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How does intergenerational trauma impact future generations?

Trauma is described as a mentally disturbing experience with permanent detrimental effects on the feelings, perceptions or behaviours of an individual. Scientists have repeatedly claimed that trauma is transmitted genetically between families, referred to as intergenerational trauma. This means that when a first generation experiences trauma, the next generation and other future generations epigenetically inherit that trauma, affecting DNA function or gene transcription (Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018). Sangalang & Vang (2016) elaborate on this by explaining that intergenerational trauma often results in future generations experiencing a wide range of psychiatric symptoms, attention deficiency and greater vulnerability to stress. 

The study of intergenerational trauma first came to light in the 1960’s when the psychiatric department noticed a large amount of children of Holocaust survivors came to retrieve psychiatric support after showing symptoms more severe than those of Holocaust survivors themselves. This sparked curiosity in researchers because as Rakoff (1966) said “The parents were not broken conspicuously, yet their children, all of whom were born after the Holocaust, displayed severe symptoms. It would almost be easier to believe that they, rather than their parents, had suffered the corrupting, searing hell”. Therefore they wanted to get to the bottom of this and gain a deeper understanding as to why the offspring of Holocaust survivors in contrast to the general population were 3 times more likely to receive psychiatric support. 

Modern day researchers like Sangalang & Vang (2016) have also found evidence that these children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors experience higher rates of post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, mood disorders, lower general positive mood and were more prone to experiencing emotional abuse and neglect. Similarly they also found that children of Holocaust survivors living in Israel experienced greater levels of anxiety in response to Iranian nuclear threat and that Vietnamese refugee fathers PTSD symptoms “assessed within the first year of arrival in Norway predicted their children’s mental health 23 years later”. 

There are various other studies such as one by by Lumey, Stein & Susser (2011) and another by Veenendaal et al (2013) that found evidence to suggest that children and grandchildren of the Dutch famine in 1945 had increased glucose intolerance when they were older, despite never experiencing the famine themselves. Similarly, children of victims of the Holocaust also had reduced levels of cortisol, a hormone that allows the body recover from a stressful event.

These findings and many others on epigenetic trauma transmission also suggest that prenatal events in general can have a strong correlation with postnatal adult health mentally, physically, biologically and psychologically. Hartowicz (2018) highlights that the concept of intergenerational trauma has been taught for centuries in various Native cultures, as they believe that “we carry the memories of our ancestors in our physical being. As such we are immediately connected to those who have gone before us”. 

Contemporary psychologist Eduardo Duran, who spent many years working alongside Native people highlights that they believe “historical trauma is a spiritual injury, soul sickness, soul wounding and ancestral hurt”. They believe that in order for future generations to heal the trauma and finally put an end to the cycle, they need to “heal on behalf of their ancestors by ridding themselves of any outdated beliefs, patterns or behaviours” that no longer serve the mind, body or spirit in the present day (p.15, 2006).  

Researchers like Daud et al (2008) have opposing views to those like Sangalang and Vang however, as they found a large body of evidence to suggest that children and grandchildren of traumatised parents who did not possess any symptoms of PTSD, had higher levels of resilience in comparison to children with non-traumatised parents. Individuals like Hiles (2002) and Sacks (1998) manage to fall somewhere between both opposing views because they believe that you are the narrator of your own story. Meaning that get to decide whether the stories of our ancestors and ourselves will empower us or captivate us. 

Recent studies on the science behind intergenerational trauma — between Holocaust survivors and their children, for instance — have discovered that trauma can be passed between generations. A research team at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital led by Rachel Yehuda, a leading expert on post-traumatic stress and epigenetics, concluded that some of these tags could be transferred across generations. When Yehuda researched mothers who were pregnant and in the World Trade Center during 9/11, she discovered that environmental fallout could even leave an imprint in utero.

There is an upside, however. “The idea that we can be transformed by our environment gives us powerful tools for resilience building,” says Yehuda. 

Canadian Roots Exchange fosters cultural exchanges and dialogue between indigenous youth and high school students to promote understanding and reconciliation. Khmer Girls in Action, an all-female group in Long Beach, California, combats “historical forgetting” of the Cambodian genocide in the 1980s. By creating safe spaces for women to grieve and console one another and organizing public talks addressing the tragedy, collective healing is put into action. 

It has been scientifically proven that survivors of Canada’s residential schools can’t just “get over” the experience — because it’s in their genes. From the late 1950s to 1970s, roughly a third of all indigenous children (more than 150,000) were taken from their families and subjected to oppressive conditions, forced labor and isolation. Many survivors reported being sexually and physically abused. At least 4,000 children died. The program, calculated to exterminate the identity of the indigenous population, is now widely considered cultural genocide. Survivors of the schools bear wounds that can take generations to heal and tend to manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and violence. “We’re not static, we’re dynamic,” says Yehuda. “We respond in ways that create legacies that live past our own lives.”

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