Authors: Thomas Hodge
The Ghosts of Times Past
Table of Contents
Many of the people that I have talked about intergenerational trauma typically start the conversation with the question, “What is intergenerational trauma?” It is not surprising that many people do not fully understand it, and many people tend to deny that it even exists. Society has had several different types of trauma brought to its attention over the last century that it was unaware of and did not believe previously existed. It is important to understand trauma and trauma-related disorders in order to fully grasp how intergenerational trauma affects individuals.
At the turn of the 20
century, the majority of society did not give credence to the effects of PTSD. In the 1940s, the first definitions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were written down. The first scientifically effective treatments were developed in the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the effects of combat-related PTSD were shown on television and in mainstream media as a result of the large numbers of Vietnam Veterans that were being affected by the disorder. Since then, research has also shed light on non-combat related PTSD such as domestic violence, refugees, sexual crimes, discrimination, and childhood trauma related types of PTSD. When one compares the length of time that trauma-related disorders have been studied compared to various other medical disorders, one realizes that we know relatively little about trauma compared to other conditions. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” One will often display shock immediately after the event and tend to even deny the event occurred. Exposure to trauma also leaves long-lasting effects such as unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
There are several mental health diagnoses that occur as a result of exposure to trauma. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) receives the most media coverage among the psychological disorders that occur as a result of trauma. PTSD is commonly noted by the presence of four clusters of symptoms. Those symptoms include re-experiencing the event, heightened arousal, avoidance, and negative thoughts and feelings. The DSM-V has divided PTSD into two subtypes to better categorize the particular symptomology experienced by the individual. The first subtype is the PTSD Preschool subtype. This type of PTSD addresses the developmental differences for children who are of preschool age. It is important to consider the presentation of young children’s symptoms differently than those of adults due to the developmental differences between children and adults. The other subtype is the PTSD Dissociative subtype. This subtype is notable unique due to the individual’s experiences of feeling detached from one’s own mind or body. These individuals report feelings in which the world seems unreal, dreamlike, or distorted. In addition to PTSD, Acute Stress Disorder is commonly seen among individuals who have experienced trauma. Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is different from PTSD in that symptoms last from to three days up to a month while PTSD requires symptoms to persist for more than one month.
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is commonly seen among individuals that have experienced trauma. RAD is seen in children with the disorder become evident before the age of five. Children with RAD are emotionally withdrawn from their caregivers. They fail to seek comfort when distressed and fail to respond to comforting. These children have experienced patterns of extremes in their care that are typically evidenced by neglect with regard to their most basic needs, repeated changes of primary caregivers that prevent the formation of attachments, and being raised in usual ways that limit the ability to for attachments for the child. One should not that these symptoms are not be better account for by a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder when a child is diagnosed with RAD.
The Center for Disease Controls have reported that individuals who suffer from PTSD and other trauma related disorders are at higher rates for the occurrence of various physical ailments such as cancers, ischemic heart disease, and chronic lung disease. Trauma in childhood has been found to correlate to lower levels of well-being in later life. Rates of suicide are significantly higher among individuals with trauma related disorders than the general public. Individuals that experience trauma related disorders have much higher levels of substance abuse, alcoholism, Tabaco use, and overall poorer well-being.
It is clear to see how trauma produce long lasting effects that impact the health and well-being of an individual. Looking at the numbers and statistics associated with trauma-related disorders and conditions, psychological and physical ailments can be clearly attributed to the impacts of the trauma or, at least, be contributed to the amplification of symptoms and adverse conditions. In treating and providing services to individuals that have experienced trauma, there are numerous barriers between the traumatized individual and achieving a better state of being. Intergenerational trauma typically plays a large part in creating these barriers and reinforcing them over through culture, learning, and repetition.
Intergenerational trauma is the carryover of the effects of trauma across generations. Intergenerational trauma has also been referred to as trans-generational trauma. When trauma is transmitted across multiple generations through repeated traumatic incidents, it leads to what many refer to as historical trauma or cultural trauma. This effect has taken different names depending on the field of study that examines it and attempts to explain the causes, correlations, and effects of the events. In essence, intergenerational trauma occurs when individuals experience the symptomology of trauma-related disorders due to the experiences of their parents and ancestors. This effect can be seen in several different cultures and groups of people as the traumas of the past can be seen to affect the individuals in the present even though those individuals never directly experienced the trauma.
Intergenerational trauma has been noted in the carryover effects of single trauma events that have happened to the parents such as has been seen in combat veterans and rape victims. These types of intergenerational trauma are referred to as single event transmissions. Single event transmissions have been shown to manifest in the children with symptoms comparable to those of the parent and as would be expected by an individual that had experienced trauma similar to the parent. In some cases, the transmission of trauma-related symptoms have skipped generations as seen in studies of holocaust survivors and their grandchildren.
