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What is generational trauma and what are the signs?

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What is generational trauma?Nick Dolding - Getty Images

A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that more than 70% of people will experience a traumatic event at some point in life, and to be honest, we’re surprised that number isn’t higher. In our lives we all experience events that shape the way we see the world and how we respond to things on a day-to-day basis. But traumatic events that took place before we were even born can affect us too. Generational trauma, also known as transgenerational trauma, has a sort of “trickle down” effect that seeps into our consciousness and affects our psychological makeup.

“Human babies do not come into the world as blank slates.” says psychotherapist and author, Dr Valerie Sinason. “We have lived as foetuses for nearly a year, picking up information like little detectives. We can relax when our host is listening to a tune they like and be agitated if there is shouting or tension [and] we can have greater birth difficulties if there is war or violence going on.”

“Stress is particularly important during pregnancy” agrees Dr Susanna Petche a GP and expert in psychological trauma. “By five months, a female baby develops the eggs she will potentially use if she becomes pregnant as an adult - a woman carrying a female baby is carrying her grandchild’s matured DNA. So, if the mother lives through a traumatic event or is under huge stress during pregnancy, this will directly impact her grandchild.”

Essentially, psychological damage can be transferred from one generation to another, not just from mother to child, but through communities and families that have lived through traumatising situations. Generational trauma is particularly felt in marginalised communities where the effects of oppression and social injustice and exclusion are felt intensely. It’s a rough situation and one that plenty of young people are attempting to heal from as they step into adulthood on their own terms.

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“It is important to note that this is all about survival,” says Dr Petche. “We will inherit traits that increase our chances of survival. For example, during times of famine, those who survived were able to alter their metabolism to survive on very little, to make use of and hold on to every possible molecule of energy. When this is passed onto future generations, this ability to hold on to food as fuel and energy, could adversely impact them by potentially causing an increased risk in developing conditions like Type 2 Diabetes.” The effects of inherited trauma really are that intense.

How does generational trauma affect us?

Generational trauma can manifest is a variety of ways, similarly to the symptoms of psychological trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder. If you’re struggling with the effects of generational trauma you might experience anxiety, night terrors, low mood, hypervigilance and flashbacks. Physical manifestations can also appear in the body and lead to autoimmune conditions, stomach issues and chronic pain. It’s essentially a state of psychological damage that exists in the body but that also might be exacerbated or triggered by your current circumstances and your fight-or-flight response.

“The relationship between parent and child is new and precious but it carries something old too.” says Dr Sinason. “It carries the emotional imprint of experiences of previous generations. There is a genetic inheritance and what is called an epigenetic experience which means the way environment and genetics interact. Trauma experienced by an ancestor can affect how our genes are expressed over several generations with the impact of adverse childhood experiences of one parent being passed on.”

“There is now research to demonstrate how this happens” explains Dr Petche. “Generational trauma can be inherited via a parent’s or ancestor’s DNA - genetic material which is passed down through generations. It can also be transmitted or inherited through epigenetics, changes to gene expression due to lifestyle and environment.”

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Can you treat inherited trauma?

Many communities that have lived through high-stress situations like cultural dislocation, poverty, persecution and significant social and economic obstacles find comfort in sharing ancestral stories of triumph over adversity, however, this only goes some way to soothing very real psychological issues like anxiety, depression and insecure attachment. Taking steps to self regulate by doing things to calm your nervous system can help. Mental health professionals recommend practices like yoga, mindfulness, exercise, singing and dancing and spending time in nature.

"Viewing yourself and what you may be feeling (both physically and emotionally) with self-compassion as due to something that happened to you, rather than who you are, or that there is something wrong with you is really important." says Dr Petche. "Fundamentally, symptoms of psychological trauma, whether inherited or not, are normal responses to an abnormal situation, which are no longer serving you."

"We have the pleasure of inherited gifts and skills we did not have to work for and the chance for resilience and resolution" explains Dr Sinason, "so treat your family history with interest to understand where you have come from. "

Healing will take time but is definitely possible for everyone. If you believe you're experiencing the effects of inherited trauma, speak with your doctor or a qualified mental health professional and reach out to other members of your community for support in understanding how to understand the source of your struggles and how to work through them.

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