The Lingering Impact of Trauma in Multiple Generations

More than half of all American adults have experienced serious trauma in their lives. It is possible to cope with the effects of this trauma and avoid any long-term harm. However, any given traumatic experience has the capacity to overwhelm your coping mechanisms. If this happens, you run the risk of developing PTSD or another trauma-based mental health condition.

Sometimes, trauma does not just affect the life of one person within a family. Instead, it becomes generational. Generational trauma essentially passes on the effects of a traumatic event to descendants who did not live through that event. The end result can be an amplification of trauma over time. Fortunately, it is possible to recover from the effects of generational trauma.

What Is Generational Trauma

Generational trauma is also known as intergenerational trauma. You may also see it referred to as historical trauma. What exactly are mental health specialists referring to when they use these terms? The first step in answering this question is gaining an understanding of trauma itself.

Trauma’s Effects on Parents

Trauma occurs when you undergo an experience that strains your normal sense of mental balance or equilibrium. When this happens, you naturally experience emotional responses such as:

  • Disorientation
  • Fear
  • Shock
  • Denial

In a sense, these reactions protect you while you recover your equilibrium. However, in certain circumstances, the strain on your natural coping mechanisms can be too great. When this happens, the same reactions that helped protect you may set the stage for serious, harmful trauma response. If this response continues, it can lead to the onset of PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder. It can also lead to the development of other trauma-related conditions.

Far too often, the damaging effects of trauma go untreated. This means that you can continue to suffer from experiences that happened decades ago. In turn, parents with unresolved trauma run the risk of passing on their experiences to a new generation.

 Generational Trauma

Generational trauma begins with a serious trauma experienced by a parent, grandparent, or more distant relative. If that trauma goes unresolved, it can fundamentally change how affected parents see the world. Crucially, it can also lead to fundamental changes in how those parents treat and interact with their children. Specific things that can be affected include:

  • The ways in which parent and child bond with each other
  • Feelings about the self and self-identity
  • Perceptions of safety and danger in everyday life
  • A child’s baseline outlook on the larger world

In effect, the child “inherits” at least some aspects of the parent’s traumatic experience. This process is not necessarily limited to two generations. In one way or another, it can continue to play out over several generations, or even longer.

Trauma and the Question of Identity

Exactly what impact does trauma have on your sense of self-identity? People who live through traumatic experiences may have trouble developing a coherent sense of self. This is especially true for people exposed to sexual abuse or other specific forms of severe trauma. As a rule, the more coherent your identity is, the healthier you are psychologically.

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Examples of Generational Trauma

Trauma from any source can go unresolved without proper treatment. As a result, it can become generational if passed on from parent to child. However, some traumatic experiences are more likely to become generational than others. Common examples of these experiences include:

  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Sexual enslavement as a child or adult
  • Being forced to become a refugee
  • Living in a violent or war-torn region
  • Serving in a combat zone while in the military
  • Forcible removal from your cultural roots
  • Witnessing or surviving genocidal actions

It is important to note that these kinds of experiences do not doom you to generational trauma. That is especially true if you receive effective trauma treatment. Nevertheless, experiences such as these significantly increase your risks for passing on trauma to a child.

Generational Trauma

Children and Trauma Reactions

One of the big factors in generational trauma is how children respond to trauma. Unlike adults, children have not completed the process of brain development. Unfortunately, some of the last skills to fully develop are higher-level functions such as:

  • Control over your impulses
  • The ability to regulate your emotions
  • Logical thinking
  • Judgment and decision-making

All of these skills play an important role in your ability to process trauma. Since children have not completely developed them, they lack important trauma protection. In turn, they have higher chances of being harmed by traumatic experiences.

The Impact of Toxic Stress

One big issue for children exposed to trauma is toxic stress. This term refers to the level of stress that overwhelms a child’s trauma coping skills. Such high stress can occur if a child:

  • Suffers from intense trauma for any amount of time
  • Lives through repeated, separate episodes of trauma
  • Experiences ongoing or chronic trauma exposure

Toxic stress can literally change the course of a child’s brain development. In turn, this can lead to lasting deficits in important mental functions. Without help and support, these deficits can continue for an entire lifetime. They can also help lay the groundwork for the next round of generational trauma.

This is possible, in part, because generational trauma can be cumulative. In addition to their own traumatic experiences, affected children must deal with the impact of their parent’s experiences. In turn, they can pass this increased trauma load on to their own children.

Generational Trauma and the Development of PTSD and Dual Diagnosis

Even if you are not exposed to generational trauma, you can develop PTSD if you live through a traumatic event. Generational trauma makes this all the more likely to happen. Trauma exposure also increases the odds that you will develop serious substance problems. If you are affected by both PTSD and substance problems, you have something called dual diagnosis.

Dual diagnosis occurs whenever drug or alcohol problems and a separate mental illness affect the same person. This is not a rare phenomenon. In fact, about half of all people with a mental illness also have substance problems. The presence of dual diagnosis is significant. This is true because overlapping conditions not only worsen your overall health. They also tend to lead to worse symptoms of each individual condition.

For these reasons, dual diagnosis requires more treatment. That includes treatment for your PTSD symptoms. It also includes help for your drug- or alcohol-related symptoms.

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Solutions for Generational Trauma

Non-generational trauma is typically treated with psychotherapy. Most people receive some form of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT helps you process traumatic experiences from your past. In this way, it helps change how you think, feel and act in everyday life. The end result is often a much-improved ability to cope and function.

The treatment solutions for generational trauma are roughly the same as those for non-generational trauma. However, they also differ in some ways. For example, it can take longer for you to create a trusting relationship with your therapist. It may also take longer for you to make progress during therapy. However, with time and effort, real progress is possible.

Inpatient Treatment Options for Trauma

Some people are only mildly affected by their traumatic experiences. Others are moderately or severely affected. You can usually recover from mild trauma symptoms in an outpatient program. However, you may need inpatient care for moderate or severe symptoms. The inpatient treatment options for trauma are the same as the outpatient options. But in an inpatient program, you receive more of this treatment. You also get the 24/7 benefits of a secure setting for your care.

Coping Mechanisms for Trauma and Toxic Stress

Children exposed to trauma and toxic stress are not fated to develop generational trauma. With help, they can learn to cope with stress and avoid this outcome. A key step in making this possible is getting needed attention from caring adults. A child who establishes relationships with these kinds of adults receives crucial support for mental wellness.

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Get Help for Generational Trauma at Emerald Isle Health & Recovery

Generational trauma can be an enormous burden for affected children. In addition to dealing with their own traumatic experiences, they must deal with their parents’ experiences as well. Children are poorly equipped to cope with this kind of stress. For this reason, they may go on to develop PTSD or other stress-related mental health conditions. In turn, if they have children when they reach adulthood, they may end up starting the next cycle of generational trauma.

This chain of events is not inevitable. Treatment is available to help people affected by both trauma and generational trauma. It may take longer to lay the groundwork for treating generational symptoms. It may also take longer to see the results of treatment. Nevertheless, recovery is a realistic goal.

If you are affected by trauma or generational trauma, contact the specialists at Emerald Isle. We have extensive experience treating trauma-related conditions. That includes PTSD and related issues. It also includes drug and alcohol problems. In addition, Emerald Isle is a premier source for the effective treatment of dual diagnosis. Call us today to learn more about how we can help you recover.