NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

What is Intergenerational Trauma?

The topic of my prior blog post was Psychotherapy: Healing Your Emotional Wounds.  In that blog post, I mentioned that when people have unresolved, unhealed trauma, they often pass on their fears and anxiety, unconsciously, to their children and that it's not unusual, under these circumstances to see transgenerational trauma.

Intergenerational Trauma

What is Intergenerational Trauma?
As the name implies, transgenerational trauma are emotional wounds that are passed on from one generation to the next, usually, in an unconscious manner. Most of the time, this passing on of trauma from one generation to the next occurs because there is little or no understanding about how trauma affects the self and others and the trauma has not been worked through by the person who originally experienced the trauma.

The following vignette, which is a composite of many cases with no identifiable information, illustrates how transgenerational trauma gets passed on:

Sonia, who was a woman in her mid-30s, came to therapy because she was extremely anxious and her anxiety was affecting her family.

When we went over her personal history, there were no overt signs of abuse or neglect. She grew up in a loving family in NYC. Based on Sonia's account, her parents were supportive and attentive to Sonia and her siblings. Sonia couldn't see any reason why she felt as anxious as she did: She had difficulty sleeping, she worried about almost everything, and she had a terrible sense of foreboding almost all of the time that something bad was going to happen.

Her husband encouraged Sonia to start psychotherapy because he felt that Sonia's anxiety was affecting their five year old daughter. Their daughter was already showing signs of being an anxious child, even though it was obvious that both Sonia and her husband were loving parents.

"My husband says that I make our daughter nervous," Sonia told me, "but I don't see how I do that. And I don't understand why I'm so nervous myself most of the time."

Based on her account, Sonia seemed like she was a very attentive mother who was emotionally attuned to her daughter. But, it was obvious that she was passing on her own anxiety to her daughter somehow.

When we went over Sonia's parents family history, I could see that both of them had experienced early trauma when they were growing up in their native country. Sonia's father lost his parents in a car accident when he was five, and he was raised by an aunt who was both physically and emotionally abusive towards him and his brothers. By the time he was 18, he left the aunt's household to be on his own. He lead a precarious existence until he came to NYC and met and married Sonia's mother. At that point, his life settled down and he had a more stable life, but he tended to be anxious and he worried a lot.

Sonia's mother, who grew up in the same country, lived through several dangerous hurricanes, one of which destroyed the family home. As a young girl, not only did she see the family home destroyed, she also witnessed the drowning of her beloved uncle when the family was attempting to cross a river during the severe flooding related to one of the hurricanes. From that time on, Sonia's mother had nightmares and panic attacks. She never obtained professional help for her anxiety, and she managed her panic attacks by taking anti-anxiety medication. But her nightmares never stopped.

As Sonia and I continued to work together, I discovered that Sonia's parents tended to be overprotective of her and the other children when they were growing up and, without being aware of it, they passed on her worries to Sonia and Sonia's siblings. Sonia grew up feeling that the world was not a safe place and anything that could go wrong would go wrong.

Until we began talking about it, Sonia never realized that her unnamed fears originated with her parents and she was now conveying her fears to her daughter. I provided Sonia with psychoeducation about the nature of transgenerational trauma. Gradually, we worked through Sonia's anxiety using a combination of EMDR and clinical hypnosis until she worked through her fears.

It was only after Sonia had worked through her anxiety and she realized what it felt like to be calm that she realized how anxious she had been all of this time. During that time, Sonia also took her daughter to see a psychotherapist who worked with children so that her daughter wouldn't grow up with the same anxiety that Sonia experienced.

Often, Without Realizing It, People Who Experience Trauma Pass on Their Fears to Their Children 
It's not unusual for people who experience trauma to inadvertently pass on their doubts and fears to their children. There have been many documented cases of this with Holocaust survivors, even in cases where the survivors never discuss what happened. Without realizing it, they convey their fears on an unconscious level to their children so the children often feel that the world is not a safe place.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you think that your trauma is affecting your loved ones or that you are the one who is affected by transgenerational trauma, you're not alone and you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed psychotherapist who has expertise in dealing with trauma and transgenerational trauma.

About Me
I am licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, Somatic Experiencing therapist, and EMDR therapist.

I have helped many clients to overcome trauma and transgenerational trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me.