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Whose Trauma is This?

Have you heard of Transgenerational or Intergenerational Trauma? These theories have been discussed in counselling and psychology programs and in the scholarly research for years, and new scientific findings are emerging in support of these theories. Transgenerational trauma is the idea that trauma can be passed from one generation to the next through a series of mechanisms, with focus mainly on environmental conditions and psychological distress of traumatized parents having an impact on the next generation. This was commonly noticed in children being raised by someone living with unprocessed trauma or post-traumatic stress would cause them to learn similar behaviours and responses as their parent(s). As I entered the counselling field and began practicing and attending workshops, I started overhearing the term “inherited trauma” which I learned was referring to another emerging theory that trauma can manifest up to three generations later than the original traumatic experience, and thus possibly effecting a grandchild, great niece or nephew, etc. Recent discoveries in neuroscience, cellular biology, and epigenetics (which looks at inherited gene expression), supports the exploration of at least three generations of family history to begin to connect the trauma symptoms and their source. This of course supports the themes of intergenerational trauma that emerge in psychological research and in the therapy room.

Now, inheriting trauma from your great-uncle is obviously more complex than passing on the gene for blue eyes or hard ear wax...but if you think about it- it makes sense. Previous generations who lived through a specific set of struggles to survive would pass this information along to the next generation to improve their chances of survival. It also makes sense that the specific struggles and traumatic events experienced by our ancestors would not exactly translate into the struggles we experience today. It is also entirely likely that someone may hold the genetic make-up for trauma or an any other type of gene expression, but do not experience the symptoms because they simply have not “re-lived” a similar event themselves. Basically, this means that you can have the gene for alcoholism, but if you never abuse alcohol, you will never express that gene.

I recently read Mark Wolynn’s “It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle”. He explains that everyone will relate to their ancestral trauma differently. To put this into context, we are currently in the midst of a global pandemic. Since we are alive today, our ancestors would have survived pandemics and epidemics, whether it was the Great Plague, Tuberculosis, Smallpox, Cholera, Influenza, or some other burdening disease. What happened to the individuals you are genetically connected to, and how they responded to these experiences may be playing out in your life today. I was not surprised at the onset of the pandemic when clients began to report sudden urges to hoard, or conserve…retreat and protect…The toilet paper frenzy, pantry stocking, fear of others, even aggression are all unique responses to a global threat. One thing is for certain, our Pandemic-Survival Genes have been activated. How this activation and response translates to our current reality will be different for everyone and has more than likely left many people feeling scattered, confused, anxious, or emotionally volatile. Recognizing that however you are responding to Covid-19 as a valid response and as a response that is intended to protect you, is a good first step to managing the negative effects of these responses. In the therapy room (or virtual room these days) the counsellor helps guide a client to recognize the unconscious patterns of their thoughts and behaviours, understand how these patterns are rooted in their history, and process this to heal their psyche and symptoms. Knowing what we do about inherited trauma, sometimes this involves healing an ancestral wound as well- as that trauma will resurface beyond their lifetime to be healed.

If this is resonating with you in any way, I encourage you to take a moment and create a quiet and still space to close your eyes and connect with whatever is coming up for you. Hold space in your heart and mind for this feeling or sensation. Honour it as a form of ancestral knowledge showing up to help you and wait until you fell something “shift”. Trust me…Give it a try 😊

I also highly recommend Mark Wolynn's Book, “It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle”. Check it out:


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