What is Generational Trauma?

Just like low-rise jeans dominated fashion and Beanie Babies flooded the toy market, psychology experiences its own wave of trends. In the 80s and 90s, it was in vogue to explore repressed memories. The aughts, meanwhile, brought us an increase in ADHD diagnoses. And the word I’m hearing more than ever today, as both a trained therapist and a person in the world? Trauma.

Now, just because something is “trending” doesn’t mean it’s a flash-in-the-pan buzzword. In this case, psychology trends tend to reflect larger, current societal issues. After all, if something is trending in the therapy world, it’s probably because a lot of people are being affected by it.

generational trauma

That said, I am not at all surprised that trauma has gained popularity. Over the past two years, we’ve experienced significant collective and communal trauma. Yup, that’s thanks to the pandemic, climate change, and political and social injustice. I hear from my clients how watching the news or doom-scrolling on Twitter nearly sends them into a panic attack. They’re being triggered. 

The American Psychological Association’s definition of trauma frames it as a response to one specific event. But the recent world events we’ve all faced bring to mind a different question: Are we at the beginning of a new generational trauma?

What is generational trauma?

Generational trauma is having a moment in the limelight right now. That’s because our collective experience of chaos is reminiscent of other large scale traumatic events. It’s still pretty new in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, but right now, it’s defined as trauma that extends from one generation to the next. 

Generational trauma was first recognized among children of Holocaust survivors. Psychiatrists noted that these children were experiencing significantly more psychological distress than their peers. Since then, we’ve learned that some trauma can run so deep, it impacts us at the genetic level. And that genetic adaptation results in what’s known as “heightened traumatic reactivity” in that person’s children. So for example, someone who comes from a family with a history of trauma will be more sensitive to traumas that they experience in their own life. 

Who is impacted by generational trauma?

Theoretically, anyone is susceptible to generational trauma. If your parents (or possibly grandparents) experienced significant trauma without processing it fully, you’re more susceptible to generational trauma. 

That said, some populations are more vulnerable to generational trauma. Groups that have experienced systematic exploitation, long-term and consistent abuse, racism, and poverty are much more likely to have generational trauma. In the United States. Those groups of people include the descendants of slaves, families of Holocaust survivors, and Native American communities. 

Another susceptible group? People whose families experienced a significant community trauma. For example, New Yorkers who experienced 9/11 will probably notice generational trauma in their kids. Our current experiences of an enduring pandemic, continued social injustice, and negative effects of climate change are all factors that may contribute to future generational trauma. 

What does generational trauma look like?

If you’re part of a group or lineage that experienced trauma, you may want to know what to look for. It’ll differ from person to person, but here are a few possible symptoms of generational trauma:

  • If your generational trauma has been activated by a traumatic event, you might experience an increase in hyper-vigilance, heightened anxiety, or an inability to manage your emotions. An example of a traumatic event might be learning of another Black person dying at the hands of the police. 
  • If you experience consistent trauma activation, you may have experiences of health issues like heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Consistent trauma activation might look like experiencing frequent microaggressions from your colleagues.

Do you have any of these health conditions and know that your family has a history of trauma? If so, managing your health condition may include seeking trauma-oriented therapy.

What can I do if I have generational trauma?

You might be freaked out by the idea of having generational trauma – and that’s valid. After all, you probably don’t want to feel like you’re passing down your heightened trauma response to your kids. 

Trauma therapy is a great place to start when looking for treatment. Look for a provider who specializes in trauma interventions – they’ll have more awareness of what types of interventions will be useful. It also might be helpful to seek out a provider who affirms your identity; that way, you might feel more comfortable and understood with them.

More broadly, it is all of our responsibility to manage intergenerational trauma. A big part of managing these experiences is to help create an environment where trauma does not occur. If we can manage the presence of trauma while also improving coping skills and social supports, we can hopefully ensure that future generations are free from this kind of trauma.

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About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.