Becoming a Cycle Breaker in the Realm of Intergenerational Trauma

Original Publishing Date:
March 25, 2024
Last Update:
March 25, 2024

Cycle breakers – a term circulating on platforms like TikTok and Instagram or within your social circles. While you may not encounter this phrase in formal research or scholarly articles, it is now part of the online therapy-speak ecosystem and relates to a larger realm currently captivating the world of psychotherapy, intergenerational trauma.  Intergenerational trauma, also known as historical trauma, doesn't have a distinct diagnosis in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition" (DSM-5), which mental health professionals rely on for diagnosing mental health conditions. However, experts widely acknowledge and accept the existence of this phenomenon. Generational trauma has been studied for decades by researchers trying to understand its origins, transmission, and impact.

In this article, we explore the intricacies of generational trauma, the significance of becoming a cycle breaker, and effective methods for healing or addressing this profound aspect of the human experience.

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What is Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma describes the passage of trauma symptoms and adverse experiences from one generation to the next. Historical trauma, on the other hand, pertains to enduring psychological and emotional wounds experienced by a group as result of a significant historical event such as genocide. Multigenerational trauma refers to the trauma experienced within multiple generations of a family. In contrast, transgenerational trauma expands beyond familial boundaries and ecompasses a broader societal or cultural impact. Each concept highlights the connections between past and present occurrences, underscoring the necessity for a comprehensive and holistic approach to trauma treatment.

Understanding Historical Trauma

Just like families pass down traditions, values, and physical features, they can also pass down something less obvious but equally, if not more, impactful—intergenerational trauma. To begin, let's examine our understanding of trauma. Trauma (LINK) is a reaction to a distressing incident, leading to unfavorable physical and emotional consequences. Such incidents may encompass abuse, neglect, disruptions within the household, or exposure to community violence. Generational trauma, also called intergenerational or transgenerational trauma, is the term we use when the repercussions of a traumatic event persist and influence subsequent generations. It is a cycle that goes through families. It happens through various ways—biological, environmental, psychological, and social.

Initially, researchers looked at behavioral patterns passed down through generations to understand this complex phenomenon better. These behavioral patterns often included maladaptive coping mechanisms, interpersonal relationship challenges, and recurring themes of emotional distress. As they continued studying, they paid more attention to the things like biology, environment, and psychology that keep intergenerational trauma going.

Epigenetics and Intergenerational Trauma

Most recently, epigenetics has become the focus of intergenerational trauma research. Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. For instance, some studies suggest that transmission of generational trauma can start even before someone is born, with a baby being exposed to stress chemicals while in the womb, affecting how they grow. Changes in how genes work, related to the stress or trauma experienced by parents before having a baby, can affect the way the baby develops in the womb. Different effects are seen in moms and dads, and it depends on factors like the type of trauma and when it happened in the parents' lives (1)

Signs of Intergenerational Trauma

  • Mental Illness (anxiety, depression, PTSD)
  • Emotional numbness
  • Depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself and your surroundings)
  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of life skills (critical thinking, decisions-making, time-management)
  • An accumulation of adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) (LINK)
  • Recurring dysfunctional behavioral patterns within families
  • Attachment/interpersonal relationship issues
  • Chronic health issues
  • Hypervigilance
  • Mood dysregulation

Examples of intergenerational trauma

Signs of generational trauma may differ from person to person and depend on a variety of factors, including cultural influences; the nature and severity of the traumatic events; the availability of support systems; access to services, jobs, and finances; systemic disparity and injustice; and individual coping mechanisms (3).

Historical Events,Systemic Injustices, and Intergenerational Trauma

An evident example is found in the descendants of communities impacted by slavery. The lasting effects of centuries marked by brutality, dehumanization, and systemic oppression have deeply influenced African American communities. The consequences, encompassing socioeconomic disparities, racial discrimination, and enduring psychological trauma, continue to echo through successive generations. This also includes additional areas of health, wellness, and life expectancy.

Another profound example is the COVID-19 pandemic. Although we have yet to learn the full impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on successive generations, we have already seen families grappling with the direct impact of illness, loss, financial hardship, and isolation. Children growing up in this era may carry the emotional imprints of a world overshadowed by fear and instability.

Family Dynamics

At the family level, imagine a household with a background of substance abuse. When parents or grandparents contend with addiction, its consequences can permeate through subsequent generations. Offspring raised in such an environment might encounter an increased susceptibility to substance abuse, sustaining a pattern where addiction becomes a coping mechanism passed down through the family. Additionally, children who witness or experience domestic violence may internalize the distressing dynamics, normalize unhealthy relationship patterns, or engage in repeating cycles. Growing up in an environment marked by fear and aggression can influence their own adult relationships, potentially leading to a continuation of abusive behavior.

Breaking the Cycle and Healing from Generational Trauma

Let’s return to the popular term – cycle breakers. Initiating the healing of generational trauma for future generations commences with a single person, the cycle breaker. This courageous individual commits to addressing their trauma and instigating positive transformations in their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. These changes are pivotal in limiting or entirely eradicating the perpetuation of the cycle of historical trauma.

Achieving full healing involves creating an environment where additional trauma is prevented across multiple generations. Even amid ongoing stressors, healing is possible with the right tools, internal resources, and supportive networks, allowing for the management of symptoms and addressing the root cause of intergenerational trauma.

Finding Support for Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma

Collaborating with a mental health psychotherapist who employs a trauma-informed approach is a crucial step in this process. A therapist can assist you recognize Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), explore past generational hardships, understand the impacts of systemic oppression, and gain insights into your traumatic experiences. A therapist can also support you in identifying and acknowledging the impact of trauma on your life and guide you towards developing your goals to break the cycle.

EMDR, Trauma Recovery, and Cycle Breaking

Even if you lack personal memories of the trauma, a therapy intervention like EMDR can assist in managing your body's physiological reactions to generational trauma. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy stands as the foremost treatment for PTSD and trauma symptoms. At Virtual Therapy Clinic, our clinicians are trained or certified in EMDR therapy. Collaborate with one of our providers to disrupt the cycle of generational trauma and embrace a life characterized by more positivity, meaning, and hope.

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  1. Yehuda, R., & Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 17(3), 243–257.
  2. Amy Marschall, P. (2022, January 19). Intergenerational trauma: What you need to know. Verywell Mind.
  3. Gillespie, C. (n.d.). Generational trauma might explain your anxiety and depression. Health.
Katherine Wheeler, MA, LCPC, EMDR

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