Dr. Susanna La
The Impact of Intergenerational Trauma
Updated: Mar 10
When we inherit the generational coping patterns of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors, we may adapt well to stressful situations, but there are also some setbacks. Many Asian immigrants in the U.S. have endured various hardships including historical trauma, migration trauma, acculturation/resettlement stress, and racial trauma (Patel, 2022). Intergenerational trauma consists of passing on genetics and traits from one generation to the next, and the next generation responding in similar ways as a form of survival. You can read more about intergenerational trauma here.
According to Ryder and White (2022), trauma in families can be passed through cultural messages/patterns, aggression, memories, and parents not coping with their own traumas. The root of many traumas is unprocessed pain since hurt people tend to hurt people. When we unknowingly inherit and pass down trauma responses, we continue the intergenerational trauma cycle.
Examples of Intergenerational Trauma Responses
The fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses activate automatically when we perceive danger, so our resulting actions are intended to keep us safe from harm. For many Asian Americans with a history of intergenerational trauma, these responses are more likely to go off in certain types of stressful situations and in absence of actual danger. This can impact us in many areas including relationships, roles within society, at work, and our mental/physical health.
1) Fight Responses
If we grew up in a family, where our elders often yelled or hit people to get their point across, we can learn that angry emotional outbursts and/or explosive behaviors are effective ways of communication. When we function from a place of survival, fight responses may seem adaptive to get our needs and messages across promptly. Fight responses, however, contribute to emotionally/physically abusive patterns and results in negative consequences for the receivers of these behaviors. When these receivers experience these behaviors as unprocessed pain and new strategies of communication are not implemented, the trauma cycle is passed on.
2) Flight Responses
When we experience flight responses, we avoid overwhelming and distressing situations by running away, both physically and mentally. This can manifest as distracting ourselves by constantly staying busy and/or always being on the go. Our brains are scanning and looking for the next anticipated stressor we have to deal with. If our cultural conditioning tells us that mental health symptoms or emotions are unwanted/unneeded, we may “run away” from emotions by ignoring them and keeping our brain occupied by focusing our attention on other tasks.
3) Freeze Responses
When we freeze, we become mentally stuck and can have difficulty making decisions, so we can even dissociate. Dissociation can look like spacing out, our mind going blank, and/or mentally being somewhere else. Another freeze response is feeling numb, and this can be a complete disconnection from our emotions. If we were reinforced to gaslight ourselves and not feel what we are actually feeling, we can develop this trauma response.
4) Fawn Responses
The Model Minority Myth can pressure Asian Americans to fit into stereotypes of consistently being hardworking, people pleasing, and compliant to fit into the mainstream U.S. Additionally, the patriarchal/hierarchical patterns in many Asian cultures can result in Asian Americans avoiding conflict by prioritizing the needs/expectations of others above their own. All of these messages contribute to the fawn response in appeasing others to evade harm. Understandably, these responses often play out in situations with authority figures like parents, teachers, and bosses.
Healing from Intergenerational Trauma
Our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses are adaptive to keep us safe. Many of these trauma responses happen outside of our immediate awareness, but maintaining them can hinder us from fully engaging in our life in a healthy way. For instance, our fight responses may cause us to lash out and hurt people we care about. Additionally, our flight, freeze, and fawn responses can prevent us from understanding, processing, and caring for our emotional well-being, which can affect the people around us.
Healing from intergenerational trauma looks different for each person. It may involve becoming aware of when our trauma responses are activated, understanding how we have been impacted by our traumas, learning healthier ways of coping, and/or forgiving others and ourselves for the pain we have endured. If you want to begin your healing journey, you can reach out to us here.
Stay tuned. Our next topic is “Mindfulness.”
Patel, B. (2022). Intergenerational Trauma in AAPI Communities. VeryWell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/intergenerational-trauma-in-aapi-communities-5271065#citation-4
Ryder, G. & White, T. (2022). How Intergenerational trauma Impacts Families. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-intergenerational-trauma-impacts-families
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.