What Is Intergenerational Trauma, and How Can You Heal from It?
I remember the first time I actually saw renderings of slave trade ships. When I was younger, I held the space to imagine what I'd read about—the lack of sanitation, little to no food, and unbearable heat for journeys that could last months—and it was still unimaginable. But when I was older and saw the sketches of bodies crowded tightly together in chains, they were so vivid they were unbearable. It was only once the shock and rage they inspired began to subside—but trust and believe those feelings are still present—that I remembered thinking something that surprised me: I am the descendant of people who not only had the incredible fortitude to endure this experience, but also the centuries of slavery that followed and the legalized oppression that exists to this day. Perhaps, I thought, there's something powerful there. Then I learned about intergenerational trauma.
What is intergenerational trauma?
The truth is that traumatic events can claim victims over many generations. Trauma is capable of creating a lengthy ripple effect, impacting the victim, the children of that person, their children's children, and so on. The example that often comes to mind to illustrate this domino effect is the impact of the Holocaust on survivors, but you can also see intergenerational trauma in more recent tragedies, including the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Survivors experienced post-traumatic stress disorder after the brutal slaughter of nearly 800,000 people in the span of 100 days. Research shows their children not only struggle emotionally (being less resilient, having difficulty handling adverse situations, and expressing hypervigilance) but also have nightmares of the genocide — even if they were born after it ended and thus never witnessed the violence themselves.
But you don't have to go abroad to understand the magnitude of intergenerational trauma. It's visible in American history with the wrongful displacement of Native Americans, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in internment camps, and the centuries of brutal slavery. Imagine you're a slave whose first child was taken from you and sold to another plantation owner. That unimaginable trauma of having your loved one ripped away from you might make you so terrified of losing another child that you emotionally detach and don't allow yourself to show love to another child again. Or perhaps the trauma of being separated from your child makes you feel overcome with grief, desperation, or rage and you're unable to be a caring parent to your other children. Or you become deeply distrustful of people in power because they've destroyed your family before and teach your children to feel the same. All of those reactions to trauma (inability to connect, perpetual fear, anger, distrust, and more) can be passed along to your children.
"Before the pandemic, I'd give talks on how the constant stress of racism, surveillance, and oppression impacts African-Americans, and people would say 'Mmmm, sure. Ok,' says Latifa Jackson, Ph.D., a former researcher at the Georgetown-Howard Universities Center for Clinical and Translational Science and an adjunct assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and child health at Howard University College of Medicine. "But now that we've had a pandemic and everyone is feeling the perpetual environmental stress themselves, suddenly it's understandable how uncertainty in your environment, food scarcity, fearing for your life, and more can impact your health and the health of your loved ones."
Intergenerational trauma isn't just something you can feel, but it's also something you can actually see — on a genetic level, at least. There's a growing body of research around what's called epigenetics, which looks at how environmental factors such as trauma leaves their mark on your DNA — and the DNA of your offspring.
It's important to note that epigenetics doesn't show that trauma — such as through slavery, Jim Crow laws, or systemic racism — changes your DNA. But it does show that trauma can change how your DNA expresses itself. For example, "epigenetics can impact which genes turn on and off," says Edwin Aroke, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
How can intergenerational trauma harm your health?
While you may not be cognizant of it, "trauma is a systemic shock working throughout your body," says Jackson. "It impacts your immune system, neurological system, your hormones." And that impact can manifest in how susceptible you are to both physical or mental illnesses.
"There's plenty of strong epidemiological data for epigenetic effects in animals and in humans — everything from Dutch Hunger Winter and Swedish Famines to Holocaust studies," says Tracy L. Bale, Ph.D., director of the Center for Epigenetic Research in Child Health & Brain Development at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. For example, research shows the children of Holocaust survivors are more likely to have increased levels of anxiety compared to children "of parents who were not directly exposed to the Holocaust." Sons of Civil War prisoners, for example, were found to have shorter life spans than the sons of soldiers who were not POWs.
Still, the impact of intergenerational trauma is first seen within the health and wellbeing of the initial victim. "Trauma causes your body to remodel ways it functions in response to stress," explains Jackson. Research shows, for example, that exposure to violence can cause changes to your central nervous system and immune function. That may make you more susceptible to sickness or may contribute to neurological disorders, according to Jackson. Trauma can also impact cortisol levels (which can contribute to mood disorders like depression) and shorten telomere length (which impacts how long you live).
