The Role of Generational Trauma in Addiction
There is a tendency to think of addiction as a problem that is solely an individual's responsibility or "fault" -- that regardless of circumstance, every person makes their own decisions about drinking or using drugs. While each person is ultimately responsible for their recovery, the path that leads to addiction is rarely paved in isolation. In some cases, generational trauma plays a significant role in addiction.
What is Generational Trauma?
Generational trauma (also known as intergenerational trauma or transgenerational trauma) refers to trauma passed down through families. It can be in the form of generational abuse, like an abused child growing up to abuse their own children, or epigenetic inheritance. Epigenetic inheritance is the transmission of certain traits from one generation to the next¹, like the stress of war or malnutrition from food shortages.
Trauma can impact our DNA, and these changes can be passed down through generations, changing our gene expression².
What Are Signs of Generational Trauma?
You can be affected by generational trauma without realizing it. People who have inherited trauma act it out in many different ways. Some signs that you could be experiencing unresolved trauma include:
- Unexplained anxiety
- Hypervigilance: increased alertness
- Mood swings
- Denial/avoidance (or having older family members who deny obvious traumas)
- Feeling shame or guilt for no known reason
- Insomnia, nightmares, or other sleep disturbances
- Seeking out "rescuers" or becoming one
- Reliving stories of trauma as if they are your own memories
- Feeling distrust or suspicion toward specific groups of people or strangers in general
- Internalized or suppressed emotions
- A tendency for addictive behavior
- Suicidal thoughts
A person influenced by generational trauma may also struggle with absolutes; they may see people as either victims or perpetrators or struggle to believe they can trust any justice system or morality. They may view themselves as victims even if they have never directly experienced any abuse or violation.
Ultimately, generational trauma can present in a variety of different ways. Some family members may not recognize generational trauma at all, or they may actively work to deny or minimize its impacts to cope³. Regardless of how trauma is suppressed, eventually, it will be triggered.
Lasting Impacts of Generational Trauma
Generational trauma can start with a traumatic historical event lasting a few years, like the Holocaust or the internment of Japanese-Americans. It can also stem from decades-long ongoing abuse, like the past enslavement and current systemic oppression of African Americans in the United States or the genocide and persecution of indigenous peoples.
To put it simply, not all trauma is the result of direct experience, and just like trauma specific to an individual, generational trauma will present in different ways.
The Role of Generational Trauma in Addiction
Trauma is passed down through generations when survivors and witnesses to trauma don't resolve their pain. Any type of trauma can have a profound effect on an individual, and it can lead them to use substances to try and erase painful memories or alleviate physical discomfort.
This person may be the symbolic and literal carrier of the family trauma. In a healthy family dynamic, they could be the catalyst for change, motivating the family to address difficult emotions, behaviors, and symptoms stemming from generational trauma. In other situations without support, this could be even more traumatizing; being designated as the one who needs help can cause further alienation and lead people even deeper into the abyss of addiction.
Ideally, an entire family would work through their generational pain together in family therapy. However, a person with substance use disorder can't wait for the rest of their family to agree to treatment. Addiction is a life-threatening issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Healing Generational Trauma
It's essential that you get proper treatment to address trauma and any co-occurring issues, like addiction. Generational trauma is trauma, and therefore, it is treatable. Some of the evidence-based treatments we use to treat trauma at All Points North Lodge include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Narrative Therapy, and trauma-focused CBT. Family therapy and parenting interventions may also help you and your family members form healthy attachments and eventually break the cycle.
It is possible to get to the root of generational trauma and address related issues while seeking addiction treatment. The therapies used in evidence-based addiction treatment are quite effective in healing all types of trauma. Consider taking the following steps to address trauma, even if you have to embark on that initial step on your own, as the first person in your family:
- Recognize the patterns of abuse, domestic violence, mental health disorders, broken relationships, or addiction that run in your family.
- Learn what triggers you to feel traumatized, and find constructive ways to cope with those triggers. Find help with changing dysfunctional behaviors with trauma therapy. Trauma therapy is focused explicitly on healing issues related to your family of origin and learning new coping skills.
- If you have a substance use disorder, seek help at a facility that offers dual-diagnosis treatment. Mental health issues and addiction can be successfully treated at the same time.
- Commit to improving your mental health regardless of what other family members may do or say. Families trapped in cycles of trauma are often masters at perpetuating the trauma through guilt, threats, or emotional drama. Watching a family member improve their mental health and ability to function can almost seem like a personal attack to those unwilling or unable to move forward. This is why it's so important to have professional support as you work to heal.
Healing generational trauma starts with healing yourself first. You can be the one to break the cycle and stop the legacy of familial trauma. At All Points North Lodge, we believe that everyone is worthy of healing. If you are ready to break the cycle of generational trauma or have questions about your unique situation, we can help. Contact one of our compassionate contact center team members at 855.235.9792 or via LiveChat. We can provide more information on therapies and programs that successfully treat the effects of generational trauma and addiction and help you get the support you deserve.
- Curry, Andrew. "Parents' Emotional Trauma May Change Their Children's Biology." Science.org, 18 July 2019, https://www.science.org/content/article/parents-emotional-trauma-may-change-their-children-s-biology-studies-mice-show-how.
- Youssef, Nagy A et al. "The Effects of Trauma, with or without PTSD, on the Transgenerational DNA Methylation Alterations in Human Offsprings." Brain sciences vol. 8,5 83. 8 May. 2018, doi:10.3390/brainsci8050083
- "Inter-Generational Trauma: 6 Ways It Affects Families." Office for Institutional Equity, Duke, https://oie.duke.edu/inter-generational-trauma-6-ways-it-affects-families.
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