Transgenerational transmission of trauma

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Louise Hay

Transgenerational transmission of trauma

Sometimes some very painful or dangerous events for one or more members of a family are silenced, but almost unconsciously transmitted from generation to generation.

Last update: October 23, 2022

The concept of historical trauma only started gaining prominence a couple of decades ago. Although some currents such as psychoanalysis had already considered the role of repression in family history, it was neuroscience that took a deep interest in this topic and its transgenerational transmission.

It was once believed that genetic information is immutable and that it determines our fate or destiny. Today it is known that genes are activated through experience as a function of certain conditions and behaviors, such as stress or exposure to pollution. Abuse, post-traumatic stress and similar experiences also act as inhibitors and triggers of the manifestation of a large part of our genetic background.

"It is therefore not legitimate to believe that one generation can hide its most relevant psychological processes from the next."

-Sigmund Freud-

Each man is born with a phylogenetic imprint that can condition, beyond the diseases, his own existence. Historical trauma is a reality that can have a heavy impact on the behavior of an individual. It can make him, for example, particularly sensitive to frustration or more anxious for no apparent reason.

 Transgenerational transmission

The premises relating to the concept of ancestral or historical trauma are found in the work of Sigmund Freud, who intuited some ideas in this regard without, however, developing them in depth.

Nicolas Abraham, Mária Török, Françoise Dolto, Anne Ancellin Shützenberger and Didier Duma analyzed various cases of delirium in children, discovering that they were often linked to phenomena experienced by parents and grandparents. Thus they proposed the idea of ​​"group unconscious" and that some children were "representatives of the emotional load of other relatives".

We began to talk about inheritance or transgenerational transmission whereby the unconscious contents, in particular the unspoken conflicts, are transmitted so that the following generations can resolve them. Such conflicts are reflected in the descendants in the form of symptoms.

The repressed historical trauma

The experiences or events of the family unit not correctly processed by those who lived them are unconsciously transmitted to subsequent generations (transgenerational transmission). Whoever receives this baggage, without knowing it, experiences it as an emptiness or the inability to adapt and live in peace.

This family baggage contains traumatic facts that cause terror, shame, suffering and repression. For various reasons, those who suffer from it are unable to speak about it, thus preventing the correct elaboration of the fact. It therefore turns into an encrypted secret, around which a tacit silence reigns.

In the second generation the event in question is perceived as "unnameable". The members of the second generation intuit that it exists, but do not know the details. Being unaware, it is an inheritance received, but never accepted.

In the third generation, the unmentionable becomes "unthinkable". Something is known to have existed, but it is perceived as completely inaccessible to consciousness. It is not possible to give you a verbal or symbolic representation. What happens then?

The effects of what has been withheld

Repressed trauma easily reaches the next two generations. When it reaches the third in the form of an "unthinkable" element, its effects on new members manifest themselves as a deaf suffering, a deep-seated malaise.

The custodian of this unmentionable and unthinkable "secret" is obliged to evade or avoid any word or idea that may lead back to the original fact, to the cause of the trauma.

In turn, the enormous baggage pushes him to break the silence. At this point he constructs an incongruent discourse, the only one with which to refer to the subject; that which cannot be talked about, but which is present, weighs and manifests itself in the form of disorganized content. This dynamic can trigger psychosis or another serious illness.

Repetition through transgenerational transmission

Repressed historical trauma has never been completely eliminated. What we repress comes back, but not in a linear fashion. It takes on different guises, it manifests itself through acts for which there are no words. Here are the different forms it can take:

  • Pure Events repeat themselves in equal terms. For example: the grandfather was in prison without the reason being known; the grandson commits crimes.
  • Interpretation. The individual repeats something based on a personal interpretation of the past. For example: Grandma banged her head (did they hit her?). The grandson suffers from migraines.
  • Identification. The manifestation of pain is repeated. For example: the grandfather was an alcoholic, the father had liver problems, the grandson suffers from hepatitis.
  • Opposition. We try to repeat the opposite of what happened. For example: the grandmother was a victim of rape, the granddaughter has no sexual relations with anyone.
  • Compensation. We try to remedy what happened. For example: the grandfather died in strange circumstances at the hands of delinquents. The nephew is a policeman.

Too little is still known about transgenerational transmission and historical trauma, and in some areas speculations are confused with the knowledge we have. This is relatively new and still unexplored terrain.

To conclude, we specify that each of us exploring the history of his family will find valid elements to understand a good part of his way of acting.

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