How I Coped With Trauma That Was Passed Through My Family For Generations
Think about the people who have affected your life: Some of them may be your closest friends; some you may have never met before.
For me, the person who has most affected my life is my grandmother. I never met her, though. She committed suicide when my mother was 10 years old, but her story affected the course of my life and has fueled my work.
We will never know why my grandmother took her own life. What we do know is that she had a son from a previous marriage, Orlando, who was brown-skinned—and my grandfather didn't approve. My grandfather and his sisters not only mistreated my grandmother, but they mistreated Orlando, too. They would exclude him from family pictures and didn't allow him to attend gatherings. My grandmother felt pressured to give him away because of his skin color, and Orlando died when he was only 18 years old from a skin disease.
When I first heard this story, there was an overwhelming feeling of closeness to the characters in it—not only because we share the same family tree but because I could relate to the pain they endured. I, too, grew up feeling like I didn't belong, like I was a mistake. I was left wondering if the trauma that my grandmother endured altered her genetic makeup and affected our lineage in some far-reaching way. Is it possible that all this trauma was passed down to me?
My intention was never to ignore my pain but rather to transcend it.
As a young adult, I realized that my mother unintentionally passed down these psychological mechanisms like shame, inadequacy, and unworthiness. In the past when I would make a mistake, my operating software would tell me, "You feel bad because you are bad." My mistakes had become an inherent part of me, and this way of thinking led me down a dark path of anxiety and paralyzing depression.
This idea that trauma is passed down doesn't excuse me from my responsibility or agency. But it does give me an opportunity to stop the cycle of harm and move toward inner freedom.
My experience dealing with trauma that started generations ago.
Today, there is scientific evidence that suggests we all might be carrying the trauma of our mothers, our grandmother, and those who came before them. Studies show that 70 percent of adults have experienced some form of trauma, and the CDC reports that only 17 percent of adults are functioning at optimal mental health. So many of us are experiencing or have experienced challenging times. These shocking statistics are simply meant to awaken us to our common humanity and fragility and the preciousness of human life.
Here are some techniques that have helped me deal with my trauma and separate the past from the present:
According to the ancient Indian science of ayurveda, emotions and thoughts that are not properly digested get stored in our muscles. I'm a runner, but commit to finding the exercise that works best for you and feels like a release of this tension. Running, spinning classes, and yoga are all great options.
Establishing a daily breathwork practice was game-changing in the beginning of my healing journey, when I would get flooded from negative memories. With the support of my breath, I've been able to stay present and observe my thoughts rather than drown in them. According to scientific research, breathing reduces impulsivity and cravings and decreases anxiety and depression.
Try breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 4, breathing out for 6, then holding for 2. Repeat for 2 minutes.
Like breathwork, meditation has been shown to decrease overreactivity and fear in the mind and increase happiness. Once you find a meditation practice that works, stick with it. With my daily practice, I built enough inner strength and stability to finally allow my unprocessed trauma to come up to the surface. In the last few years, I have been able to see my traumatic memories through a completely different lens.
Every time I would experience certain negative feelings or thoughts, I found myself craving sugar. Then, this sweet coping mechanism would lead me straight back into my depression and anxiety. Happiness starts in the gut, and once I realized that, I eliminated alcohol and started following a clean, plant-based diet with minimal sugar.
A healing ally
A recent Harvard study concluded that healthy friendships promote brain health, reduce stress, and help us rebound from health issues and disease faster. Find someone who you can share your story with, who accepts your imperfections without a single drop of judgment. For me, this person is my sister.
Overcoming my family trauma happened gradually. The goal is not to erase our past or forget traumatic memories but rather to gain a new perspective so we no longer feel like we are drowning. My intention was never to ignore my pain but rather to transcend it. When old ways of feeling, thinking, and reacting no longer serve us, we must reclaim agency over our life. It's time to choose a new story, one that's empowering and freeing with no blame.