The idea that trauma can be passed down from generation to generation is a new-ish one. The concept of intergenerational trauma was first recognized around 1966, as psychologists began to study children and grandchildren of people who had survived the Holocaust. One study from 1988 found that the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented by about 300% in referrals to psychiatric care. Researchers theorized that the effects of trauma can be transferred from one generation to the next.
This phenomenon is also known as transgenerational trauma and, when it references a shared experience among a group of people, such as Black people or refugees, it can be called historical trauma.
It’s particularly relevant right now. Thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police — only to be met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and to be called thugs in a tweet by the President of the United States. This is only the latest instance in a legacy of racism that stretches back hundreds of years.
We asked Mariel Buquè, PhD, a trauma therapist, to explain how intergenerational trauma works — and what, if anything, can be done to heal from it.
How Can Trauma Be Passed Between Generations?
There’s some evidence that trauma alters people’s genes; if that were true, those genetic variations could then be passed down between generations, predisposing their recipients to be sensitive to subsequent traumas and stressors. Trauma can also be passed down behaviorally: A child of someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder could learn and internalize certain ways of thinking from the parent.
How Does Race-Based Traumatic Stress Cause Intergenerational Trauma?
“Black lives have been assailed since they set foot in the U.S., and even beyond the U.S.; it’s a worldly phenomenon and epidemic that we’ve been experiencing for hundreds and hundreds of years now,” Buquè says.
In addition to the possible genetic changes they may have inherited from traumatized parents and grandparents, Black Americans also deal with psychological and social sources of trauma that are passed from one generation to the next.
“The individual’s parents or grandparents may have stories about how their own relatives survived the Jim Crow era, narratives that were marked by terror and fear of the white community,” Buquè says. “There are a lot of messages that are passed on at an early age in life that positions Black individuals to believe that the world is a threatening place, which is the case for us. But when you’re a child and you’re still trying to understand your place in the world, being plummeted with these messages — that are protective in many ways — is very traumatic,” Buquè points out.
This fits into what mental health professionals call the biopsychosocial model, which examines how biological, psychological, and socio-environmental factors are interconnected.
This type of race-based traumatic stress is still not recognized as a diagnostic qualifier in the psychiatric world — despite the fact that in the past 10 or so years, numerous studies attest that it exists, notes Buquè. “The reason for that is because the people that are creating the diagnostic codes aren’t, for the most part, people that look like us,” she explains. “There isn’t a voice in the room to say we have to consider to experiences of Black folks, and how these produce a very specific type of stress race-based traumatic stress that have the markers of PTSD, such as hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal, intrusive thoughts, and sleep disturbances.”
How Can Intergenerational Trauma Be Healed?
The first step to healing this type of trauma is to gain an understanding of your own triggers and symptoms. Due to the nature of historical trauma, these are likely different for every person.
Buquè gives this example: During a meeting, a Black person may find themselves working very hard to deliver a message of inclusivity. They leave, and they’re feeling heavy. They’ve lost their appetite. They don’t feel grounded. But they may not be able to connect the emotional labor they just performed with their symptoms.
“It’s really important for us to be attuned what the triggering factors are for us, and what the psychological markers are — what it looks like for us to be in trauma,” Buquè says. She recommends mindfulness protocols, which help make individuals more conscious of where the trauma resides in their bodies. This sort of work can be done with a mental health professional or one one’s own, she says, adding, “Having an understanding of what trauma is like for them specifically can be highly empowering, and can be the very beginning of a healing journey to break the cycle of trauma for generations to come.”
How Can You Help A Friend With Intergenerational Trauma?
“The most prominent thing to keep in mind for Black individuals and communities of color at large that face racial discrimination, is to keep in mind that we are feeling unsafe. So you can consider what safety or safe places can look like for the person who is in trauma,” Buquè says. Work toward being a source of protection and grounding.
“One thing that’s incredibly important to consider is just an increase of consciousness around placing added burden upon Black individuals,” Buquè adds. “There are many times when well-intended and well-meaning white people, who I know truly care for me, make statements of white guilt, or express that they don’t know what to do. There are a lot of resources out there around allyship and co-conspiratorship. My recommendation is that people seek those out, rather than place that heavy burden of their own guilt and shame upon a person that's already in grief and in trauma.”