Intergenerational Trauma in Asian Americans
Updated: Jul 1
Do you have trouble asking for help? Do you feel guilty about expressing your emotions because you think your parents/grandparents had it worse? Do you have difficulty relaxing and are constantly looking for the next thing to stress about? If your answer is "yes" and you find yourself existing in survival mode, you may be experiencing symptoms of intergenerational trauma.
What is Intergenerational Trauma?
Intergenerational trauma are trauma responses passed down to us from our ancestors, including our parents, grandparents, and past generations. We encounter trauma when we are exposed to adverse events that threaten our emotional and/or physical safety. Our trauma symptoms, also known as the fight, flight, flee, or fawn response, are how we react in order to survive traumatic experiences. You can read more about trauma in our last blog by clicking here.
Our ancestors can pass on trauma through “their anger, anxieties, emotional stress, and maladaptive coping strategies” (Patel, 2022). This can look like suppressing emotions and pushing through difficult moments, constantly working due to fears of not having enough, and being hyper-independent. If you’ve witnessed your parents/grandparents reacting in this way, it’s possible you took on these strategies too.
Since the traumas we face may not be the same as our elders (e.g., war, poverty, genocide), we often compare and invalidate our own struggles. It can be helpful to remember while our struggles are not the same, we are all impacted by our ancestors’/parents’ traumas; we may also have our own experiences of trauma. Intergenerational trauma can look like the following for many Asian Americans: having parent(s)/grandparent(s) with untreated mental health condition(s), emotional and/or physical abuse/neglect, witnessing domestic violence at home, and being parentified (e.g., being the language broker or translator to parent(s) and taking on adult responsibilities as a child).
Symptoms of Intergenerational Trauma
According to Marschall (2022) and Patel (2022), intergenerational trauma shows up similarly to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some trauma symptoms include: negative beliefs about oneself/others/the world, negative emotional states (depression, anxiety, anger), feeling disconnected from others, hyper-vigilance, and sleep issues (DSM-5, American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Our traumas not only impact our internal experiences of distress but also our relationships, our work, and overall quality of life.
How to Break the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma
It can be difficult to differentiate between your own survival mechanisms and the coping strategies you inherited. To prevent passing on your trauma responses to the next generation, you can unlearn what is no longer serving you while also learning new skills. Here are some suggestions to start:
Take time to slow down and rest through prioritizing your mental and physical health
Make connections with people and/or a community you feel safe around and supported by
Engage in therapy by working with a trauma-informed therapist, who is also culturally sensitive and responsive
Review our recommendations for trauma treatment here
Review our recommendations for supporting Asian American mental health here
How we handle stress and difficult situations are a combination of our genetics and our environment growing up. While we cannot change our past or the past of our ancestors, we can focus on healing our pain in caring for our overall well-being today. If you want to work with us on healing from intergenerational trauma, you can contact us here.
Stay tuned. Our next topic is “The Impact of Intergenerational Trauma.”
“Changing how we relate to our emotions also gives us the ability to break intergenerational cycles of trauma and pain that our parents may have unknowingly passed along to us. We must feel in order to heal those parts of ourselves.” - Jenny Wang, Ph.D. from Permission to Come Home
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Marschall, A. (2022). What is Intergenerational Trauma? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-integenerational-trauma-5211898
Patel, B. (2022). Intergenerational Trauma in AAPI Communities. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/intergenerational-trauma-in-aapi-communities-5271065#citation-4
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.