There appears to be a broader context to the ACE’s (Adverse childhood experience) that wreak so much havoc on health and development: The intergenerational transmission of trauma and maladaptive attachment patterns. Intergenerational trauma is also referred to as trans-generational, multi-generational or cross-generational trauma describes the effects of serious, untreated trauma that effects more than one person within a group, family or community and has been passed down through epigenetics (Hubl, 2020). This might also be called inherited or ancestral trauma.
Gabor Maté writes in Hubl (2020) that it is impossible to separate collective trauma from personal trauma. This is because the physiology of our nervous system is created in interaction with the nervous systems of others. Even in utero the mother’s emotions impact the nervous system of the developing child. These states effect how brain systems will evolve and have a lifelong impact. Maté cites a study done in the aftermath of the six-day war in Israel in 1967 which found that women pregnant at the time were more likely to have children who were diagnosed with schizophrenia. What was happening collectively in the culture was reflected in the neurobiology of infants in the womb. Our brains are wired together. The nervous system is connected to every other organ in the body and so it effects the biology, including all, cells, systems and organs.
Gertrude Hartman, a psychoanalyst, studies the second and third generations of Nazi officials (Hubl, 2020). She found the transmission of historical traumas carried down by perpetrators. Their parents had used denial, splitting, projection and projective identification to defend against their past and in so doing past in onto their children. These children developed distorted ego boundaries and an inaccurate sense of reality. Historical traumas embed themselves in the family, institutions, society, culture and collective values and beliefs. Collective traumas distort the narratives of society and collective identity. They also constrain the development of communities and cultures.
Trauma and care can be passed down the generations as surely as genes (Boyce, 2019). Maltreated children grow up and, more that might be expected and hoped for, end up abusing their own children. It is now being explored how this happens at the level of parenting behaviour, in psychobiological and epigenetic processes. However, we are also born with great resilience inside of us if we can be shown how to unlock it. Even resilience can be passed from generation to generation.
Modern hospital births can leave deep emotional wounds that can impact a person for life (Armstrong, 2019). The work of Stan Grof highlights the prevalence of birth trauma in people seeking treatment for disorders later in life who under the influence of psychedelics or hypnosis can access these memories. According to Grof we all, to some extent, carry repressed birth experiences with us that can have significant impact on physical and mental health, including manifestations of violence later in life. Armstrong notes these ‘fireworks’ that are buried in us represent an amazing, untold part of our life narrative. He points to the fact that the foetus has at 5 months the same number of neurons as an adult – this should make us think about the impact of birth on emotional well-being.
Louis Cozolino (2021) writes that as he learned more about evolution, biology and the mind he began to realise that we experience far more that can be accounted for by our individual history. Our brains are social organs and we attune and communicate with others at deeper levels that we think: Across space and time through emotional resonance, nonverbals and epigenetic signalling. Cozolino tells the story of Gabor Mate who, as small child, had fits of crying that lasted for hours. This took place in Hungary during the Nazi occupation. The Doctor who Mate’s Mum went to see commented that ‘all of my Jewish babies are crying’.
According to Bessel Van Der Kolk (2015) traumatic experiences leave traces whether on the large scale of our histories and cultures or on families where dark secrets are passed down through the generations. They leave traces also on our minds and emotions and on biology and immune systems. Trauma effects not only those directly exposed but those around them. Soldiers returning from combat can frighten their families with their rage and absence. The wife of someone who has PTSD often become depressed and the children of those depressed mothers are at higher risk of growing up insecure and anxious.
Research has chronicled how the ‘generational transmission of trauma’ is conducted and highlighted some of the molecular, epigenetic and biochemical mechanisms that allow this to happen (Levine, 2015). In one experiment mice were exposed to the neutral/ pleasant smell of cherry blossoms which was followed by an aversive electrical shock. After pairing these on several occasions the mice began to freeze in fear when presented with the smell alone. This response was retained through at least five generations of progeny. This means the great great grand children froze in fear as if they themselves had been conditioned. Rachel Yehuda has conducted research on the neurobiological effects of generational trauma (particularly on the children of holocaust survivors) and has demonstrated changes in cortisol levels and physiological markers of anxiety in this population.
Levine (2015) describes how in working with children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors clinically he has noticed symptoms of generalised anxiety and depression. They have described specific and often horrific images and emotions about events that seem real but could not have happened to them. Levine was able to confirm that these had happened to the parents. Parents and grandparents had not shared these memories with their children but the children were experiencing these traumatic memories as their own. Native American tribes tell that the suffering of the father is carried forth for four generations (some tribes say 7). Levine’s view of the transmission across time and space of procedural traumatic body memories is a downside to being able to transmit and receive survival information. Rupert Sheldrak carried out many different experiments that show ‘generational field effects’ in what he calls morphic resonance. In one experiment a strain of mice was taught to run a maze in Sydney. Mice of the same strain born and raised in New York were run through an identical maze and they learned the maze at a statistically significant faster pace. This supports the chances of humans transmitting emotionally significant survival information. Generational transmission is a compelling idea that is clinically relevant and should not be ignored.
Armstrong, T. (2019). The human Odyssey: Navigating the twelve stages of life. Courier Dover Publications.
Boyce, D. W. (2019). The orchid and the dandelion: Why sensitive people struggle and how all can thrive. Pan Macmillan.
Cozolino, L. (2021). The development of a therapist: Healing others – Healing self. W. W. Norton & Company.
Hübl, T., & Avritt, J. J. (2020). Healing collective trauma: A process for integrating our intergenerational and cultural wounds. Sounds True.
Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma.
Levine, P. A. (2015). Trauma and memory: Brain and body in a search for the living past: A practical guide for understanding and working with traumatic memory. North Atlantic Books.