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  • Alainnah Knight

How Does Intergenerational Trauma Impact The Nervous System?


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What if I told you that on top of our own traumas that we have experienced, we may also be holding intergenerational trauma? Intergenerational trauma is the passing of trauma-related symptoms and behaviors from one generation to the next. This means that the effects of trauma are not directly impacting just the individual, but the generations following that individual as well. There are many ways that intergenerational trauma can impact the nervous system without us even being aware, let's explore a few of those and talk a little more about what intergenerational trauma is.


What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma suggests that the effects of trauma experienced by one generation can influence the psychological, emotional, and even physical well-being of future generations. Intergenerational trauma can be caused by many types of traumatic events, a few examples are war and conflict, colonization, slavery, genocide, and natural disasters. The transmission of these traumas can occur through cultural practices and beliefs, parenting styles, epigenetic changes, and social and economic inequality.


Intergenerational Trauma's Impact On The Nervous System


Epigenetic Changes

A traumatic experience can change our gene expression through epigenetic modifications. Epigenetic changes can influence the regulation of neurotransmitters and hormones related to our natural stress response, which impacts the nervous system's functioning. These genetic modifications can be passed down to children, which can alter their stress response and vulnerability to mental health issues.


Altered Stress Response

Experiencing a traumatic event can sensitize the stress response system, including the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Children of individuals who have experienced trauma may inherit that altered stress response, making them more susceptible to heightened reactivity in stressful situations. This can lead to an increase in anxiety, depression, and low stress tolerance.


Hypervigilance

This state of alertness may have once helped our ancestors survive stressful and threatening environments, but now it is impacting our mental health. Intergenerational trauma can contribute to living in a state of hypervigilance (or hyperarousal), which is when we are feeling on edge, experiencing anxiety, or feeling like something bad may happen. When living in a state of hypervigilance, we are increasing our vulnerability to stress and leading to further difficulty in regulating our emotions.


Changes in Brain Structure

Chronic exposure to stress and trauma can impact the physical structure of our brain. Regions such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, which are involved in emotional regulation and memory processing, can be affected from these experiences. These changes can be passed down to children, influencing their brain structure and neurobiological responses to stressors as well.


Attachment Patterns

Attachment between a caregiver and a parent is incredibly important for development, but trauma can disrupt a healthy attachment pattern. These attachment patterns are linked to the release of neurotransmitters like oxytocin in an early age and can impact social and emotional development. This disrupted attachment style can be transmitted across future generations, influencing the way individuals will form relationships with friends and future partners.


Lastly,

It is so important to note that the impact of intergenerational trauma is not uniform. Individuals may respond differently based on various factors such as resilience, social support, and access to resources. Although intergenerational trauma can have profound and lasting effects, individuals and communities also demonstrate resilience and the capacity for healing. Understanding and addressing generational trauma involves acknowledging historical injustices, cultivating cultural resilience, and providing support across all generations.



Resources

Alhassen, S., Chen, S., Alhassen, L., Phan, A., Khoudari, M., De Silva, A., Barhoosh, H., Wang, Z., Parrocha, C., Shapiro, E., Henrich, C., Wang, Z., Mutesa, L., Baldi, P., Abbott, G. W., & Alachkar, A. (2021). Intergenerational trauma transmission is associated with brain metabotranscriptome remodeling and mitochondrial dysfunction. Communications biology, 4(1), 783. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-021-02255-2


Menzies, Peter "Intergenerational Trauma from a Mental Health Perspective" NSWJ-V7, p.63-85.


Yehuda, R., & Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 17(3), 243–257. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20568




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