Intergenerational Trauma

According to Merriam-Webster, intergenerational is defined as “existing or occurring between generations.” As practices like psychology and psychiatry have become more common, there is an understanding that trauma not only affects people during a traumatic event, but often those that come after them. Trauma studies are revealing a lot of information proving helpful to addiction treatment. Authors Rachel Yahuda and Amy Lehrner cite new evidence that supports the possibility of children affected by parental trauma that occurs before their birth and possibly before conception.

They further write, “On the simplest level, the concept of intergenerational trauma acknowledges that exposure to extremely adverse events impacts individuals to such a great extent that their offspring find themselves grappling with their parents’ post-traumatic state.” It’s possible the trauma occurs as they grow up or through inherited genetics. Yahuda and Lehrner also cite studies revealing effects grandchildren experienced based on events occurring during their grandparents’ lives. There is evidence of this particularly in Sweden and the Netherlands after World War II. 

Even with little in the way of trauma studies, it is clearly possible to pass on the effects of trauma to new generations. Many studies are looking at the possibility of trauma as something that is potentially passed on through genetics. There is still a lot to study, but there’s enough evidence for scientists to continue pursuing this line of thought. The idea of an “addiction gene” has also been around for a while now. It might not be an exact gene anyone can identify, but rather genetics that leave people vulnerable to addiction. Trauma is, of course, something that leaves many people vulnerable to addiction as they often use substances to cope. 

Effects of Traumatizing Experiences Traumatizing-Experiences

Trauma has the potential to cause significant physical, emotional, and mental harm. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration lists increased risks of:

  • “Changes in brain neurobiology;
  • Social, emotional & cognitive impairment;
  • Adoption of health risk behaviors as coping mechanisms (eating disorders, smoking, substance abuse, self harm, sexual promiscuity, violence); and
  • Severe and persistent behavioral health, physical health and social problems, early death.”

The effects of traumatizing experiences manifest in a variety of ways. Without treatment, these effects can deepen and bring about numerous problems and cause patients to take on risky behaviors as a means to cope. For anyone with trauma that significantly changes the brain, it is certainly far beyond their own means to thoroughly work on and treat. Unfortunately, shame is a frequent emotion surrounding trauma. Effective treatment centers work to remove the shame and stigma surrounding addiction.

Trauma-Informed-CareTrauma Informed Care

In the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from SAMHSA, among adults with any mental illness (AMI) or a serious mental illness (SMI), among the majority who had a perceived unmet need for mental health services, the most frequent reason given was these adults could not afford the cost of care. Often, even those who do receive care receive inadequate care. For patients, a treatment center with trauma informed care is essential. Staff should participate in frequent training. Trauma research is frequently updated and new methods for treatment are developed. 

Trauma informed care does not mean the patient has to directly address traumatic experiences head on. It’s important that providers are aware of the potential for trauma without stating it explicitly. This should have an impact on the environment of a treatment center. It’s important to build trust and respect while providing a supportive space for patients. If and when patients are willing to address trauma, it should still be in a manner that is sensitive and caring. Traditional talk therapy is a way for them to talk it out.

However, there are a variety of other therapies that allow processing without further traumatizing the patient. First and foremost, the patient is the priority and it’s important to maintain their sense of safety and comfort. Re-traumatizing the patient can set them back and harm their chance at continued sobriety.