Trauma has the potential to seriously disrupt lives. Often, we focus on those who have witnessed extreme events, such as terrorist incidents or as members of the military. Yet, it’s vital to recognize that traumatic experiences can form the reality of many women’s daily lives.
There are a variety of toxic impacts that can arise from unchecked trauma. Certainly, it can directly derail the mental and physical health of the individual experiencing it. Yet, there is also increasing recognition of just how far-reaching trauma can be. It extends to successive generations of women’s families and communities.
Let’s take a closer look at how intergenerational trauma affects women and what can be done to break the cycle.
What Is Intergenerational Trauma?
To effectively break the cycle of intergenerational trauma, it’s important to gain an understanding of what it is. Without knowing what it looks like and how it occurs, it’s difficult to address the key elements. Too often, people dismiss the concept of intergenerational trauma as angry young people blaming previous generations for their struggles. Yet, it is a very real experience with tangible consequences.
In essence, intergenerational trauma is the process of passing the impact of traumatic experiences to successive generations. This means that regardless of whether a woman directly witnessed a traumatic incident, she may live with the negative results of it. There are still some questions about how such trauma is passed down. For some women, it’s the result of conditioning from living with the trauma-altered behavior of previous generations of women. However, there is also ongoing research into the potential for trauma to be passed down hereditarily through chemical changes in genes.
The effects of intergenerational trauma can also be varied. In terms of symptoms, the outcome is often dependent on the type of trauma.
intergenerational trauma presents itself similarly to PTSD, so understanding the symptoms of complex PTSD can be a great start. Intergenerational trauma can also overlap with or be misdiagnosed as other disorders. Some of the key symptoms include denial, depersonalization, isolation, memory loss, nightmares, feeling numb, hypervigilance, substance abuse, unresolved grief. People experiencing intergenerational trauma may also find it hard to trust and connect with other people, deal with anger issues, be irritable, and have debilitating nightmares.
What Are the Causes?
Intergenerational trauma is a deeply personal condition and can often be a confusing one. After all, you’re coexisting with symptoms that aren’t necessarily a direct cause of your lived experience. Making a start in breaking the cycle is often a case of identifying where the trauma stems from.
For many women, intergenerational trauma commonly stems from one or more of the following roots.
Domestic and Sexual Abuse
Violence against women is an all-too-familiar component of our society and has been for centuries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 41% of women experience “contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner.” It’s almost no wonder, then, that so many women can experience intergenerational trauma from abuse even when they haven’t experienced it themselves. This can impact successive generations’ sensations of safety, comfort around domestic and sexual partners, and their sense of self-worth. The trauma need not be strictly from physical abuse. It can also be from forms of psychological abuse that can affect behavior and perspectives.
Alcohol and Drug Addiction
Another key root of intergenerational trauma is alcohol and drug addiction. This can take the form of passing on patterns of addictive behavior either through genetics or influence. In some instances, the road to addiction also began as a form of coping with other forms of trauma, which can make this type of condition particularly difficult to manage. Indeed, some women find themselves caught in similar cycles of negative behavior as their parents who lived with addiction. This may include toxic relationships with partners or drug dealers and treating their own loved ones abusively.
Some women experience intergenerational trauma as a result of living in conflict, war zones, or famine. They may pass on some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress associated with war, such as hypersensitivity to stimuli or irritability. Others, such as those who lived through the holocaust, may have passed down an understandable lack of trust in others, nightmares, and more challenging forms of grief.
Even in times of global peace, women can pass on intergenerational trauma. For example, historians and epigenetic scientists have found that great historical famines, such as the Dutch Winter Hunger of 1944, the Chinese famine of 1959, and the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-152, could’ve potentially caused an increase in mental illness occurrences in people who didn’t even live in this conflict — people who were simply in gestation during the time.
For women in particular, these types of conflict can be especially burdensome, which makes this type of intergenerational trauma even more complex.
How Can We Break the Cycle?
Breaking any cycle is a challenging process. After all, there are often decades of deeply ingrained behavior to unpack. With structured work and support, there are ways for many women to navigate their own experiences, heal their wounds, and avoid negatively impacting future generations.
One of the most important actions here is talking about trauma. This is often easier said than done, but it’s a powerful tool. This includes talking to other women about experiences of intergenerational trauma and sharing collected wisdom on overcoming it. Parents should also talk to their children. They should discuss both their own symptoms of inherited trauma and where the issues stem from. This helps provide young women with the information they need to navigate experiences they may have. Even popular culture has started to embrace intergenerational trauma, showcasing its ups and downs in award-winning movies like “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Finding a book or movie you can relate to can be incredibly cathartic and help those living with intergenerational trauma to feel less alone.
Beyond informal discussions, more formalized therapeutic treatment is an invaluable part of the healing strategy. A growing number of psychiatrists and counselors are specializing in the unique challenges of intergenerational trauma. Their expertise can help women handle symptoms as well as manage the long-term effects of less obvious trauma-influenced behavior. Not to mention that talking through experiences with a qualified professional can be healing in and of itself.
Intergenerational trauma can negatively affect women over the course of decades. By recognizing the the root causes of these issues, we can empower women to navigate their experiences from a place of knowledge. To break the cycle, though, there needs to be a commitment to talking about individual and family experiences alongside seeking professional therapeutic treatment.
About The Author
Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer from the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing about the ways technology, education, and wellness intersect and impact our everyday lives. She is frequently lost in a good book.
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