Generational trauma, also known as intergenerational or ancestral trauma, refers to the passing down of biological, social, emotional, or mental distress from one generation to another within a family or community. Examples of generational trauma can originate from traumatic historical events such as war, oppression, natural disaster, or other difficult to endure experiences that have a profound and lasting impact on a particular group of people.
Before going any further, it is important to acknowledge that addressing generational trauma requires a multifaceted and context-specific approach. For example, if the trauma involves violence that is ongoing, efforts must first be made to stop the violence so that an individual or community is able to enter into a healing process. If trauma includes lack of access to resources or impacts of natural disasters, efforts should be made to invest in problem solving strategies to ensure that adequate needs are met.
It is not in the scope of this article to delve into the nuances of large-scale social, technical, and political actions needed to help address the circumstances referenced above. This article will, however, share a vastly overlooked perspective on generational trauma: how it affects movement and behavior and how to go about addressing it at a fundamental level. It is our hope that after reading this article, and hearing the stories shared below, you will have gained useful insight with understanding how to work towards healing generational trauma.
Examples of Generational Trauma and Its Effects on the Body
Generational trauma can result from a myriad of circumstances causing prolonged stress on a family or community. Some common factors that can contribute to the development of generational trauma include:
- Historical traumatic events
- Systemic injustices and discrimination
- Economic/socioeconomic disparities
- Family and community separations, loss, or abandonment
- Unresolved grief and trauma
While there is no formal psychiatric diagnosis for generational trauma, it can provide a useful framework for understanding the transmission of patterns that can surface through families and communities:
- Behavioral patterns: using coping strategies (likely useful at one point but which in later contexts could be harmful) in attempts to manage unresolved pain
- Relationship difficulties: strained relationships, communication issues, difficulty forming secure attachments and trust with others
- Emotional and psychological distress: anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health issues
Additionally, many people report physical sensations and discomfort associated with emotional trauma, some of which include:
- Muscular tension
- Dysregulation of the nervous system: such as feeling stuck in fight/flight or having symptoms of rapid heart rate or shallow breathing
- Digestive issues
- Chronic pain
- Sleep disturbances
- Autoimmune issues, cardiovascular effects, and other stress-related illnesses
Seeking Relief: A Path Toward Healing Generational Trauma
“All aspects of trauma have a physical manifestation built into them and if that trauma manifests itself over … generations then ultimately what you end up looking like is the reflection of that trauma that your predecessors were exposed to ... so until you do something to physically undo the trauma that your ancestors experienced, you’re never going to really overcome the trauma.”
- Naudi Aguilar
Enduring trauma is a destabilizing experience. As vast as the experiences of trauma can be (destruction of communities, abuse, abandonment, loss of lives, severe financial strife…), they all expose a lack of stability whether it be to safety, a roof over our heads, food, or secure relationships to nurture our development. Instability can create a whole host of challenges: anxiety, pain, and fear (to name just a few) and with that instability can arise the need to compensate.
Behaviorally we find ways to cope. Coping can be a brilliant way for our bodies to survive in the face of a stressor but it can also turn into destructive patterns far detached from the initial stressor; It was meant as something to help us get by when addressing the root cause of the stressor may not have been possible. When it comes to generational trauma, how many of us can identify ways in which we cope in the same ways our elder family members or peers do? It may be worth considering if this coping mechanism is still helpful or if it's something we now mindlessly do, adding to our degeneration.
Physically we can also develop ways to cope. Cowering in a moment of attack may have saved our lives; We found a way to protect our vital organs. Or maybe our body’s choice to mobilize energy to get us out of a dangerous situation rather than expending energy on digestion was the wisest choice to get us to safety. But what happens when we get chronically stuck in these positions and states of stress? Our bodies take the toll. So many generations of our families are now dealing with some sort of chronic response: an anxiety, tic or twitch, physical pain, digestive issue, overly emotional, or hypervigilant existence.
With various examples of generational trauma, talk and body based therapies are often recommended to help process the grief, anger, dissociative, or other patterns with which we are struggling. While some people may find benefit from talk therapy, it has its limitations. In the case of generational trauma, most of us weren’t around when the initial stressor began so trying to talk about something for which we don’t have a reference point can be not only difficult but also extremely frustrating. And while some people may find benefit from trauma-informed bodywork approaches there are limitations there as well. One can seek to help someone feel safe in their body or help them notice what’s happening somatically, but until the structure of the body is able to find relief from the physical compensations and compressions acknowledged above it is going to be hard for that person to address their trauma from a foundational level. It is also a vastly different experience to “receive” body work versus developing skills to become your own practitioner by learning how to release tension, improve symmetry, and achieve greater stability and mechanical propulsion for yourself. This is precisely what we teach people to do in our 10-Week Online Program, as well as in work with a Functional Patterns practitioner, and why it is so effective for many people seeking relief.
Building Resiliency: Clients Share Their Stories
Two people can experience the same stressor and react in completely different ways. One may be devastated while the other barely affected. It seems the more that someone can build resiliency and learn to mobilize resources when needed the better they will be able to react not only to past but also future stressors.
This is what we do at Functional Patterns; We address physical imbalances in the body (with a primary focus on posture and gait) so that instead of wasting energy on being in a chronic state of pain and hypervigilance, you can shift that energy to helping your body heal. This not only helps you feel better physically, but it also allows you to improve your mental capacity to problem solve in other areas of your life.
The following two clients from Functional Patterns Minnesota offer great examples of how changing their physical instabilities helped them address challenges including PTSD, depression, anxiety, sleeping issues, lack of energy, aimlessness, lack of self confidence, and dysfunctional coping behaviors. By moving better and developing an objective way of learning to solve problems they have been able to address issues which are not uniquely their own, but which are also intimately tied to examples of generational trauma in their families and communities.
Click here to listen to Barbara’s interview:
Click here to hear Chloe’s testimonial
When a client comes to us at Functional Patterns aiming to fix symptoms, we know that to address their issues at the root level we have to look at what is happening with the body as a whole. Knee pain is not addressed by simply prescribing isolated knee exercises, rather it is resolved by improving the structure in its entirety as well as the environment in which it exists.
When it comes to healing generational trauma, the same is true. Stability needs to be restored so that the body can find balance, build resiliency, and regenerate. We need this in our external environments but we need it just as much in the intimate environment in which we all inhabit: our own bodies. As Chloe and Barbara demonstrate, finding this greater stability can help open up possibilities to experience life more fully. It can also help us be able to think more clearly to assist in breaking the cycle of generational trauma for a world that is in dire need of it.
In Chloe’s words:
“I was 22 years old with a crazy amount of pain
and mental issues and I’ve seen my own transformation.
So I understand having doubts about something you’ve never done,
but at the same time, why not do what you can to get to a better spot?”
To learn more about how to start improving your body’s stability and movement, check out the 10-Week Online Program or go to the Practitioner Map to find someone near you. Note: if you cannot find someone in your area know that many of these practitioners also offer online training.