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Understanding Generational Trauma: How Past Trauma Affects The Future

The trauma responses you experience today can sometimes be rooted in past experiences. Maybe you weren’t abused growing up, but your parents or grandparents were. Perhaps you didn’t face discrimination or live through a war, but your great-grandparents did.

We each have unique ways of responding to stress and trauma, often categorized as fight, flight, or freeze. However, there are subtleties to each response, such as hyper-independence and people-pleasing

These stress responses can significantly impact our mental and physical well-being and may be connected to intergenerational trauma.

While it can be challenging to recognize the signs of generational trauma, understanding its causes and how Therapy can help provide healing are essential steps toward recovery for yourself and your family. We’ll explore its underlying causes and strategies for effectively managing it through therapy.

What is Generational Trauma?

man feeling lonely from experiencing generational trauma

Intergenerational trauma is inherited distress that traverses through generations, usually through narratives, encounters and convictions. It can manifest in physical, mental, and emotional symptoms that are difficult to recognize and address. It can have far-reaching repercussions, impacting individuals and entire social groups.

On an individual level, it may cause anxiety or depression due to unresolved issues from past generations. This may result in problems forming ties with others or even self-destructive activities, for instance, substance misuse.

Individuals may experience physical ailments related to the unresolved stressors from their ancestors’ experiences, including chronic pain or illness that any other medical diagnosis cannot explain.

Generational trauma also has far-reaching implications for society, including systemic oppression based on race or gender identity and cultural erasure resulting in lost knowledge about traditional practices and customs among specific populations.

The good news is that there are ways for those affected by intergenerational trauma to heal, so they don’t continue passing these negative patterns down through future generations – therapy is one of them.

A trained therapist can help you identify your triggers while providing a safe space to process those feelings without judgment or shame. Therapy and counselling can help you develop the strength to confront similar situations in the future instead of feeling powerless.

Understanding the sources of generational trauma is key to formulating effective strategies for preventing it. By exploring what causes intergenerational trauma, we can understand how best to address this difficult problem.

What Causes Generational Trauma

Generational trauma is the transmission of physical, emotional and psychological pain from one generation to another. Generational trauma can result from various stimuli, such as historical trauma, systemic prejudice and inequity, familial dynamics or rearing practices, cultural trauma, religious influences, war, childhood abuse, sexual abuse and other traumatic events that occur in our lives.

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Historical Events & Collective Trauma

Historical events such as wars or natural disasters can have long-lasting effects on individuals and families for generations to come. Trauma due to catastrophic occurrences, like wars and famines, is an all-too-common experience. Sometimes, these traumas are passed down through stories from survivors who experienced them firsthand.

For example, the consequences of colonialism in North America, including displacement from ancestral lands and the imposition of Western culture, have had a lasting impact on Indigenous populations.

Systemic oppression is a form of social injustice wherein certain groups are denied fundamental rights due to race or ethnicity, leading to generational trauma and deprivation. This often results in generational trauma due to ongoing discrimination, leading to poverty and a lack of resources for future generations.

Examples include;

  • Native Americans struggling with broken treaties;
  • African Americans living with the legacy of slavery
  • immigrants facing xenophobia;
  • women enduring sexism;
  • LGBTQ+ individuals experiencing homophobia/transphobia etc.

All these can lead directly or indirectly toward a cycle of intergenerational trauma.

Family Dynamics & Parenting Styles

Generational trauma can also be transmitted within families through learned behaviours, such as how parents interact with each other or their children during high-stress levels (e.g., domestic violence).

Parenting styles that involve harsh discipline without empathy may result in feelings like shame being passed down throughout multiple generations, leading to unhealthy relationships with ourselves and our partners.

Cultural & Religious Factors

Culture and religion significantly shape our beliefs, affecting how we view life’s challenges. Religion plays an important part here since its teachings often shape our moral values, which may become outdated but remain deeply ingrained within certain communities causing generational suffering among its members.

Realizing the source of intergenerational suffering is essential for those seeking to mend themselves and their kin to escape this recurring pattern before it’s too late. With proper therapy, education, self-care practices, support systems etc., we can overcome any obstacle, no matter how deep-rooted it might seem, allowing us all to regain control over our lives.

The impact of intergenerational trauma on you and your family

Intergenerational trauma can manifest in individuals as a sense of alienation from family, resulting in an estrangement that may lead to further desolation and loneliness. In addition, when someone has endured a traumatic event, such as mistreatment or neglect during youth, it can be hard to build good connections with their guardians or relatives later in life.

This feeling of disconnection often leads to further feelings of isolation and loneliness.