Across multiple generations, the effects of intergenerational trauma have shown increases in the severity of symptoms if the trauma is perpetuated in a manner that is either real or imagined. Often, the effects of cultural norms will compound this impact as the individual’s culture may devalue the negative feelings and effects of the intergenerational trauma. This devaluation of the individual may lead to continued re-traumatization resulting a persistent continuation of the transmission of trauma across many generations.
It is important to remember that there is a difference between cultural identity and historical trauma. It is very important for an individual to be able to connect with their culture and keep cultural values and ideas alive throughout his or her connections to the past. Historical trauma is the result of tragedies that have befallen a group of people resulting in maladaptive responses to later situations. Intergenerational trauma is escalated as the result of individuals perpetuating the trauma-related symptoms that came about as a result of historical trauma. The cultural history and identity should still be maintained and kept intact, but the Post-traumatic symptoms do not need to be carried on through the generations. This is a topic that has led to many debates regarding when a facet of a culture is a debilitating symptom created by historically trauma experiences that ancestors experienced and when it is just the way that an ethnic group of people are. Determining where to draw the line between culture and maladaptive practices often involves a critical examination of what is socially acceptable among differing ethical viewpoints.
Mass event transmissions occur as a part of an event or series of traumatic events that affect a large group of people. Examples of mass trauma events include the Holocaust, slavery, genocide, apartheid, and forced assimilation like the resettlement of Native Americans or Aboriginals in Australia. There are many different mass trauma events that have impacted cultures throughout history. Several mass trauma events have been studied in many different ways, but there are many events that have not adequately been studied and examined fully to understand the psychological and sociological impacts of all traumas.
In the case of long term mass event traumas, such as the resettlement of Native Americans, slavery in African-Americans, and the lost generation of the Aboriginals, the psychological issues and impacts of the ongoing trauma-related symptoms become associated with a part of that societal group’s culture. For example, George was an African-American student that came from a typical middle class family. George did not experience any abuse growing up and did not have any negative experiences with law enforcement. George does, however, report that he feels anxious, “on edge”, and hyper-vigilant around law enforcement officers. George claimed that he was afraid that the police will detain him and beat him. George’s grandparents experienced oppression during the segregation of the 1950s and discrimination by police during the 1960s. George has never experienced the trauma that his grandparents did, but George is affected by their trauma and also the trauma of his ancestors that suffered in slavery in the 1800s. There are many cases of individuals like George that are of different cultures, races, and ethnic groups that have exhibited symptoms of anxiety and stress as the result of past trauma that had affected ancestors and family members.
When examining situations like this, there are many different responses to why individuals experience these types of maladaptive responses to authority figures and various other situations that result in individuals being affected by intergenerational trauma. Throughout this book, we will attempt to explore some of the various theories on how trauma manifests in individuals across generations, how it is transmitted, and how one can attempt to free themselves from the bonds of the trauma that affected their ancestors.
When talking about trauma, it is important to understand what happens to an individual at a cognitive, neurological, and biological level as a result of trauma. The experience of trauma leads to changes in the individual just as anything that happens in the environment of an organism affects an organism. The things that we experience in life shape the way we see the world. Traumatic events have a heavy impact on the development of young individuals and also on the way that individuals perceive the world after their traumatic experience. This can be seen in the avoidance tendencies of soldiers who have returned from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam when exposed to large crowds. The traumatic experiences that these soldiers went through in combat created an aversion to areas with large numbers of people. Additionally, these same soldiers have reported feeling uncomfortable when they were not able to see where the exit to a building was or if they had their backs turned toward the exit. Prior to their deployment, these individuals did not have these types of concerns or fears that guided their behaviors. As a result of their experiences, their way of thinking had been changed to produce different perceptions of the world and the things that are threats to themselves.
Research has shown that traumatic events impact both brain development, memory, and cognitive functioning. The way this happens on a neurobiological level is by impacting the corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF)/hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis system. This system serves to balance the body’s reaction to stress through the release and regulation of norepinephrine and cortisol. Hypothalamus releases CRF into the body, with stimulation of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) release from the pituitary, resulting in glucocorticoid and cortisol being released from the adrenal glands. This release of glucocorticoid and cortisol creates a negative feedback effect on the axis at the level of the pituitary gland and central brain sites including hypothalamus and hippocampus. Cortisol generates a survival response in humans that is often referred to as a flight or fight response. Additionally, it stimulates various neural centers in the brain responsible for increasing alertness and vigilance behaviors.