"Some data shows that African Americans have biological signatures of being seven years older than their white counterparts," says Jackson. "When your body is undergoing stress, it produces more toxins. So, it increases its cell cycling to get rid of those toxins. As it does this, you get older, on a cellular level, faster." Intergenerational trauma may also lead to an increased risk of chronic pain, according to Aroke. Epigenetics could help explain why African Americans report suffering more severe and debilitating pain from conditions such as arthritis compared to their white counterparts, according to research from Aroke. "It's not just the one change in one gene that causes one thing," he explains, cautioning against making any specific one-to-one correlations. "There are common pathways that lead to various outcomes. [For example,] the pathway that regulates stress affects pain, depression, rates of obesity and PTSD." (Related: Why the U.S. Desperately Needs More Black Female Doctors)
Can you do anything about intergenerational trauma?
Before you start to feel doomed by your DNA, it's important to know that intergenerational trauma isn't a 100-pound barbell pinning your future health and happiness to the bench. One of the biggest impacts knowledge can have is it builds an awareness that inspires action. "Americans spend a lot of time pretending that everyone who comes into a health care setting is at the exact same level, and all you have to do is prescribe the same two Advils for everyone and things will be fine," says Jackson. The playing field is not level and physicians — as well as patients — need to keep this in mind. Consider this validation for you to be your own best advocate in any health care situation whether it's educating a physician to conditions you may be at a higher risk for or consciously seeking out culturally competent care.
"Doing anything to reduce the negative impact of stress, obesity, poor diet, disrupted sleep on your health will always be beneficial, no matter how old you are," says Bale. You can also use this knowledge as fuel to prioritize your own self-care. Making a more concerted effort to improve your health isn't just about sticking to a workout routine or getting a full eight hours of sleep every night. It's about combating the quiet impact that epigenetics may be having on you, as well.
Talk with a Professional
"If you want to overcome intergenerational trauma, think about your mental health and prioritize it," says Jackson. Intergenerational trauma is passed on because it hasn't been dealt with in that generation. Seeking professional help (whether it's a therapist, social worker, support group, or faith leader in your community) can enable you to overcome the traumas that life throws our way like exposure to domestic violence, emotional and physical abuse, substance abuse, incarceration, and more. Admittedly, there are a lot of barriers to accessing mental health care in communities of color: stigma, financial cost, lack of culturally competent care. But seeking psychological help can reduce the stress and traumatic impact not just for you but for generations to come after you. And there are so many more affordable and easy ways to get access to care through apps, video calls, and more. (Related: Accessible and Supportive Mental Health Resources for Black Womxn)
Carving out time to meditate, journal, or commit to any other form of mindfulness that speaks to you — think, tai chi, yoga, deep breathing, forest bathing — may help counteract the impact of stress on epigenetics, says Jackson. Small studies have specifically looked at how tailored mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs may be able to help counterbalance epigenetic changes. Research also shows that a consistent meditation practice creates changes in your brain as well as your body. Long-term meditators have an improved immune system and increased longevity, both of which can combat the negative impact of intergenerational trauma on DNA, according to a recent review of multiple mediation studies.
You don't have to run a marathon or go vegan, but incorporating simple healthy lifestyle habits can have a big impact. "Emerging research shows that diet and exercise induce epigenetic changes," says Aroke. One small, eight-week study of healthy adult men found that diet and lifestyle changes, such as eating a nutritious, plant-based diet, staying active, and doing breathing exercises, were associated with a 3.2-year decrease in DNA age, showing promise for the impact that healthy lifestyle habits can have on a cellular level.
Be a Part of the Change
"At the level of society, we have to look at policies," says Aroke, who notes that a lot of racial minorities feel like their vote isn't going to make a difference. But large and small elections have an impact. For example, if you're terrified by the idea of your Black son being shot by the police, then you can look for ways to advocate for police reform at the polls by voting like-minded candidates into office. This can not only help you potentially avoid trauma, but also calm your fears, enable you to parent from a less stressed or more empowered place, and diminish the chance of you inadvertently passing on stressors to your child.
Keep Faith In Science
"Epigenetic marks can be reversed," says Aroke. "We are looking at potential biomarkers for managing pain and new medications to help reverse some of these changes." Until then, you'll need to rely on your own resources and your own commitment to improving your health from the outside in.
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