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  • Writer's pictureGayatree Dipchan

The Trauma Cycle

Last week I enjoyed the beautiful city of Krakow in Poland. The architecture and art can be seen not only in displays, but also in the craftsmanship of pottery, jewelry, traditional clothing, and of course the delicious food. The time spent there was an emotional eye opener to what I academically understood intergenerational trauma to be. This is a place where I met second and third generation descendants of the holocaust who openly shared the experiences of loved ones, how their parents and grandparents learnt to survive, how they are learning about themselves and their own ancestry, and more so, the importance of striving to be free of their trauma and the global perceptions that others have of them.

What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma refers to the transfer of traumatic experiences from one generation to another. It can result in the perpetuation of psychological and emotional distress within families and communities. This type of trauma is unique in that it is passed down through cultural and familial norms, values, beliefs, and behaviours, rather than through direct exposure to a traumatic event.

There are different historical events that have had a significant impact on specific communities. For example, the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the Holocaust are all examples of historical traumas that have had a lasting impact on individuals and communities.

What Intergenerational Trauma can look like?

One of the things that stood out for me on this trip was that people (most) didn't engage using body language or facial expressions. So many times when I smiled, no one would smile back, not even a twitch on the cheek. One of the Polish ladies I met said to me that her parents would only smile within the family space and not with people they didn't know. She said this was normal growing up for her. Her own story of childhood speaks of constraints not only in a time of unrest in the country, but also extreme caution in individual expression.

Causes of Intergenerational Trauma

The effects of intergenerational trauma can manifest in various ways. The most common symptoms include anxiety, depression, substance abuse, anger, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals who have experienced intergenerational trauma may also have difficulty forming healthy relationships, trusting others, and feeling a sense of belonging.

One of the mechanisms by which intergenerational trauma is perpetuated is through parenting practices. Parents who have experienced trauma may unconsciously transmit their trauma to their children through their behavior, attitudes, and beliefs.

Intergenerational trauma can also be perpetuated through cultural beliefs and practices. For instance, in some Indigenous cultures, there is a belief that children should not be hugged or touched too much, as this may make them weak. This belief can result in children growing up without the physical affection and emotional support they need to thrive, perpetuating the cycle of emotional neglect.

Can we break the cycle?

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma requires a multi-faceted approach. We must first acknowledge and understand the historical and cultural context of the trauma and its impact on individuals and communities. Therapeutic interventions, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy, can be effective in helping individuals process and heal from their trauma.

Community-based interventions, such as peer support groups and cultural revitalisation programs, can also be effective in promoting healing and resilience. Education and awareness-raising initiatives can help break down the stigma surrounding mental health and trauma and promote understanding and compassion for those who have experienced intergenerational trauma.

My short time there opened my eyes to a different reality from what I knew based on research and documentaries. While I understood the historical impact on the people, being in their beautiful land and learning about them through food, art and conversation opened my eyes to the intricacies of their survival journey. Intergenerational trauma is a complex phenomenon and can have a lasting impact on individuals and communities. By acknowledging and addressing the root causes of this trauma, we can work towards breaking the cycle and promoting healing and resilience for future generations.

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