Transgenerational trauma or intergenerational trauma is a psychological term which suggests that trauma can be transferred or inherited through generations.
Essentially, when a first-generation survives a large ordeal of trauma, they can transfer this trauma to their children, and even further generations of offspring. This becomes known as a complex post-traumatic stress disorder. While this kind of research into this is young, it is expanding and seems to have strong evidence tied to it.
The main examples of transgenerational trauma come from horrible events such as slavery and the holocaust.
Here’s how the trauma of slavery of trauma can be inherited and how the world can be accommodating.
It’s incredibly easy for non-black people to wonder why black people can still be so upset about slavery. Of course, this kind of attitude towards such a tragic event should not be accepted or stood for.
However, if somebody does genuinely wonder how you can harbour such strong feelings from an event which you didn’t live through.
The truth is, this topic has been researched and written by amazing black voices – some of which wonder why it invokes such strong feelings, too.
Unexpectedly, it has also been researched scientifically.
Studies in intergenerational trauma
There have been studies in epigenetics. This means DNA modifications that do not change through generations. These are then related to the intergenerational transmission of trauma, specifically with slavery.
Various studies have shown that when people experience substantial trauma, it does change genes in a very noticeable and specific way. This means, when they have children, their children also have these genes and therefore it is passed throughout generations.
Our brains have a section called the amygdala, which controls various parts of our memory emotional reaction, and even threat detection.
PTSD causes this part of our brain to go into overdrive.
From this, the term Post Traumatic Slave Disorder was created by sociologist Dr Joy Degruy. This refers to the immense emotional, physical and psychological effects that were suffered by slaves during the brutal slavery years – these still cause extreme anguish and distress.
Mental health matters
Regardless of how new this topic and research is, it’s important to acknowledge that this is related to mental health.
For this reason, it should be continually talked about and researched. It should be given as evidence when met with comments about how slavery was “so long ago”. Horrific events like this, cannot be escaped, and they are inherited through generations.
With more discussion, vulnerable people and communities can get the help and therapy they need for mental illnesses which are, all too often, stigmatised as a weakness or overreaction.
Jim Crow trauma
It’s important to also acknowledge another trauma that isn’t talked about as much as it should. The Jim Crow laws were a horrific time for black people, too.
Living in a time where you are openly told you don’t “belong”, living in fear of stepping out of line or doing something wrong. Some of which still rings true today with microaggression, racism, and police brutality.
Being on high-alert every day can and has been passed down through generations. It can be overwhelming, with many people feeling that danger is following them. Obviously, the mental impact of this is catastrophic.
The lessons passed down
There are various lessons passed down through generations on black communities, too. These were created for protection and safety and can be overwhelming and scary, especially for young people.
It’s also true that many black people are taught to “move forward and be strong”. At one point, this was the only attitude that allowed them to escape terrible events. However, this mentality now can have detrimental effects on homes and mental health.
By acknowledging the injustices, the world can eventually acknowledge the impact it still has on society. The trauma runs deep in black people’s blood. It’s important to mourn, and it’s essential that we have open discussions about how it impacted people then AND now.
Only then can people move “forward” (whatever that truly means).
By working together, we can explain how having feelings is okay and actually normal. It’s normal to feel overwhelmingly angry, upset, and frustrated at a world that has continually let you down.
The invisible wounds
It’s much easier to bring up horrible pictures from history, and acknowledge the physical wounds that were given to slaves at the time. While, undeniably, these are important to know about and learn about, we need to examine the invisible wounds which are being woven into children’s minds in the 21st century.
By trying to heal from past wounds, while simultaneously garnering present wounds, healing doesn’t take place. It’s a cursed cycle.
These wounds continue to grow every day as more news stories arrive. Yet, black people are forced to remain hurt and uncomfortable, for the comfort of white people. This has to stop.
Healing from inherited trauma
Healing isn’t linear. Healing isn’t easy. Healing isn’t comprehensive. This is true for all forms of PTSD – but especially for intergenerational trauma.
To heal, acknowledgement is the first step – equally as important is validation. This is something which is rarely given to black people.
An apology is necessary, but only one with direct-targeted action. Perhaps this comes with mental health help for those struggling deeply to comes to terms with slavery, racism, PTSD, systematic racism, and intergenerational trauma.
Obviously, acceptance of an apology and seeking of forgiveness is the last stage to healing. However, when western countries barely even acknowledge slavery, it’s hard to begin the healing process.
So, we have to keep talking about it. We have to push for more studies and spread the word about this.
Moving “forward” might seem like a weird term, this never means to forget, but rather to live a life where you aren’t constantly worried about doing something wrong. Where you can act and speak in a way that feels natural to you, without being scared for your life. That’s what moving forward looks like.