Trauma is a complicated phenomenon that can sometimes be transferred from one person to another, such as in the case of transgenerational trauma, historical trauma, and collective trauma.
Recent studies from the research team at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital concluded that people who experienced trauma during the Nazi internment camps of the Second World War passed on their emotional trauma through intergenerational means. This phenomenon can occur in a number of ways.
Transgenerational trauma is a specific type of trauma that transfers from one trauma survivor to a second or even further generation of his or her family.
One of the first documented examples of transgenerational trauma occurred in Canada during the mid-1960s. At this point in time, there were a large number of children of Holocaust survivors being referred to child psychiatrists in large Canadian cities, including Toronto. The children of Holocaust survivors were alarmingly over-represented in the offices of these child psychiatrists— three times the number of children referred from parents who had not encountered trauma during the war.
The effects of the war on traumatized parents being passed onto a younger generation of people was eventually described by some clinicians as “secondary traumatisation.”
Traumas inflicted by the atrocities of war are the main sources cited for secondary traumatisation, but there are a number of other situations that have the capacity to pass trauma intergenerationally, including slavery, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty.
In the field of social work, historical trauma refers to psychological wounding caused by traumatic experiences that can extend over several generations. Historical trauma is a cited example of transgenerational trauma.
Collective trauma is a shared psychological effect between the members of a group of any size, including the entire population of a culture or society. Collective traumas that have affected large groups of people include the Holocaust, slavery in the United States, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Armenian Genocide and the attacks on September 11th, 2001.
Traumatic actions witnessed by an entire society have the capacity to rapidly change the political and social climate of that society.
The transmission of transgenerational trauma is usually understood to occur through the ways a traumatized parent interacts with his or her child. New information, however, suggests that trauma also has the capacity to be transmitted epigenetically (through the gene pool).
In his paper entitled “Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can Nightmares Be Inherited?” Natan P.F Kellermann argues that trauma can be genetically transferred from a source through multiple generations of offspring. This means that an individual whose biological parents experienced severe trauma could feel the effects of that trauma, even without ever encountering his or her biological family.
The Cycle of Abuse
In 1979 Lenore E. Walker developed the social theory of the cycle of abuse – an explanation of behavioural patterns in abusive relationships, which subsequently become repeated. The cycle involves four distinct phases: tension building, acute violence, reconciliation, and calm. While this theory of behavioural patterns is different from transgenerational trauma, the cycle of continuous abuse is a theoretical avenue for the continued traumatization of subsequent generations through the teaching of abusive patterns.
Suffering does not live in a vacuum, nor does it only ever affect a sole individual. Trauma has a way of affecting everyone within its radius, and it can transform into a cycle of abusive behavioural patterns. It’s even suggested that trauma may be connected epigenetically through multiple generations of people. For some, this legacy of trauma cannot be evaded, but it is something that can be healed and prevent from happening at the root.
One of the strongest traits of humankind is our adaptability. We are able to build resilience and learn from nearly any experience, and we have the capacity to heal from trauma and mitigate its effects on those we love.
Have you or someone you love have been affected by the effects of intergenerational trauma or abuse?
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