The inheritance of loss: How to break a trauma loop

Updated on Mar 26, 2022 05:51 PM IST

Generational trauma keeps cycles of negative markers intact: violence, addiction, poverty, early pregnancy, unrealistic or relentless expectation. See what you can do to break the loop.

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Are we doomed to repeat the errors of those that came before? From ancient Greek myths and Shakespearean tragedies to the Netflix series Maid (2021) and the recent Disney hit Encanto (2021), stories have dealt, over and over, with how hard it is to buck a trend when one’s family just does things a certain way.

When that certain way features a history of negative markers — violence, addiction, poverty, child marriage, early pregnancy, high drop-out rates, a culture of unrealistic and / or relentless expectation — the impact as it enfolds each new generation is referred to as intergenerational trauma.

In 1966, Canadian psychiatrist Dr Vivian Rakoff first studied intergenerational trauma in children of Holocaust survivors. Traditionally, the term was used for trauma caused by conflict and war, which studies still find can imprint as genetic tags and pass on to successive generations. The term is now also used to indicate a cycle of damaging behavioural and socio-economic factors that repeats from one generation to the next.

Hillbilly Elegy, a 2016 memoir by JD Vance, probably does the best job of closing the loop on why the latter form of intergenerational trauma can be so hard to escape, citing data to indicate how difficult it is to aspire to just the norm, when one’s family and community (Vance is from Appalachian Kentucky) have an entrenched history of poverty, addiction, violence and high dropout rates.

Fear of failure, ridicule, isolation and the unfamiliar kicks in early; lack of confidence and a sense of helplessness or hopelessness do too. Vance speaks in his book of the guilt that can accompany success, particularly when that success involves leaving the community.

In some cases, the trauma is heightened by societal oppression and / or communal violence. In India, this kind of intergenerational trauma is typically linked to gender, caste and faith. In the US, it is often linked to gender, class and race.

“Often, we see victims displaying behavioural patterns similar to their abusers, like mothers-in-law abusing their daughters-in-law after having endured the same trauma in the past. One of the major enabling factors is normalising of interpersonal violence and emotional abuse, causing victims to turn into perpetrators, which keeps the cycle going,” says Dr Ashlesha Bagadia, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist and co-founder of the Green Oak community mental-health centre in Bengaluru.

So, was that a fight last week, or an incident born of intergenerational trauma? If there is typically a cultural acceptance or trivialising of an adverse event, be it the verbal abuse of an elder or the violent outburst of an addict, it could be the latter.

What can one do to chip away at this loop? There is hope, as there always is. New science is showing how small positive changes in an environment can quantifiably reduce impact, and contribute to or kickstart healing.

Isabelle Mansuy, professor of neuro-epigenetics at University of Zürich, has been studying transmission of trauma as epigenetic inheritance. Mouse pups taken away from their mothers at birth, she found, displayed behaviours consistent with emotional damage. These symptoms then passed on to up to three generations of mice. In the study, Mansuy tells Wknd, she found that environmental enrichment such as a more comfortable and stimulating shelter could reverse some of the effects.

This forms the essence of work done by social workers and mental-health professionals. With trauma transmitted by word or action, however, healing should ideally include acknowledgement that a loved one, while family, has done damage, says Dr Bagadia. Early steps involve working with a mental-health professional to establish a stronger sense of self and firmer boundaries, because the family may not support the seeking of help.

Dr Bagadia has seen patients emerge stronger and more resilient, as well as more compassionate and empathetic, she adds. The impact of that, on their children, could finally break the loop.

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    Anesha is a features writer, sometimes a reader, who loves to eat and plan fitness goals she can never keep. She writes on food, culture and youth trends.

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