In an ideal world, if we were to think of what’s passed from generation to generation, we would list secret family recipes, heirlooms or holiday traditions.
But for many folks, there is something much darker passed down.
Intergenerational trauma, or generational trauma, isn’t trauma experienced by only one person. It extends from one generation to the next, meaning we can feel the impacts of what our ancestors experienced.
The American Psychological Association defines it as “a phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotional and behavioral reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself.”
The concept was first formally recognized in 1966 when Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff and her colleagues recorded high rates of psychological distress among children of people who survived the Holocaust.
In the decades that followed, research has shown that trauma can affect genetic processes via in-utero exposure or epigenetic changes, which mark the “changes to an individual’s DNA due to a traumatic experience that can theoretically be passed down through generations.”
I recently hosted coach Steve Bacon on my podcast, Hey, I’m Listening! His mission is to help clients and communities of colour break generational curses by working through trauma and eliminating limiting beliefs.
Intergenerational trauma in the Black community
Black people around the world are vulnerable to intergenerational trauma due to historical trauma and ongoing social injustice. Systemic oppression and exploitation, racism and hate crimes, poverty–all of these mark traumatic events that could lead to genetic changes.
According to a Forbes article that documents how intergenerational trauma still impacts the Black community, one major consequence of settler colonialism is such trauma, particularly the trauma that was experienced by enslaved ancestors and passed down through each generation.
Healthline boils it down: Being Black means living with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, caused not only by one’s lived experiences but the experiences of our ancestors.
In addition to negative health outcomes, intergenerational trauma can lead to psychological impacts on sense of self and self-worth, resulting in a cycle of medical, social and psychological trauma responses.
Forbes highlights how “one of the aftereffects of slavery that has been observed is vacant self-esteem, which can include feelings of hopelessness and depression.” Racial stereotypes may also be internalized and passed down, along with learned helplessness.
During our podcast, Steve outlined one example where a child creates their own meaning in a situation based on trauma that was passed down to them. “That’s what human beings do. We built our world through our experiences, and if you don’t help me understand what’s happening, I will come up with my own understanding,” he said.
The transmission of and reactions to intergenerational trauma vary by each generation, but its consequences are typically felt across relationships and attachments, parenting, health and well-being, behaviours, personalities, attitudes and more.
If you’re triggering a certain response from an individual, it may not be about you at all. What they’re doing is responding to something that has happened in their past and continuing that belief system and carrying it forward into this moment with you.
How you can help end intergenerational trauma
Ending generational trauma won’t be completed in our lifetime. But, along with institutional support like access to quality health care and education, there are steps we can take to help end the cycle for generations to come.
1. Lift the veil of amnesia
Before healing can take place, we must lift the veil of amnesia on who we are and remember our position as the creators of language, of healing modalities and of culture.
The healing narrative always begins with moving through a remembering process and identifying the motivations or plans that we were attempting to carry out prior to a traumatic event.
As a people and a nation, that traumatic event is the enslavement experience, which has evolved over time to now include warfare, gang warfare, mass incarcerations and the release of addictive substances into African communities.
Lifting that veil helps us address who we are and evaluate our purpose as a nation before we can move forward with healing intergenerational trauma.
It’s important to take the time to adequately process our collective trauma, and recognize it won’t heal overnight. Resources like my forgiveness journal Forgive: Master The Art of Letting Go will help you work through an intentional approach to forgiveness and subsequent healing on an individual level.
2. Make the conscious decision to heal
One of the most difficult decisions for us to make is to heal, and every year we are one step closer to healing as a nation.
That said, we all need to put in the work to end generational trauma.
This is not a journey for one individual, nor one community or nation, but a coordinated, far-reaching endeavour for all peoples around the world. We must get to the root of the systems, beliefs and practices that have gotten us to where we are today.
In my previous blog post, I discussed how to make space for communal healing, which is integral to healing intergenerational trauma. While individual and family healing journeys are important, we need to make the conscious decision to heal on a broader scale to make the impact we seek.
3. Work to heal the narrative.
Part of doing the work means engaging in deep reflection and strengthening our own awareness of the negative thoughts, beliefs and practices embedded within. While it’s not an easy exercise, it’s integral that we:
Address the loss of cultural identity.
After centuries of exploitation, erasure and unspeakable atrocities, it’s no surprise Black peoples across the diaspora have experienced a loss of cultural identity.
Reclaiming our identities by connecting with our culture and its strengths can support us through our healing and allow us to stand in our power.
Kick internalized oppression to the curb.
Also common in marginalized groups is the internalization of racial stereotypes, to the detriment of the community and nation.
According to Forbes, this can show up in oppressive beliefs “that physical attributes that are closer to white are more acceptable, presentable, and beautiful” or “that aligning with whiteness will shield you from racial harm.” This disassociation with Blackness is a common sign of internalized oppression.
Educate on conscious and unconscious biases.
Meaningful change requires a complex, coordinated approach.
According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, providing inclusive and complete histories about minoritized groups–beginning in children’s formative years–can help disrupt the cross-generational transmission of deficit-based belief about those groups.
“I tell people we’re designed, as human beings, to run in circles. [As a child], you make a decision based on everything [you’ve] experienced, like ‘This is who I am, this is what I deserve, this is how far I can go.’ And then your adult life is a manifestation of that,” said Steve during our podcast episode.
I recommend reading the groundbreaking Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, wherein mental health professional Dr. Joy DeGruy encourages the Black community to view their attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors through the lens of history and gain a greater understanding of how centuries of slavery and oppression have impacted people of African descent.
4. Look ahead.
There are supports in place that can help us move forward from intergenerational trauma as individuals, as communities and as nations:
A holistic approach to healing.
There is no “right” way to heal, but a holistic understanding of the trauma facing Black communities is necessary. Check out my recent blog post for seven tips for healing from trauma and standing in your power.
Culturally relevant mental health supports.
Mental health requires cultural context. Yes! magazine outlines how the closer intervention and treatments are to our ancestral ways, the more effective they can be in helping to heal intergenerational trauma.
Finding trauma-informed care and resources is a worthwhile avenue, particularly when working with Black women in Canada, whose everyday experiences of racial trauma may be coupled with historical trauma related to Canada’s past colonial history.
To conclude, healing intergenerational trauma will support us in manifesting the future we want to see for ourselves and for our nation.
I encourage you to explore helpful resources like Heal Your Ancestors, Heal Yourself, a practical book that discusses how to work through generational healing, or The Intergenerational Trauma Workbook, which helps you understand how trauma can move from generation to generation and provides practical exercises to help you grow and heal.
Listen to my full conversation with Steve Bacon on my podcast, Hey, I’m Listening! For more information, check out the National Healing Journey, which will help usher in a fundamental shift in Canada’s national consciousness and identity.
Disclaimer: The content in this blog post is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult with your doctor or a qualified health-care professional for specific concerns.