These functions are essential for coping with threats and performing critical tasks during periods of elevated levels of risk of harm. In individuals with trauma-related dysfunction, this process basically gets stuck in an active state or state that easily reactivated. As a result of prolonged, repeated, or chronic exposure traumatic events, one may develop a dependency or tolerance to the neurochemical transmitters released into the bodies system as a result of trauma. What this means in simpler terms is that the body becomes used to the state of heightened arousal that occurs during traumatic experiences. The individual often begins to desire the rush of adrenaline that occurs as a result of the “flight or fight” response. The body becomes dependent on the rush of neurotransmitters and hormones that serve as the body’s response to stabilize. When the individual is in a normal or non-response state, they feel as though something is missing or not quite right. This type of dependency often results in individuals taking part in adrenaline-inducing behaviors. They are often seen as “Adrenaline Junkies.” In some cases, individuals find safe outlets to achieve this state of elevated levels of stress responses. In cases where safe and controlled outlets are not available to the individual, more dangerous behaviors often occur such as reckless driving, substance abuse, domestic violence, and various illegal and hazardous behaviors.
Cognitive theories of psychology provide a useful insight into the mental process of individuals who have experienced trauma. When working with individuals that have been exposed to trauma or suffer from trauma-related disorders, it is important to be aware of the differences in processing information for these individuals. The differences in learning, comprehending, and responding are not only useful for psychologists and therapists to be aware. Understanding these differences are essentially useful for social workers, teachers, parents, caregivers, friends, and family. When one takes these differences into consideration, frustrations, arguments, and emotional-fatigue can be greatly reduced as one can modify and adjust his or her approach to working with individuals who suffer from trauma-related disorders.
To understand this perspective, one should be familiar with a few psychological concepts. The first thing to understand is the working memory model. The working model of memory contains three parts: sensory memory, short-term memory (also called working memory), and long-term memory. This model serves as a way of understand how information is processed in the mind. These concepts do not serves physical elements that exist in the brain but as abstract concepts for how information is stored, processed, and retrieved. Sensory memory, often referred to as the sensory register, allows environmental information to be retained for a short to be processed. The sensory memory typically only holds information for a fraction of a second as it makes its way into our consciousness. The information is then transferred from the sensory to the short-term memory through the use of attention. The short-term memory attends to items and concepts to make use of them. The short-term memory is often referred to as the working memory because it does all the active and effortful work with ideas and concepts in the mind. As the working memory attends to items, it retrieves information from the sensory memory in order to understand information. The working memory can usually manipulate five to nine items at a time. Items are only stored in the short term memory for ten to fifteen seconds before it is lost unless the information is given attention by the individual.
The working memory attends to concepts and items in short-term memory through processes of rehearsal to encode the items into long-term memory. Typically, this process of rehearsal is accomplish by rote repetition or by elaboration of the information. Long-term memory can hold items in a permanent manner and can hold a large or almost unlimited number of items. Long term memory can be thought of as the place where all memories are stored until they are needed. When the memories are needed, the working memory retrieves the items from the long term memory. Items are easier to retrieve when they have been better encoded into long-term memory by making more connections to other concepts and ideas. After retrieving an item back from long-term memory, the working memory can then manipulate the item to be used with other information for application and learning of complex thought, critical thinking, and knowledge development.
By this point, one may wonder what all this has to do with trauma related disorders. It has everything to do with trauma-related disorders. In 1992, Dr. Michael Eysenck and Dr. Manuel Calvo explained how research showed that anxiety impaired the effectiveness of working memory on attending to pieces of information for storage and retrieval from long-term memory. Working memory completes tasks through the utilization of attention. In the case of individuals with trauma-related disorders such as PTSD, the working memory is continuously preoccupied with the effects of the experienced trauma. The trauma is continually revisited by individuals and creates anxiety. The re-experiencing of negative thoughts, emotions, and feelings that were the result of experienced trauma causes the individuals to be on edge, and the individual devotes cognitive energy or attention to preparing for repeated trauma. This can be explained by the hyper vigilance symptoms and pervasiveness of the post-traumatic stress.
Due to the working memory’s preoccupation with the trauma and potential for new trauma, the individual only uses a limited amount of attention with regards to task such as learning, remembering, and acquiring new skills. This can be seen as a contributory factor to why a disproportionate number of children who have experienced trauma also have difficulties in school. In addition to difficulties learning, individuals also experience diminished abilities to retrieve information from long-term memory. As the individual is continually devoting cognitive resources to addressing the anxiety caused by the trauma, mental fatigue sets in for the individual.
There are numerous ways in which one can explain how trauma affects brain development, cognitive functioning, and various mental processes. The end result for all of these various theories, studies, and models is that trauma has an adverse impact on the long-term well-being of an individual when left untreated. These impacts can be mitigated by treatment and may vary depending upon the resiliency of the individual. However, the impacts of trauma are still present and have both short-term and long-term effects upon the individual.