Trauma That Exceeds Generations

Father talking to his son.

Trauma That Exceeds Generations

Most trauma is witnessed by or directly experienced by the individual, but there is a type of trauma that is so far-reaching it can impact generations. Historical trauma is trauma that is experienced by multiple generations based on various forms of oppression, including forced migration, genocide, slavery, or violent colonization. This trauma can impact the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of people within these groups for many generations.

Identifying Historical Trauma

As quoted in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Trauma Toolkit, a clinician and researcher of Native American tribal communities described historical trauma as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experience.”

Oppression, violence, and other acts against a group or community of people that affect multiple generations can impact members of that group physically, mentally, and emotionally for an indefinite period. Trauma can also impact everything in their lives, including their levels of education, their ability to secure work, their socioeconomic status, and more, which in turn affect the next generation, creating a vicious cycle for the entire community.

These are not just excuses made by groups; trauma is a reality for many of these people. Trauma may not impact every member of these groups; for some, it could moderately affect them, while for others, it will significantly impact their lives. Trauma affects each individual differently, but generational trauma can be devastating in the lives of those it harms.

What Are Some Specific Instances of Historical Trauma?

Historical trauma is not limited to any set of specific events, but several major historical events continue to impact the lives of major cultural, racial, or ethnic groups today. These include:

  • The violent colonization of Native Americans
  • Slavery in America, subsequent segregation, and institutionalized racism
  • The Holocaust in Europe during World War II
  • Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II
  • Attempts to eradicate those with disabilities through forced institutionalization, sterilization, etc.

Many of these events continue, with people of these groups facing continued trauma today, such as discrimination against and a lack of restitution for Native Americans, anti-semitism, anti-Asian hate crimes, racial profiling, and other forms of institutionalized racism against blacks, discrimination against people with disabilities, and more.

What Are the Consequences of Generational Trauma?

There are many physical and mental health consequences directly linked to generational trauma, including:

  • Poor overall physical health
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Substance misuse and addiction
  • High rates of suicide
  • Cardiovascular disease

Other consequences that are not directly linked to generational trauma but rather are exacerbated by living within communities that have unaddressed behavioral health and grief needs, or other scars caused by the familial or intergenerational trauma, include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Alcohol misuse
  • Lack of typical parenting skills
  • Behavioral problems in children
  • Damaged cultural identity

The Link Between Historical Trauma and Addiction

Individual trauma is heavily linked to addiction. It should not surprise, then, that both historical and familial trauma would also be linked to addiction. Enduring traumatic experiences individually and as a community, particularly for those who continue to be triggered by current events consistently, can cause individuals to seek drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Using drugs or alcohol to cope with trauma can also become traditional as communities, cultures, races, ethnicities, or heritages struggle to make sense as a group of their oppression. When their socioeconomic status and lifestyle continue to be impacted by past events, their need for a way to “escape” also increases. Generational trauma unfortunately creates plenty of opportunities for the abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Coping With Trauma Past and Present

Although historical trauma from the past and even discrimination that stems from historical trauma that continues today can be difficult to live with, there is always hope and healing. Finding treatment for addiction and trauma and maintaining your sobriety through sober living and continued recovery work will help you as an individual.

As you become stronger and learn to live one day at a time, you may be able to help others with addiction, or even others within your community. Historical trauma is difficult because you cannot change the past. What you can do is heal individuals and affect change in the world around you to change the future. As you work to empower yourself and others, one day at a time, one person at a time, you can create hope and healing in your community. You may not be able to change the world on your own, but you have the power to change your world and maybe inspire others around you.