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Trauma: how it gets passed on and breaking the cycle

As Black History Month comes to an end, it is a reminder of how our history shaped society. Interactions and relationships between past generations have filtered down to the present moment, birthing the way we engage with each other today.

Due to the turbulent history of this country, our parents, grandparents, and ancestors have experienced much trauma. We often look back at times of war and slavery, and wonder how people endured such harsh environments, or how parents lived through overt racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Not to say that these issues do not still occur today, but it seems the conversation has opened somewhat, and there are platforms more readily available for people to make their voices heard.  

It therefore may come as a surprise that research shows children of Black migrants in the UK experience more psychological distress than their parents (as Guilaine Kinouani highlights in her powerful book, Living While Black). So why is this?

How trauma gets passed on

Genetically

We often notice that during a stressful period at work, or distressing time, we power through. Only to find that, annoyingly, once we take a break or are on holiday, we are exhausted and fall ill almost immediately. This is because we are still feeling the effects of that period of stress, even though it is over. A similar situation may be occurring with generational trauma, our bodies are continuing to be impacted by the reverberations.

Epigenetic research has shown trauma can be passed on intergenerationally, through our genes. Genetic imprints were found in the DNA of offspring of people exposed to the Holocaust. It suggests the resultant change in chemical tagging on our DNA, because of parental trauma, can impact how much stress hormone is produced in our bodies and how we cope with stress (The Guardian, 2015).

Biologically

During the continually intense periods of stress our parents and grandparents were coping with, they were forced to operate in survival mode. This means their nervous systems would have had to develop ways to cope with this ongoing trauma, via survival responses, to protect the body. As Deb Dana (2020) describes, our autonomic nervous system learns ways of responding to trauma, however, these protective responses make it difficult to regulate emotions, as protection and connection cannot happen at the same time.  

These biological protective responses, learnt by the nervous system, and dysregulation of emotions, will have been passed down to us. This can mean that we are easily triggered into states of feeling unsafe, or not being attuned to how we are experiencing our body.

Cognitively

In society, elders are often held as role models, imparting wisdom and knowledge. Whilst this can be true, we also must accept that unintentionally they may have shared some unhelpful ways of processing emotions and managing psychological issues, because of the trauma they endured.  

We may have learnt protective ideas from elders, such as “we don’t talk to people outside the family about our problems” or “keep it together.” These messages may have proved adaptive strategies for our parents at the time. For instance, if they were in a hostile environment and information about them could lead to slander or livelihoods being taken away, it would make sense to not trust others and only talk to trusted family members. Similarly, showing emotions could have led to bullying or punishment.

However, when we continue to follow these rules and adopt these beliefs in our lives today, it can become damaging. We can feel isolated if problems are happening in the family and we have no one to talk to about this, because “we don’t talk to others about our problems.” Repressing feelings or “keeping it together” can lead to us disconnecting from our bodies, turning to unhelpful behaviours like alcohol or drugs to numb feelings, or trying to manage explosions of emotion that seem to come out of nowhere.

How we can break the cycle

Due to these factors, we may not be best equipped to look after our emotional well-being. It is not our parents or grandparents’ fault, or ours, and with this knowledge, we can start to move forward. It might seem counterintuitive but understanding the past can be a good place to start. We must work backwards, to unpick and become aware of the beliefs and rules we continue to follow, that do not serve us, and note the body responses we have developed.

Why it is important to look back and develop awareness

It can be painful looking back. To quote lines from the film The Lion King (bear with me) “the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.” Even when we run from it, the traumatic patterns passed down mean that we continue to repeat them, even if we do not acknowledge this. How many times have we experienced déjà vu, where we feel transported by a smell or sound into a moment that we experienced months or years ago? Despite us sometimes trying to actively avoid troublesome memories or feelings, the past can very suddenly, without our permission, feel like it is happening now, all over again.

In my role as a psychologist, my work includes helping people better understand their present, which I believe can only be done through the lens of the past. It can be difficult for us to understand why a certain situation or interaction left us feeling so bad about ourselves, but when we put it in the context of our past it can become illuminated. The number of times clients have said to me, “I don’t understand why I feel so bad about this,” later to uncover that the criticism from a boss, triggered the same feelings and thoughts in them as when they were a child, being humiliated by a teacher at school or scolded by a parent. In that moment we become that humiliated child again, it is understandable why we feel so bad.  

Even with this awareness, often we do not exercise compassion for ourselves. We see ourselves as the incapable adult, unable to overcome the criticism from a boss, and who should have got over the humiliation felt as a child. We fail to see that we remain the child who was unable to soothe and comfort themselves in that moment of distress, and in this one, because we were never taught the skills to do so. We need to cultivate self-compassion.

Developing emotional regulation and cultivating self-compassion

There are ways we can calm our nervous system. We can ensure we get enough rest and relaxation. We can do things that bring us joy, such as going for a walk, listening to music we enjoy, dancing, cooking, activities that allow us the opportunity to feel good. We do not have to set aside huge amounts of time for these things, and we can gradually build them into our routine. We deserve to have experiences where we feel safe, at peace and comforted. A five-minute meditation or mindfulness exercise, once a day, can start to give our nervous system a break from survival mode, and instead attune to what it is like to feel calm and safe. However, mindfulness is not for everyone, you might feel more at ease doing a physical activity or singing. Explore what works for you. It can be comforting to know that when we are feeling distressed there is something we can do for ourselves, to soothe us.

Learning new ways of relating to yourself

Forgive yourself, we are all human. Despite rules we may have learnt, and messages we are given from wider society, we all make mistakes, we are not perfect. Remind yourself of this when things do not go as planned, it is easy to berate ourselves and blame ourselves for not doing enough. It can sometimes be easier to forgive others than ourselves.

Instead of falling into the usual pattern of self-punishment, take a deep breath and tell yourself it is OK, tell yourself you will be fine, tell yourself to take a break, tell yourself whatever kind message you need to hear in that moment. Talk to yourself as you would a child, or a puppy. They deserve just as much compassion and care as you. If you find this difficult to do, it is OK, keep trying. Every unhelpful habit takes time to break, and every new habit takes time to get used to.

There is hope

All of this takes time and can feel like a long and gruelling process. Unlearning unhelpful patterns and teaching ourselves better ones is not easy. But there is hope, we do not have to continue to be trapped in trauma, we can do something about it. You do not have to do this alone, contacting a therapist to support you through this process can help. History does not have to repeat itself.

References:

Guilaine Kinouani (2021). Living While Black: the essential guide to overcoming racial trauma. Ebury Press, London.

The Guardian (2015). https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/21/study-of-holocaust-survivors-finds-trauma-passed-on-to-childrens-genes

Deb Dana (2020). Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centred Practices. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Bromley, BR1

Written by Dr Avril Gabriel

Bromley, BR1

Dr Avril Gabriel is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist. She is currently offering one-to-one therapy, after previously working in university counselling services. She also worked in the NHS for many years. She is interested in helping people feel more connected to their body and better understand their experiences.

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