A traumatic event can also lead to difficulty in forming trusting relationships with figures of authority, like educators or medical professionals, due to prior experiences involving unreliable adults who were meant to safeguard them. Past experiences with untrustworthy adults and those affected by intergenerational trauma may find it challenging to seek help when necessary.

Some may seek refuge in the use of substances as a means to try and manage the anguish caused by past traumas experienced across generations. However, substance use disorders create additional mental health problems and worsen existing issues.

Prolonged distress can be incredibly mentally and physically damaging if proper treatment isn’t sought soon enough. Therapy can be a useful tool for individuals and families to confront and move beyond the repercussions of intergenerational trauma.

How Therapy Can Help Heal Generational Trauma

teenager feeling happy after online therapy on her phone

Therapy can be an effective tool for healing trauma survivors. First, however, it is necessary to uncover its underlying causes to address generational trauma effectively. Examining one’s familial background and comprehending how hurtful occurrences have been inherited through generations can assist in understanding their happenings and cultivating a more profound grasp of themselves and those closest to them.

Several different types of therapy can help those with post-traumatic stress disorder. For example;

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapyCBT can help individuals recognize their negative thought patterns and behaviours as they occur and learn healthy ways to manage their emotions, such as deep breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and other self-care strategies. In addition, CBT can be utilized to gain proficiency in new abilities, such as problem-solving or communication strategies, that may assist with managing complicated circumstances connected to intergenerational trauma.

  • Narrative Therapy – Centers around exploring one’s story—both past experiences and present circumstances—to gain insight into how generational traumas have shaped one’s life. Through this process, clients can create a new narrative about themselves while learning valuable tools for dealing with difficult emotions associated with their history.

  • Mindfulness-based therapies use meditation practices like breath work or body scans and mindful awareness exercises such as journaling or visualization techniques to cultivate self-compassion and acceptance when it feels especially hard due to triggers from past traumas. By creating space between oneself and painful memories, these interventions provide much-needed relief from distress.

  • Somatic Experiencing Techniques – involves tracking bodily sensations through gentle movements, which helps bring attention back into the present moment rather than getting stuck ruminating over what happened in the past. This practice also allows clients to access deeper layers of understanding around why certain events trigger them emotionally since physical sensations often reflect unresolved feelings left over from traumatic experiences passed down through generations.

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) employs bilateral stimulation, such as tapping alternating sides of the body while focusing on distressing memories, images, thoughts, etc., to disrupt stored emotional energy associated with trauma. This allows individuals to access more resources within themselves so they don’t feel overwhelmed and powerless when confronted with challenges stemming from intergenerational issues.

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) takes a comprehensive approach to examining family systems to identify the root causes of current issues. By looking at how each interacts with others within their relationships, this type of therapy can help various components impact an individual’s experience and allow everyone involved to heal together.

Individual counselling sessions and family therapy should be considered when seeking treatment for generational trauma. Individuals can explore personal matters in a protected environment, while family therapy gives kin, present and past, the ability to work together for one another’s healing.

Group therapies such as art or music therapies are another opening through which people dealing with trauma symptoms may benefit from exchanging stories, building community bonds, self-expression skills, etc., all within a reassuring setting led by a certified therapist specializing in this type of work.


A qualified mental health professional can provide support and guidance, leading to healthier connections between oneself and one’s family for future generations.

If you or your family members are struggling with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other mental health issues, let Well Beings Counselling and our certified mental health professionals help. Our experienced team of professionals can provide the tools to address generational trauma and create better-coping mechanisms for a better future.


It can manifest as physical, psychological and emotional responses to traumatic events experienced by previous generations that are transmitted through family dynamics, culture or societal norms. Intergenerational trauma, which can significantly impact individuals' mental health and well-being across multiple generations, is transmitted through family dynamics, culture or societal norms. Trauma can also be passed down epigenetically, meaning that changes in gene expression due to environmental influences (such as stress) may influence the behaviour or functioning of subsequent generations.

Several signs may indicate the presence of intergenerational trauma within a family. These include a history of substance abuse, addiction, or mental health issues such as low self-confidence, anxiety, insomnia, angry behaviour and depressive behaviour, as well as unresolved conflicts or patterns of dysfunctional behaviour within the family members or a feeling of being "stuck" in a cycle of trauma.

Ancestral trauma refers to the emotional wounds passed down from generation to generation. This trauma can be caused by events such as war, genocide, displacement, and other forms of violence that have a lasting impact on the collective psyche of a community or family.

Trauma-informed care is an approach in therapy that considers trauma's impact on an individual's life. This approach prioritizes safety, empowerment, and collaboration and aims to create a supportive environment that promotes healing and recovery.

Collective trauma is a traumatic event's emotional and psychological impact on a group. This can include natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and systemic oppression, leading to widespread feelings of fear, grief, and loss.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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