The Transmission of Trauma

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Dr. Perry: And I would say that if we better understand how this pain—this trauma—is passed from generation to generation, we have a better chance of intentionally and effectively stopping it. This comes back to transmissibility—emotional contagion. The word transmissible is used to describe the ability of a trait (or skill, belief, etc.) to be passed on from one person to another.

What Happened to You? By Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey

For over a year now, most of us have been focused on how to protect ourselves from COVID-19. Initially, when the virus first began to spread, we were told that the virus could live on surfaces for as long as 14 days and that it was not airborne. As a result, I began the routine of disinfecting every part of my home and car that I regularly touched. I washed my hands and used hand sanitizer so much that they were cracking and bleeding. Obviously, I was not the only one. Disinfectants and hand sanitizers sold out. Prices of Lysol skyrocketed, I know because I paid more for two bottles off of eBay than I ever dreamed I would! But then we learned the virus was most likely passed through the air, and masks began to sell out. Thankfully, as a result of learning how the virus was transferred we have been able to minimize our chances of transmitting it to another. Now with more and more people being vaccinated, we have a real line of defense on preventing the virus from being passed on.

This morning reading What Happened to You?, I l was encouraged to read more about the ways that trauma is passed down from one generation to the next. Because I do not want my children or grandchildren to suffer in the same ways that I have, I believe it is incredibly important to be proactive in preventing further spread.

For a long time, I was confused about how trauma was passed down. I believed protecting my children from being harmed meant doing the right things; things communicated to me largely by the culture I grew up in. For example, I believed if I took my children to church and taught them about God they would be guaranteed a better life. I believed since I was not raised in church this was why I had suffered so much.

If one spends much time reading the news these days, it is easy to see that churches are not always an environment that guarantee the protection of our family. After having experienced spiritual abuse personally, I have learned that attending church in no way guarantees that our children will not inherit our traumas.

Working two years as an administrative assistant in a residential treatment center for teenagers, began the process of opening my eyes to the truth about how trauma is transmitted. The diversity of the children who entered into this program revealed a lot to me about how financial status or religious beliefs did not prevent trauma from being passed down, and sometimes even perpetuated the trauma. Some children came from rich and religious families. Some from poor, religious families. Some from families with no beliefs at all. Some parents were absent. Some parents were overinvolved. Some kids were adopted. Some had been orphans and had never known a real family. I also saw how trauma manifested itself in many different ways. Some were addicted. Others harmed themselves or others. Some acted out by fighting, biting, or screaming. Many no longer wanted to live. It was the most difficult environment I have ever worked in, but it also taught me more than any other environment. The most important thing I learned is that while trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next, it has little to do with how much money we have or what church we attend. Prevention of the transmission of trauma begins when we understand our core needs as human beings for love, safety, connection, and belonging.

Prevention of the transmission of trauma begins when we understand our core needs as human beings for love, safety, connection, and belonging.

When I was a child, I did not know what I needed. Most of the time, I had no awareness that there were even deficiencies in my life. I did what I needed to do to survive , and to try to keep myself out of harm’s way. Based on what I learned from my experiences and my environment, all I really needed was keep other’s happy me with me. I discovered that one can survive for a long time operating this way, especially in the South. However, as I have talked about in previous blog posts, I was unable to heal until I had an understanding of how trauma had effected me.

Today, as I reflect back on my life, I see many opportunities where there could have been healing rather than further harm. Oprah Winfrey talks about the wisdom she gained from having experienced childhood trauma in a recent interview with Bruce Perry and Brene’ Brown. She called it posttraumatic wisdom which resulted when she was able to give others what she wished she had received as a child. As a result, she is making a difference and has brought about lasting changes that will impact future generations.

Humankind, more than any other species, can take the accumulated, distilled experiences of previous generations and pass these inventions, beliefs, and skills to the next generation. This is sociocultural evolution. We learn from our elders, and we invent, and we pass what we’ve learned and invented to the next generations. And the organ that allows this is the human brain—specifically, the cortex. As we’ve said before, the cortex is the most uniquely human part of our body, and, no surprise, it gives rise to the most uniquely human capabilities: speech, language, abstract thinking, reflecting on the past, planning for the future. Our hopes, dreams, and a major part of our worldview are mediated by our cortex.

Winfrey, Oprah; Perry, Bruce D.. What Happened to You? (pp. 130-131). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Now more than ever we have the resources available to help us understand how trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next. When we learn and teach others, real change is possible.

Dr. Perry: And I would say that if we better understand how this pain—this trauma—is passed from generation to generation, we have a better chance of intentionally and effectively stopping it.

Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children, and their children the next generation. Joel 1:3

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