Trauma is, for many of us, an enigma. Sometimes we can’t figure it out and even if we did, we just cannot ‘fix’ it. Trauma comes to us in many ways. And manifests itself in different ways for all of us. It can be a first-hand traumatic incident, or the witnessing of a traumatic event. Interestingly, trauma is also inherited. This is relatively a newer idea that has cropped up in the field of psychology.
Inter-generational Trauma is the type of distress that is inherited across generations. The first generation witnesses traumatic events and then the mechanisms of trauma are passed down to the next generation via Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Usually, Inter-generational trauma is a term used to describe the affects of historic and collective trauma endured by different groups of people throughout history. The most common example of these groups is the Holocaust survivors.
The generation after the Holocaust survivers were born with these mechanisms of C-PTSD and can be seen in the way they were coping with it which include including an overly protective stance toward their parents, a high need for control, an obsession with the Holocaust and immature dependency. Two ways that Inter-generational trauma stems from is: historical and collective trauma.
HISTORICAL AND COLLECTIVE TRAUMA
Historical Trauma is when trauma has been passed from one individual or generation to another. It is said to be an example of inter-generational trauma. It manifests itself through substance abuse, depression and anxiety. For example, patterns of abusive behavior can be seen across generations. Whereas the collective trauma is the effect shared by a group after witnessing traumatic events where they’ve been targeted. Events like the Holocaust, 9/11 and slavery are events that have caused trauma to the community that had been targeted. In the Indian context, The Partition of India is one of the most traumatic events that the nation had to witness.
In Aanchal Malhotra’s book, Remnants of a Separation, she writes about the importance of memory as she speaks to the witnesses of the Partition. The witnesses of the Partition spoke in great detail about the event. It is in this book that we see both historical (‘individual’) and collective (community) trauma. The sentiment of all the people were the same: a feeling of immense loss, one that could never be filled with anything else. Being displaces overnight, and living in refugee camps on the other side of the border was humiliating and also forced them to adapt to circumstances that they never thought they had to. These survivors often mentioned how they had buried these thoughts and feelings in order to survive; in order to forget. But trauma creeps up in ways one could never control.
The author herself came from the family of these survivors. Her grandparents migrated to Delhi after the partition. However, when she went to Lahore for this project, she felt like she belonged there. That it felt like home. What is interesting that when she heard the accounts of the partition, she herself felt that she was transported. In her book, she writes of the sleepless nights she spent, where her throat suddenly felt dry and where she felt anxious. She writes of them extensively and this shows us that distress has been inherited, in a way she never recognized it before.
Books like Remnants are very few. The need to understand inter-generational trauma still remains, especially in a country like India, where there seems to be a lot of mental and emotional distress, but we can’t quite put a finger on it. In India, this still remains a new field to explore.
How is it transferred?
Trauma is inherited in three ways, biological and environmental, or a combination of both.
We have enough evidence to know that trauma experienced by a mother during pregnancy affects the child’s health, mental and physical. The transmission of this can happen through the transport vehicles from the uterine fluid to the fetus. The center of the body’s stress response system called the HPA system triggers what is called the coritsol, the flight-or-fight physiological symptoms. This happens to a mother and this causes an increased exposure of the cortisol which affects the fetus’ development of the HPA system. When this happens, the child is born with C-PTSD like mechanisms.
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Another way it can be transferred is through the study of epigenetics. Epigenetics show us how the gene expression is influenced by environment. In this study, it was found out that, “When the survivors had offspring, their children also had the same genes suppressed and/or expressed. Therefore, one way trauma can be transferred is through epigenetics. Furthermore, when a child is raised in the same environment as their ancestors, it can trigger the reformation of a gene in each generation; this is the most indirect form of epigenetic imprinting.”
The psychological and social aspects:
We know that mental health is political in nature. Our feelings, thoughts and even distress is a response to the system we’re living in. When people are displaced from their homes overnight, when people are affected by war, or natural disasters even, they develop Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In another study, Children of refugees and war-affected individuals showed more symptoms of stress, anxiety, lower self-esteem and more behavioral issues.
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So, what does it mean for us?
Intergenerational trauma is difficult to understand because there’s no one way trauma is manifested. And while, it’s a growing field, in India there’s not a lot of literature to study from. In a developing country like India, it is essential to study this. We have been colonized by the British, some of the hangovers of which are still seen in society today, and we have been through communal riots. Caste based trauma and its affects are seen clearly. One needs to remember the Mahad satyagraha of 1927, led by Baba Saheb. You can read more about caste based trauma here.
The Partition of India, like we discussed, was also a collective trauma that our grandparents witnessed. Following that, we have also survived the 84 Sikh Genocide, the Babri Masjid riots, and the very recent February Delhi Riots.
Because we have a history of constant collective trauma, often times, this distress is ‘lost’. In between suppressing these emotions and projecting fear onto children, trauma is often not recognized. We have raised generations of children who inherited this as if it’s their birthright. As a result of which, we see a stark rise in levels of mental distress in the country. But this is not our legacy, at least, it shouldn’t be.
Notice yourself, as a part of any affected community, have you witnessed traumatic events or experienced it yourself? It could be large scale, politically motivated events or micro-aggressions as well. Chances are, you have and it has caused you distress. And this distress, if unchecked, passes on to the next generation.
We have a responsibility to ourselves and the next generation. The chain of trauma has to stop somewhere, and it stops with us. We’re a more informed generation. We’re more aware of the things that are happening in the world, and we’re more aware of mental health and distress. The cycle breaks now, and it starts with you.
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