Monday, September 22, 2014

Healing Transgenerational Trauma

Research is beginning to suggest that "our" experience isn't just "ours" but is handed down to us through the generations in the form of intergenerational memories. Your great-grandmother's specific worries may be felt as your own in mother nature's attempt to keep you safe from threats that were affecting her. What does it mean that our fears, nightmares, and phobias might be hold-overs from relatives before us?

Since I work primarily with women, I am particularly interested in how our grandmothers' and great-grandmothers' experience of violence against women could be impacting us today and what we can do about it. One in four women experience violence from an intimate partner. We can imagine this rate was higher in past years and, remember, it tends to be under-reported. 

Violence against women can result in PTSD the same as war. It follows, then, that he symptoms of psychological trauma in your life could be have been passed down to you from the women in your family. Do you recognize any of these post-traumatic symptoms in your experience?
  • Unpredictable thoughts or emotions
  • Flashbacks or nightmares
  • Strained relationships 
  • Physical symptoms, like headaches or nausea
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Isolating to avoid triggers 
Transgenerational trauma could explain why many of us are living with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other issues seemingly unaccounted for by our own personal histories. I share this information to normalize our experience. Many of my clients have experienced these and other symptoms characteristic in survivors of violence against women, such as feeling on edge much of the time or afraid of conflict with men. It can be disorienting to feel these symptoms without understanding where they come from and what can be done about it. 

If our minds are still carrying around our grandmothers' fears, our task becomes that of any trauma survivor- to rebuild a sense of safety and trust in our lives, one action and one day at a time. This is long haul work that requires patience and dedication- but imagine the payoff in terms of your own well being as well as that of generations yet to be born... 

We heal from psychological trauma in two ways- with safe coping in the present and processing the past. Both methods work equally well. A trauma informed counselor, friend, or other healing ally can help guide you in this important journey. Reaching out is an essential part of this work. Especially considering the likelihood that our baggage is bigger than we are, we need each other's help to carry it and leave it where it belongs- safely put away in the past.

I offer the following evidence-based tools to help in the treatment of trauma:
  • Transcending Trauma is a group I facilitate at The Banyan Tree Center, where women gather to learn the ins and outs of rebuilding that foundation of safety. This is a present based treatment modality. There is no need to tell trauma stories.
  • EMDR is an empowering tool I use with individuals to help process or put away traumatic memories and the related symptoms. This is a past based approach to treatment. Earlier experiences are revisited at a pace that's right for you.
Here are some resources for further reading on the subject of transgenerational trauma:
  • Read a BBC news story about research suggesting memories pass between generations. 
  • Bethany Webster is a life coach who has written extensively on healing what she calls the "mother wound." 
What would it mean to you to be connected through the memories, stories, and traditions handed down through the generations? Perhaps we each have a powerful role to play, our healing is related, and the more we take care of ourselves, the more we take care of each other...