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  • Hannah Whitley, LCSW

Generational Trauma: Healing the Wounds of Our Ancestors

Black grandchild holding grandmother affectionately

On June 19th, 1865, more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state of Texas were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as Juneteenth, and remains a celebration of independence. Although black Americans have been free from slavery since that day in 1865, the wounds of the trauma have been passed down for generations. How can this be? How is it that slavery could be abolished 159 years ago, but the effects of the trauma endured by those slaves still impact their ancestors? This same phenomenon is seen in the ancestors of people who survived the Holocaust, fought in wars, and lived through the Great Depression. There is no doubt that the survivors of these tragedies faced lifelong trauma, but what many do not realize is that generations later, the invisible wounds of these traumas still exist. 

So how is it that the traumas of our ancestors still haunt us today? The answer can be found in epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of changes in the expression of genes, which is then passed down as a change in the genetic code. When exposed to a threat to safety, the brain releases cortisol, as the body's way of preparing for fight or flight. When exposure to trauma is chronic, cortisol levels become chronically high due to changes in the body at a cellular level. So, when exposed to the chronic trauma of slavery, those individuals' genes changed in response to the life-threatening circumstances they endured. The survival strategies that they adopted to survive became a part of their DNA. That DNA, with those changes to the genetic code, are then passed down to that individual's children, and so on. The DNA is forever changed by these traumatic experiences as it is passed on from generation to generation.

Black lesbian family with children laying in grass

Not only do the impacts of trauma get passed on at a genetic level, but also at a behavioral level. When a person endures significant trauma, the symptoms of that PTSD or complex trauma infiltrate all areas of their life, including their parenting. For example, a parent who has PTSD from combat may be easily triggered into a fight or flight state by their child's tantrum, leading them to lash out angrily at their child. Another parent, who grew up poor with little food to eat, may instill in their child the need to eat until their plate is clean and live a frugal life, never spending money on anything but necessities. For some individuals, the trauma may have made them numb to their emotions, leading them to parent in a cold and distant manner. From infancy, children begin to learn about themselves and the world from their parents, so it is no surprise that a parent who has been traumatized will parent through the lens of their trauma if left untreated. It wasn’t until recently that therapy became accessible, and so many individuals were left to live with the effects of their trauma and unknowingly passing it along to their children. For those children, the impacts of generational trauma may present as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, complex trauma, and more either in childhood or adulthood. Without the awareness of this cycle, the trauma continues to be passed down until the cycle is broken.

3 generations of Black men in park

You may wonder, how can I heal from the impacts of generational trauma if it is in my DNA? In the same way that epigenetics caused these trauma symptoms to be passed down, we can again rewire our brain to learn to set aside the ingrained survival strategies that are no longer needed, and live a life free of the curses that have haunted our families for generations. Working with a therapist who is familiar with complex trauma can help you to untangle the web of trauma that may have been present in your family for generations. Modalities such as IFS, psychodynamic, somatic and sensorimotor are some of the treatments that can be helpful in treating generational trauma. A therapist can help you to recognize learned or inherited patterns and find healthier ways to cope, as well as helping you to build awareness of thinking patterns that don’t serve you anymore, because they were passed down from a place of survival that is no longer needed. Working through these deep-seated family traumas and learning new skills can free you, and generations to come, from the wounds that your ancestors were unable to heal from. So, if you are ready to break the cycle and free yourself from the generational curses that continue to haunt your family, call Mind and Body Therapeutic connections so we can support you in your journey to healing.


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