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What is intergenerational trauma?

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In more recent years, the reality of intergenerational trauma has become more accepted, and with it an understanding of the long-term effects of different types of stress and abuse. 

For a long time, trauma and the effects of trauma were normally thought to be limited to a single event, or a number of events that happened at or around the same time. The reality of trauma was acknowledged, but often, people had difficulty in seeing what its effects really were.

The main sources of treatment tended to be various types of talking therapy, various medications, some type of anti-depressants and in more recent years, treatments have emerged such as EMDR.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome

It is difficult to pinpoint one exact type of trauma that has changed people's minds, but it is probably fair to say that post-traumatic stress is perhaps the best-known example of trauma being seen as not simply one event, but as a consequence of long-term exposure to a series of events, which have fundamentally shattered someone's inner world or sense of self.

The treatments for post-traumatic stress are probably not very different from the treatments that have always been available for trauma but are likely to be more intense and long-term. It is important to recognise the shift in thinking that events and years of being subject to various types of stress can inflict significant trauma on all aspects of a person's being.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Whilst most people are aware of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the opportunities it can give to helping people who have a drink problem, fewer people are aware of its partner organisation Al-Anon.

Al-Anon offers help and support to families and friends of people who have a drink problem and has been in existence for much of the same time as AA has been around.

In relation to intergenerational trauma, these two organisations offer a wealth of experience of how the trauma of alcoholism affects partners, families, friends, work colleagues etc, past, present and future.

What their experience shows is that anyone who is an alcoholic or has a drink problem affects a significant number of people emotionally, as well as the actual consequences of their drinking.

The people who are often most affected are the children who grow up in such a home, often referred to as adult children of alcoholics. They normally carry the burden or scars of the emotional effects of alcoholism, and these effects are often passed on from generation to generation.

In some of its literature, Al-Anon refers to generational alcoholism, to bring home the point that the day-to-day effects of alcoholism can last through different generations of families.

This is perhaps the best example of intergenerational trauma that exists in today's world, but intergenerational trauma is not limited to alcoholism. Any family who grows up with the effects of any type of substance abuse, domestic violence, gambling addiction or any overbearing level of stress is likely to be shattered in some way, and the effects can last for many many years.

Recognising this as intergenerational trauma allows people to give some sense of context to what their problems are and have some sense of structure in terms of being able to find solutions and effective ways of being able to heal themselves and move their life on.