Trauma seems to be everyone’s new favorite word. It’s everywhere: from our IRL conversations to pop culture to even Tik Tok trends. And with movies like Encanto, Turning Red, and Umma, more and more of us are becoming aware of one specific type of trauma: the inherited kind. But is intergenerational trauma even real? And if so, where does it come from?
What does trauma look like?
Everyone has seen or consumed #traumadumping content on TikTok and Instagram reels. It’s a popular topic, and there’s still a debate on whether it’s a good thing. But trauma is more than a buzzword and a quick pitch for content creation.
Trauma is clinically defined as exposure to actual or threatened death or serious injury. When left untreated, it may develop into serious psychiatric disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Pop culture likes to feature the more obvious manifestations of it, such as difficulty to communicate and substance abuse. Remember that one character everyone loves to hate? Anger problems, thrashing around, and stoic personality? While such characteristics are not always a result of trauma (sometimes, the “red flags” are there by choice), pop culture often likes to chalk these personality traits to trauma. While it’s not the most accurate picture of trauma, it does show one aspect of its impact.
It’s giving “coping mechanism”, but not
Trauma is different for everyone, and everyone deals with it differently. But the body has adapted to survive with four common trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Like how pop culture pictures it, these may surface as always being on the defensive.
As humans adapted, thrived, and suffered in their “survival mode”, some patterns showed up. The theory is this: Could it be possible for someone to experience trauma by hearing about it?
Looking into intergenerational trauma
It turns out that trauma can be “passed down” from one generation to the next. Intergenerational trauma is described as a “result” of having an ancestor with unresolved trauma. This was first realized in the ’60s, when children of Holocaust survivors showed evidence of trauma despite not directly experiencing it.
Like all types of traumas, intergenerational trauma can manifest itself in individuals differently. The most common symptoms of it include heightened senses of vulnerability and helplessness, poor self-esteem, and dissociation—a process where the mind disconnects from a person’s thoughts, feelings, and surroundings due to stress. These may show up if the descendant is largely present around the direct victim.
Is it nature?
Furthering the storyline of these characters, everyone will always come back to “why” and “how”. That’s why there is almost always a flashback story to explain it. But it turns out that the real answer may lie in a complex science called epigenetics.
The concept is rooted in how genes are naturally passed down from a parent to a child. That doesn’t mean someone’s genes may change because of traumatic events; it’s that some genes may be more activated or deactivated than others. In a sense, the functions of these genes change as a result of these inherited traumas, and it can affect them later in life. But this theory is still being studied.
Or is it nurture?
Another possible cause of intergenerational trauma lies in how it impacts the victim’s parenting style.
For example, if a parent is unable to show love and affection due to unresolved trauma, the child may also be distant and detached. This will become their normal, because they are accustomed to that type of parenting.
Can you break the cycle?
While there’s no assurance that these would 100% prevent the transmission of intergenerational trauma, here are a few ways one could hope to avoid it:
- Educate yourself about trauma, its causes, symptoms, and effects. The first step to solving an issue is learning about the issue at hand.
- Seek professional help if it’s accessible and you’re prepared to take that big step forward. Here’s your friendly reminder that there is no shame in therapy. The brain is a body part as well, and it deserves just as much care as the rest of your body. If it means you’ll understand where your trauma stems from and how you can take care of yourself better, then why not?
- Build meaningful and positive connections with the people you trust or can learn to trust. It’s important to remember that while taking time for yourself may be helpful, isolation is not that healthy. Humans are naturally social beings after all. Reach out to support groups or make friends. Allow yourself to be supported and to support.
- Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, take regular walks, eat your meals, and learn how to meditate (if that sounds like your thing). Self-care actually helps with emotional regulation.
Overall, getting a good sense of your personal image and being active about one’s mental health should help big-time.
Healing the inner child
Intergenerational trauma is a complex case that needs more research. There is currently no one-way fix for treating the conditions and problems that are tied to it.
But recognizing the symptoms and its existence is a big step forward. One may refer to an experienced professional to help them trace ancestral trauma, manage stress tied to family history, or discuss triggering occurrences. Addressing it may also prevent the trauma from passing down further.
But the bottom line is this: It is more than content.
No feeling is final. For more mental health content, check out Breathe.