Transgenerational trauma: what is it?

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Louise Hay

Transgenerational trauma: what is it?

Written and verified by the psychologist GetPersonalGrowth.

Last update: 15 November 2021

Transgenerational trauma is an impact, the transfer of a person's emotional, physical or social pain to new generations in ways that go beyond just learned behavior. We are talking above all about epigenetics and the influence of the environment on genetic expression.

The argument is not new, in fact transgenerational or intergenerational trauma has already been the subject of study in the decades following the Second World War. Several researches have shown that the generations following those who lived the Holocaust manifested certain behaviors (nightmares, affective and behavioral problems) highlighting a transfer to the grandchildren of the original trauma of the grandparents, albeit in different ways.

We could certainly say that it depends on the style and educational model, on the weight of the memory and on the narrative that is aware or not that envelops the whole family dynamic, where the past continues to be felt in different ways. However, genetics could also play an important role.

Let's think about the effects of malnutrition. We think of the genetic impact that could generate fear and suffering expressed with high levels of cortisol that over the years cause damage to the body. We reflect on traumas that are not channeled, not vented and transformed into post-traumatic stress and chronic depression.

Generations following those who suffered that original trauma will not necessarily develop the same disorders, but they will be more vulnerable than others to anxiety, stress and depression. Let's see it in detail.

An example of transgenerational trauma

Anna was sexually abused by a family member for much of her childhood and adolescence. She grew up in a deconstructed environment where even her mother was mistreated as a child. When he had the opportunity to get out of this scenario, when he reached the age of majority, he did not want to ask for psychological help to deal with this trauma. She just wanted to forget, move on as soon as possible.

The wound, the trace is still present in several ways: anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, hypervigilance, depression, insomnia ... Added to this is a fragile immune system, with low defenses that make it vulnerable to infections, flu, allergies.

Anna now has a 7-year-old boy. Her reason for living is her, her whole world. She has found stability and strength, as well as a reason to take better care of herself. She realized, however, that educating her son is increasingly difficult: he sleeps badly, has attention problems, has a lot of tantrums and has a provocative behavior.. When they call her from school, Anna has the feeling of being judged as a bad mother, to the point of wondering if she is doing something wrong.

The trauma not overcome and the impact on genetics

The last thing our protagonist should do is doubt herself as a mother. Peter Loewenberg, a history scholar and lecturer at the University of California, is a leading expert on transgenerational trauma. He states that unaddressed pain and traumatic events have a significant impact on subsequent generations.

  • Let's not forget, for example, that high levels of cortisol in the blood during gestation affect the development of the fetus. As psychobiologist BeaVan Den Bergh has shown, experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety during pregnancy can "program" certain biological systems in the fetus predisposing it to suffer from various diseases and emotional disorders.
  • According to Peter Loewenberg, unaddressed pain or poorly managed trauma generates a kind of neuronal short circuit. This impact reaches the DNA, altering it, so future descendants remain trapped, without knowing it, in a sort of collective and unconscious solidarity with the original trauma.

Epigenetics and transgenerational trauma

At school we were taught that we receive the genes of our parents and that our genetic material defines our physical characteristics, our intelligence and sometimes even our predisposition to certain diseases. Accepting the idea that trauma is also transmitted to chromosomes in the same family line is quite difficult.

Epigenetics represents a qualitative leap from more orthodox genetics to explain various phenomena. The first is that our lifestyle, the environment we live in, the diet we follow and certain traumatic events can generate genetic changes in our offspring.

All this is explained thanks to a small "label" called epigenome. This small element is fascinating and decisive at the same time: it modifies the expression of certain genes based on the variables mentioned above.

Several scientists from Mount Sinai Hospital have shown that the effects of post-traumatic stress of Holocaust survivors activated this epigenome capable of altering the person's genetic expression. The traumatic wound was thus transferred in various ways to subsequent generations.

The woman of our example, Anna, should first find the appropriate mechanisms and strategies to close the bridges with the past and overcome the trauma suffered in childhood. The strength she will gain from this process will allow her to give the best of herself even with her child, understanding her needs, to work on her behavior to make him a happy, strong and emotionally mature person.

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