions. These practices often integrate storytelling, rituals, ceremonies, and community support to address intergenerational trauma within cultural contexts.

These therapies can be used individually or in combination, depending on the specific needs and preferences of the individual or family seeking healing from intergenerational trauma. It’s essential to work with a qualified therapist who has experience in trauma treatment and respects the cultural background and preferences of the client.

How Simirity Can Help Uncover the Roots of Trauma in Your Family

It can be challenging to ask family about their past. Sometimes we don’t even know what the right questions are. Sometimes we do, but they might be sensitive or taboo topics that are not usually discussed.

Face-to-face discussions are the best, but they come with downsides too:

  • They can be stressful, answering questions on rarely spoken-about topics.
  • It’s easy to overlook part of the story when there’s no time to think it through completely.
  • Parts of the story might later be forgotten as there’s much to take in.

And sometimes, even getting the time to be with family face-to-face is not easy.

Simirity App is here to help.

Simirity App is a private storytelling app that unites your extended family in stories, even if you live apart. 

Among the many features, users can send Story Requests to family members. Such requests are a great way to ask people about sensitive topics, giving them time to consider the request and optionally respond with their story.

And the very act of writing can reveal much that a conversation might miss. Actively trying to recall memories from the past and put them into words can bring clarity to the situation that might have been overlooked over the years in the desire to avoid the subject. 

Introduction to the Simirity App

If you would like to learn more about the Simirity app, you can visit our home page.

Be the Generation That Breaks the Chain

We must acknowledge that the conclusion of a narrative can continue to reverberate in the daily lives of descendants, even across numerous years or decades. Today, this isn’t merely a matter of personal belief within the realm of esotericism; rather, it is a substantiated fact supported by scientific inquiry.

I encourage you to summon the courage to unearth your family’s long-buried narratives and confront the underlying forces shaping your existence.

I wholeheartedly believe that by reckoning with the tales of our forebears and the enduring influences spanning generations, we can grasp the trajectory of our fate and uncover the means to effect transformative change, paving the way for a more enriching and harmonious future.

Healing from intergenerational trauma is not an easy task, but important things never are…

What nobler and far-reaching act is there than breaking the chain of trauma to stop future generations from lugging around the baggage of their ancestors? Freeing them to live their best life. 

And it will free you, too. 

Healing generational trauma takes courage and strength. It’s common for dysfunctional families to deny their abuse. They silence victims and dump toxic shame onto them. Complicit families keep abuse alive from generation to generation, until one brave survivor boldly ends the cycle of abuse.

Dana Arcuri
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