JAMIE C SPENCE, MHVB
PAIN PASSED ON..
The dark and brutal history of the U.S. is no secret.
It is common knowledge, in 2020, that throughout the 17th and 18th centuries,
African natives were kidnapped and forced into slavery in the still developing American colonies.
These individuals were mercilessly exploited to work as indentured servants and labor in the production of crops
such as tobacco and cotton.
The first documented slaves are thought to have been brought to Jamestown in the year 1619
(although some sources cite much earlier) and consisted of 20 men. By the mid-19th century,
America’s westward expansion and the abolition movement provoked a great debate over slavery
that would tear the nation apart in the bloody Civil War.
It wasn’t until the establishment of the 13th amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States of America,
freeing countless innocent lives that had been habitually dictated by severe and systematic oppression, trauma,
Though the Union victory freed the nation’s four million enslaved people,
the legacy of slavery continued to influence American history, from the Reconstruction era to the civil rights movement that
emerged a century after emancipation. However, that’s not quite where the story ends…
The word trauma in modern culture is defined as;
-A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
-Emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock
and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis (PTSD).
“Trauma” results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual
as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning
and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
Trauma can occur throughout a person’s lifetime and there may be subsequent re-traumatizing experiences
that reinforce previous defenses but we will get to that later. We now know, through advances in neuroimaging, that experiencing trauma greatly alters and impairs the brain, as brain scans from a PTSD patients and a “neurotypical” brains have distinct differences which control how our brains function and therefor also control every other system of our body.
But the question we are answering today is;
Can traumatic experiences be passed down genetically??
And the answer seems to be yes!
Historical trauma is an event, or a set of events, that happen to a group of people who share a specific identity.
That identity could be based in nationality, tribal affiliation, ethnicity, race and/or religious affiliation.
The events are often done with genocidal or ethnocidal intent, and result in annihilation or disruption of traditional ways of life,
culture and/or identity.
Each individual event is profoundly traumatic and when you look at events as a whole, they represent a history of sustained cultural disruption and community destruction. I tend to define inter-generational trauma as a traumatic event that began years prior to the current generation and has impacted the ways in which individuals within a family understand, cope with, and heal from trauma.
The term “historical trauma” was coined by Native American social worker and mental health expert Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart in the 1980s. Braveheart's definition states that historical trauma “is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma.”
The effects of the traumas inflicted on groups of people because of their race, creed, and ethnicity linger on the souls of their descendants. As a result, many people in these same communities’ experience higher rates of mental and physical illness, substance abuse, and erosion in families and community structures.
The persistent cycle of trauma destroys family and communities and threatens the vibrancy of entire cultures.
Although few will ever make the link between these issues—our unexplained fear, anxiety, and depression
—and what happened to their family members in a previous generation.
Research exploring historical trauma looks at how the trauma of these events is “embodied” or held personally, chemically marked, and passed down over generations. Such that even family members who have not directly experienced the trauma can feel the effects of the events generations later. Individual trauma then becomes collective, as it affects a significant portion of the community and becomes compounded. Multiple historically traumatic events occur over generations and join an overarching legacy of assaults. The impact of these ongoing traumas has effects on a person’s brain and body, increasing their vulnerability to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders.
Historical trauma occurs at all levels—individual, family, and community. Although each level is distinct, they are all interrelated. Individual responses to historical trauma are influenced by the experiences/responses of family members; individual and familial experiences coalesce to make up the collective community response. Thus, actions at the individual and familial levels reinforce the way the community responds
"Historical trauma is not just about what happened then. It's about what's still happening now."
Transmission of trauma across generations was first seen in 1966 by clinicians who were alarmed by the number of children of people who had survived the Nazi Holocaust who were seeking mental health treatment. The trauma experienced by the Jewish people
in the Holocaust was being seen in poor mental and physical health outcomes in their descendant generations (children and grandchildren) that were conceived AFTER the trauma occurred. The children of Holocaust survivors were presenting with symptoms of PTSD, survivor guilt, anxiety, anger, grief, symptoms of depression, impaired self-esteem, a preoccupation with death, impaired communication, substance abuse, and exaggerated personal attachments or interdependence.
Since these early studies with the children of Holocaust survivors, scientists have also been gathering evidence showing that historical trauma has an impact at the cellular level. This body of evidence shows the neurological toll of stress on the
health of like future generations.
A powerful stressful environmental conditions can leave an imprint or “mark” on the cellular material that can be carried
into future generations with devastating consequences.
Family systems theory has long understood that the relational, behavioral, and emotional patterns across generations provide a broader understanding of us as individuals and our children. Trans-generational trauma refers to the ways that trauma
gets transferred from one generation to another either directly or indirectly.
Unresolved trauma of one generation is a legacy that can be passed down to the next generation.
Children and grandchildren are shaped by the genes they inherit from their relatives before birth, but new research is revealing that experiences of hardship or violence can leave their mark too. ...
For those who survived, the harrowing experiences marked many of them for life.
Humans possess the remarkable ability to adapt to diverse environments in order to optimize our chances of survival.
If we find ourselves in a threatening or harmful context, we make both conscious and unconscious choices that are geared
to protect us. Even after the threat has dissipated, we may continue to hold the effects of the trauma in our bodies and minds. And so our survival strategies persist.
Knowing how the human body holds onto this stress reminds us that we cannot ignore the social, historical or cumulative
experiences of stress and their impact on wellness. There is growing evidence that biological and psychological expressions
of historical trauma may be partly responsible for producing health disparities in a wide spectrum
of health outcomes from diabetes to PTSD.
The transmission of multi-generational trauma effects are not only psychological, familial, social and cultural, but could be neurobiological and possibly even genetic as well.
The newest research in modern genetics tells us that you and I can inherit gene changes from traumas that our parents and grandparents experienced. This adaptive change can then be passed down to our children and grandchildren biologically preparing them to deal with similar trauma.
If our grandparents, for example, were traumatized from slavery, theoretically, they could pass on a survivor “skill set” to us.
This skill set would be helpful were we were also born into slavery. However, living in a safe environment where this inheritance isn't useful, the constant hypervigilance can create havoc in our bodies.
Many Native Americans also suffer from historical and transgenerational trauma. The horror they suffered, that they still suffer, has left entire communities scarred. We can see the results of this trauma when we look at mental health statistics for Native people.
This form of persistent and subconscious trauma can have varied effects on individuals and populations that may include: unsettled trauma or grief, depression, high mortality, increase of alcohol abuse, child abuse and domestic violence.
So we are left with the question, how do we heal centuries of suffering?
How do you repair trauma that spans generations?
Where do we begin such a monumental task?
The first step is recognizing historical/intergenerational trauma is real, that entire communities can be (and have been)
traumatized and that trauma can be passed from one generation to the next.
The next step is to have more discussions with communities who suffer from historical trauma and listen to how
they feel their mental health needs can be better met.
It is because of deep seated historical trauma that cultural variables need to be considered when
making a mental health treatment plan.
One of the barriers for some seeking treatment for mental health issues is a lack of culturally competent providers.
Native Americans, African Americans, and other marginalized groups of people who have suffered historical trauma,
will need to speak up about their experiences.
Mental health care providers should learn more about historical and intergenerational trauma and give those
who are suffering from it a safe space to talk about their struggles.