Did it ever occur to you that you may be carrying the weight not just of your own past but also that of the generation(s) before you? Several researchers have conducted studies around the genocide of European Jews and the aftermath of the Holocaust to find that not only were the victims affected by the trauma but so were their offspring and the generations that followed. This transmission is called transgenerational trauma.
Along with physical attributes and health conditions, trauma may also be passed down genetically. Many of your traits or emotions could be a result of the trauma that your ancestors went through. It could be war, genocide, poverty, abuse, violence or loss of a loved one, to name a few. While these studies are relatively new, several psychologists are actively working in this field.
How does this work?
In many cases, the transmission is purely genetic - that is, the trauma left a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which was then passed down to subsequent generations. The mark doesn’t directly damage the gene. It alters the DNA in a way that unknowingly traps the descendants in a kind of collective and unconscious solidarity with the original trauma.
A strong example of this was the US Civil War where the number of deaths at prisoner of war (PoW) camps increased due to gruesome living conditions like overcrowding, poor sanitation, malnutrition etc. While their sons and grandsons had not suffered the hardships of these camps – in fact, they were well provided for throughout their childhoods – a study showed that they suffered from higher mortality rates than others. It appeared that the PoWs had passed on some element of their trauma to their offspring, genetically.
In several cases, the transmission happens in other ways. Susan George, a psychotherapist and trainer, says that sometimes the transmission may take place in the growing years. "It may also be something that has been passed down to you through generations like you'd pass on cultures or traditions. A mother would treat her daughter the way she was treated, which may, in turn, transfer the trauma. In some cases, it could also be an intentional act of not behaving in the same manner with your child, which may lead to transmission of trauma."
She believes that the trauma may be transmitted through the culture or society that the children grow up in as well. “For example, I may not be born in an area which has a traumatic past but if I grew up there, I might carry a part of it with me because of societal impact.”
Further evidence for this claim comes from a study by Lidewyde Berckmoes, a PhD scholar from the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement. In her research paper, she discovered that transfer of the trauma could be made non-genetically also. Several mothers communicated with their children about the trauma. They would maintain silence on the topic or express the hope that such an event would never occur again, which would, in turn, make space for thoughts related to the trauma in the minds of the children.
Indirect effects were also seen, such as how the genocide affected the second generation through changes including heightened poverty, greater family work burden and compromised parenting.
How can you break out of it?
While there is no single way to break the loop or move out of it, many psychologists and mental health professionals suggest going for therapy to find out how to go about it. It may be important to choose a therapist that specializes in this field.
“When clients come in for therapy, they often think that the problem is with them. But when they see that it has been passed down through their ancestors, they feel relieved. It’s as if they put down a heavy bag. Once that guilt comes off, they are free to choose what to do with it,” says Masiha Shabeer from Kalika Mindspace.
However, the journey doesn’t end at acknowledging the trauma. In fact, it only begins. As they say, allowing yourself to heal is a start. “Once a person begins to see which part of him/her is occupied by trauma, therapists can help in releasing it. The release may often leave a void but therapists can also help the patients to fill it with other elements from their life that are an equal part of who they are,” she says.
As healing starts taking place, the DNA also starts evolving, in case of genetic transfer. Sometimes, the effect may not be seen on the next generation, but the transformation due to therapy will benefit the coming generations.
“People who heal from such transgenerational trauma also become more aware of their behaviour and so they tend to attract partners that don’t trigger such behaviour. When the child is born, the parents are also usually more careful, so as to make sure they don’t activate the trauma even if it is present in them,” she says.
Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for qualified medical advice. It only includes generic information. In case of queries or more information, please consult a mental health care professional.