95% Of Trauma Comes From This One Unexpected Source, Experts Say
While the term generational trauma may have crossed your path before, have you ever really dove into it? Trauma is incredibly common; in fact, some estimates suggest 70% of adults in the United States have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives—but not all trauma comes from catastrophic events.
On a recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, physician and renowned speaker Gabor Maté, M.D., bestselling author of The Myth of Normal, explains how trauma can subtly pass from one generation to the next—here's his take on generational trauma and how to begin working through it.
What is generational trauma?
By definition, generational trauma refers to traumatic experiences that happened to your relatives who have come before you. This trauma can be stored in the body and, when unresolved, passed down again and again.
In fact, Maté states that 95% of trauma is multigenerational. "You unwittingly pass it on. That's just how it works," he adds. The trauma doesn't necessarily impact the genetic makeup of those to come but rather how those genes get triggered, he explains. This concept is known as epigenetics, which is an emerging field that Maté says has only recently been explored.
Beyond putting a stop to the continuous pass-down of trauma in your family, resolving your own trauma can even have physical health benefits since experts (Maté included) theorize that trauma can actually be stored in the body and manifest into illness.
"Your mind and body cannot be separated," he says. In other words: Your emotional experiences directly impact your body, and what happens to your body directly impacts your mind and, thus, your emotional responses.
What does it look like?
When trying to help people identify their own trauma, Maté asks his clients about the last time they were really upset with someone. Most of the time, he says, "we're not upset about what we're upset about."
Translation: There's a deeper meaning behind why certain things tick you off so much. This is because memory recall is conscious, while your body and nervous system have their own memories that are completely unconscious—yet the wound of trauma can still show up in your day-to-day life. As Maté explains, "Trauma is not what happened to you; it's what happened inside you."
So the next time you're thinking, I don't know why I was so angry about that, take note of the trigger. This may be a helpful hint in pointing out your generational trauma. The same goes for trauma you've experienced firsthand.
And even if you may know the date, time, and place of a traumatic event, that doesn't mean you've processed all of the feelings that came along with it. And if you're wracking your brain trying to remember how you were feeling—that's a completely common response experts call repression.
Gabor refers to trauma as an "unhealed wound." Luckily, you can heal this wound with intentional effort—here's how to start.
How to start healing.
First things first: It's important to stop the cycle of generational trauma. Of course, it's not easy to "heal" someone else's trauma that you didn't experience firsthand—but it is possible.
If you're in contact with any of your older family members, talking with them about what traumatic experiences they've gone through might be a good first step. If they're either not alive or in your life anymore, you can do some digging on your own: Take note every time you feel yourself becoming emotionally triggered. Then analyze the event that happened and why it made you feel upset—did you feel abandoned? Let down? Scared? Betrayed? Violated?
Once you know the root emotion you're feeling, you've answered the "why." Next, move on to the "what," which entails asking yourself what you can actually do to feel better. It could be calling a friend to talk through the emotions, going on a walk to clear your mind, journaling, etc.—however you choose to move through those emotions, do so with one baby step at a time.
While unraveling generational trauma may feel like a burden, it's an act of love that will only positively impact you, your children, and those to come after. That said, releasing deeply rooted emotions isn't easy, so here are a few more tips from a trauma specialist to help you out.
It's important to note that if you have access to therapy, it can also be a helpful tool for unraveling trauma and coming up with personalized ways to cope that make sense in your life. If not, you can talk to a trusted friend or family member. After all, you might not be able to see your trauma clearly until someone starts asking you the right questions.
Trauma can occur in very subtle ways, and most of the trauma you store in your body isn't even yours—it comes from generations before you. The first step in breaking the cycle is to identify the root of the trauma and work on actively trying to ease your response to it. If you have access to a therapist, you can work with them to get another perspective. And if you want to learn more about inheriting trauma—check out our full guide.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.