Tools to understand trauma’s ripple effects
Reprinted from the Intergenerational Trauma issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (2), pp. 21-25
Trauma describes the multitude of negative events that can happen to an individual, a group of people, an entire community or a society. The way we respond to the traumatic event—or ongoing traumatic events—can vary among people and over time. To make things more complex, an individual’s response to trauma can have ripple effects on others around them, adding layers to trauma’s impact.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health defines trauma as “the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event. Experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships.”1 Intergenerational trauma results when the impact of a group traumatic experience is passed down to the next generation in compounding ways.
The psychological effects of trauma are diverse, complex and compounding, with many different symptoms and responses. The following is just a short list of some things people might experience:
- shock, denial, disbelief
- anxiety, anger, sadness, grief
- disassociation, depression, numbness, negative self-concept
- insomnia, nightmares
- conflict and fighting with friends and family, family violence
- substance misuse
You might notice that the list includes both the difficult feelings a person might have, and behavioural responses to having those difficult feelings. For example, the feeling of sadness is an emotional response to a traumatic event, and this might then lead to a behaviour of isolating from family and friends. Our feelings and emotions significantly influence the ways we behave, and our behaviours have impacts not only on ourselves, but on the people in our lives.
I want to introduce three tools that can help build awareness of concepts surrounding trauma and how trauma may be impacting you. These are useful, introductory tools that can lead to greater self-understanding and change.
1. Explore your family and community profile
The first tool of building awareness is developing an introductory level of understanding of what trauma is, and what type of trauma you and the people close to you might be experiencing. Learning your family, community and societal history can be a good place to start. This will allow you to explore how you might be impacted by intergenerational trauma. It can also help you situate yourself and understand how your lived experience has been shaped by lived experiences of the previous generations in your family. Maybe you know that your grandparent was a residential school survivor, or that your grandparents and parents had to flee their home country due to war and moved as refugees to where you live now.
Learning about the trauma experienced by previous generations in your family, and understanding that those experiences bring a negative behavioural response (that can impact future generations) can provide insight into the potential adverse emotions and behaviours that might have rippled through the generations—all the way to you. If we recall that intergenerational trauma is complex and diverse, starting with your own family’s profile can be a useful tool.
2. Explore your emotions
The second tool is building your own self-awareness. This has two components. One component is becoming more aware of yourself and your emotions by asking questions like:
- what emotions do I experience more than other emotions?
- are there any emotions that affect how I interact with the people in my life?
The other component is trying to understand how your feelings influence how you behave. Think back:
- is there an example of a person in your life who experienced sadness because of a traumatic experience?
- can you picture how they isolated themselves from family and friends?
That’s because the emotion of sadness influenced their behaviour. This tends to bring a direct impact on others—for example, the person’s partner, who is left to parent children without the emotional availability of their spouse. Maybe one of the children developed anxiety and repressed their feelings because their parent was unable to engage with them emotionally.
Intergenerational trauma creates a ripple effect of vulnerability in generations of people to come and can be a factor that impacts people’s mental wellness throughout their life.2 Building awareness about what emotions you might be experiencing can lessen the ripple effect of difficult emotions and behaviours in everyone involved.
Learning to make this connection between your emotions and their influence on your behaviour takes time and practice. Ask yourself:
- are you unable to start or complete daily tasks because the symptoms get in the way?
- does your behaviour response negatively impact a close relationship in your life?
This type of introspection can be an integral step in learning how to work through trauma.
3. Scan your body
The third tool is a body scan. A body scan is a grounding and awareness building technique to check in with your body and what it is feeling. To do a body scan:
- Sit down and take a deep breath.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose and out through your mouth for three breaths.
- Return to regular breathing.
- With your eyes closed, or staring down at one spot, scan your body.
- Start at your head and scan down to your toes; notice what you feel in the parts of your body.
- Without judgement, try and notice what your body is feeling.
As you do this, information will emerge. Maybe you will notice tightness in your chest, or tense shoulders. Maybe you will notice numbness in your knees or toes. Simply noticing what you feel in your body is a helpful tool for building awareness.
Together, these three tools can help you start to learn about trauma and how it can affect folks individually and interpersonally. If you are experiencing extreme and ongoing symptoms of trauma, please seek professional mental health support.
About the author
Thoko is an uninvited immigrant settler living on unceded, traditional Coast Salish lands, including of the Tsleil-Waututh (səĺilẃətaɂɬ), Kwikwetlem (kʷikʷəƛ̓əm), Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh) and Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) nations. A registered clinical counsellor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors, Thoko’s practice centres on anti-oppression and intersectionality
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2022). See: camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/trauma
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2014). Trauma-informed care in behavioral health services [Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207201