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Generational Trauma: Overcoming the Past

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generational trauma

From birth, childhood development is deeply influenced by the people around them. Babies learn to smile from the adults who smile at them. Toddlers learn how to handle a problem with guidance from their adults. Teenagers learn about healthy relationships from watching the relationships in their adults’ lives. Family and environment form so much of our personality, from our interests and hobbies to our core beliefs. And it’s not just limited to the immediate family such as parents, but influence comes down from grandparents and extended family as well. Each adult passes on their knowledge through their own experiences to the children in their lives. 

It makes sense that we learn from our past, but what can we learn from our family history? We all have a family history, something that connects us to not only our immediate family unit but our larger family tree. This connection is the reason we have brown eyes or why we practice the traditions we do, but there are sometimes more troubling things that are passed down through families as well. Researchers are studying what happens in a family when one generation experiences trauma and then passes it down to the next. Could it be possible that young women can be affected by trauma that their parents or even grandparents experienced?

Learning From the Past

Generational trauma is a psychological term that asserts that trauma can be transferred between generations. After the first generation of survivors experiences trauma, they are able to transfer their trauma to their children and further generations of offspring via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms. Each generation warns the next one of the dangers they have had to face and how to avoid them in the future, which means that even though the next generation has not personally faced those traumas, they may be stuck living in “survival mode”. Passing on these warnings comes from a place of wanting to educate the next generation and keep them safe. And while it may come from a place of protection and love, it can have negative consequences. Depending on what that passed down trauma may be, this could include behaviors such as risky health behaviors, anxiety, shame, food hoarding, overeating, authoritarian parenting styles, and distrust of community.

Trauma can manifest itself through stress, anxiety, fight or flight, and other heightened alert systems in our brain and bodies, but intergenerational trauma can also mask itself through learned beliefs, behaviors, and patterns that become ingrained. It can be helpful for young women to look at their environment and their past to fully understand the meaning of their trauma and how they can begin to heal from it. This can create awareness as they explore why they are behaving in certain ways. With generational trauma, it is important for you women to shift from thinking that this is a problem they have created for themselves, into this is something that they were born into. 

The Effects of Trauma on Women

In the study, researchers used 47,000 Finnish children that had been evacuated to Sweden during WWII–a significant trauma in anyone’s life. Then, from 1950 to 2010, they tracked the health of their offspring, which came to a total of 93,000 people.

The results showed that “the daughters of women exposed to childhood trauma are at increased risk for serious psychiatric disorders.” The increased risk resulted in those individuals being twice as likely to be hospitalized for mental health issues and four times as likely to develop a mood disorder (ex. depression).

Possibly the most shocking part was the disparity between the genders. Male participants who experienced trauma showed no increased risk. Researchers think this may be connected to why trauma in young women has been shown to be more prevalent. Lead author, Torsten Santavirta, explained what this research means for the future: “The most important takeaway is that childhood trauma can be passed on to offspring and the wrinkle here is that these associations are sex-specific.”

Recognizing the Symptoms of Trauma in Young Women

There is a wide range of trauma that young women may experience. We often think of big life events like an assault or a car accident when we think of trauma. But trauma can also be experienced in “smaller”, but no less detrimental, ways. Trauma may also include being bullied at school or parents getting divorced. There is no one way that a person experiences trauma, and early identification and intervention play an essential role in treatment. Knowing the warning signs of trauma in young women can give your daughter the best chance to move forward.

Common symptoms of trauma may include:

  • Distancing from family and friends
  • Irregular sleep patterns, excessive sleep or insomnia 
  • Lack of interest in school, friends, family, etc.
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Overreacting to minor irritations
  • Difficulties in concentration, short-term memory, and problem-solving
  • Reckless or dangerous behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Hypervigilance 

Trauma may manifest in both physical and emotional symptoms and experts are continuing to learn more about how trauma affects the immune system. Experiencing trauma may also lead to a dysfunctional immune system in the body and the brain. When in a high trauma reactive state, the microglia eat away at nerve endings instead of enhancing growth and getting rid of damage,” Dr. DeSilva explains. “The microglia go haywire in the brain and cause depression, anxiety, and dementia. This can translate into genetic changes, which can be passed down to further generations.”. 

While many young women may feel that they are alone in their experience with trauma, the reality is that trauma is much more common than they might think. If you believe your daughter is struggling, it’s critical that she does not ignore the symptoms of trauma and that seeks out a professional for further guidance. 

Moving Toward the Future

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that feeling safe is one of our base needs. Without having that need for security met, we cannot address our psychological and self-fulfillment needs. Being brought up in a family that emphasizes past dangers or has trouble moving past the initial trauma can lead to families being emotionally volatile and overprotective, or on the other end of the spectrum, being numb or emotionally detached. When addressing inherited traumas, it can help to think of it as a problem we were born into instead of a problem we have created ourselves. Working with both individual and family therapy can help process generational trauma and address the underlying issues of feeling unsafe. Often families hide their trauma and a “code of silence” is instilled in both parents and children. Speaking about the trauma may make trauma survivors feel vulnerable, which in their minds, is a dangerous place to be. Talking with a therapist can help families move beyond the secrecy towards positive communication and connection. A therapist can also help you identify your triggers and symptoms connected to the trauma. These interventions can help to create a healthy foundation on which you can build.

For some young women, a residential treatment center may be the answer to dealing with generational trauma. Residential treatment provides clinical support in an environment that mirrors a home environment. This setting helps young women practice the new skills they acquire while in treatment in a place that looks like home so that when they return to their actual homes, they feel comfortable and confident in using those skills. A residential treatment program can also be beneficial for young women who struggle to connect with their peers. They may feel that their trauma makes them too hard to relate to with their friends from home. In a residential treatment center, they will create a community with other young women who have experienced similar struggles. This commonality helps young women become more comfortable with speaking about the things they were previously taught to be silent about. Residential treatment centers also open up new life experiences for young women. There, they will learn to address areas of their lives that they may have had difficulty dealing with due to their experiences with trauma. For example, some trauma survivors may disengage from schoolwork or feel unable to practice healthy self-care. While in a residential treatment center, young women will be provided with the resources and support they need to address these issues by practicing everything from cooking meals for themselves to establishing healthy school routines.

Journey Home East Can Help

Journey Home East provides key supportive interventions in a home-like setting. We include various types of interventions including group, individual, and family support. As a transitional independent living program, we also help our residents work on independent living skills, develop positive peer and community relationships, help them with academic success, and provide exciting recreational activities.

Journey Home East helps provide the opportunity for greater freedoms and responsibilities entailed in pursuing further education or having a job. Residents are being supported in this process by our skilled staff. For more information please call (828) 469-0716.