NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Friday, December 7, 2012

Intergenerational Trauma: Recurring Nightmares

For many years, a friend of mine, Ann (not her real name), was having a recurring nightmare, which was very close to a dream she heard about from her mother when Ann was about four years old.   In her mother's nightmare, her mother couldn't find Ann, who was an infant in the dream.  She was panic stricken, in the dream, and she looked all over for Ann, but couldn't find her.  Finally, a man came along and took her to a place where there were lots of babies.  She looked at all the babies, hoping to find Ann, but all the babies looked alike and she still couldn't find Ann.

Transgenerational Trauma: Recurring Nightmares

Clearly, this was a recurring anxiety dream that stemmed from Ann's mother's long history of emotional trauma.  Hearing her mother's dream at such a young age stirred up a lot of anxiety for Ann that she was unable to contain because she was too young to handle it.  Her mother, who was a loving mother in many ways, didn't realize that she was overwhelming Ann by telling her about these recurring dreams, which she had at least a few time a month.

You can imagine how frightening it must have been for a child of four to hear that her mother kept losing her in her dreams.  Children of that age are completely dependent upon their parents and couldn't survive without them.  Trying to contain this type of anxiety at such a young age is beyond a child's capacities.

Soon after hearing about her mother's recurring nightmare, Ann began having a similar dream that involved losing her cat in the same way that her mother lost her in her mother's recurring dreams.  This dream about losing her cat and trying to find her cat among many cats that looked like hers went on until Ann was in her mid-30s.  She recognized that her recurring dream was related to her mother's anxiety dreams, but she didn't know what to do about it until she got help in therapy, at which time the nightmares stopped.

I'm using Ann's experience (with her permission) to illustrate that this is a common phenomenon with children who grow up trying to contain overwhelming amounts of anxiety that one or both parents are unable to contain themselves.  These recurring nightmares, which bear a remarkable resemble to a parent's dream, can go on for many years.  As an adult, an individual has a greater capacity to handle these anxiety dreams.  But they're still disturbing and carry the trauma that the parent was unable to carry.

Transgenerational Trauma
We know a lot more now about intergenerational trauma than we did when Ann was growing up.  We now know that emotional trauma can be passed on through many generations, even if the family members, who were originally affected by the trauma, never speak about it.  The children of many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are examples of this type of intergenerational trauma being passed on.

Dreams reveal what is going on for a person on an unconscious level, and even though Ann appeared to be a healthy, stable child, her dreams revealed that she was carrying a great deal of anxiety related to her mother's trauma.  Fortunately, she was able to get the help she needed from a psychotherapist who specialized in doing trauma work, and she was able to overcome the vicarious trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you think you've been traumatized by intergenerational trauma, you owe it to yourself to get professional help from a licensed trauma therapist.

It is possible to overcome intergenerational trauma with the right help.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

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

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

Also see my article:  Psychotherapy and Intergenerational Trauma