Transgenerational Trauma: How The Psychological Stress of Enslavement Impacts Black Americans Today

Humantold February 24, 2021

A person doesn't have to directly experience a traumatic event to adopt the psychological stress from it. The stress of 300-years enslavement is an essential example of how this kind of trauma can transfer through generations.

The well-being of many people today is directly—or indirectly— impacted by trauma. 

According to the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Alliance, roughly 70% of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. That's a lot of people who have experienced a trauma just in their lifetime. 

That said, a person doesn't have to experience a traumatic event to adopt the symptoms and behaviors that result from it. They can receive emotional distress from a trauma indirectly through their parents and community. In other words, trauma can be passed down through generations.

You read that right. You could be experiencing PTSD symptoms or anxiety because of something your parents, grandparents, or ancestors endured during their lives. Coupled with our own experiences, we can see the potential impact that trauma has on a significant number of individuals across the globe. 

How Trauma Transfers 

Trauma that is passed down through generations is called Transgenerational Trauma—sometimes referred to as Ancestral Trauma, Intergenerational Trauma, and Multi-generational Trauma. The American Psychology Association explains that the effects of this kind of trauma "are not only psychological, but familial, social, cultural, neurobiological and possibly even genetic as well."

Whenever a person experiences a trauma—no matter how big or small—there may be an emotional, mental, and physical impact. Potential symptoms are anxiety disorders, insomnia, or PTSD. These expressions of trauma can be passed to a new generation through learned behaviors. 

While transgenerational trauma may be ancient, the study of it is relatively new. It was first identified in 1966 by Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff. Rakoff observed that the children of Holocaust survivors were experiencing psychological distress and receiving psychiatric care for it in very high numbers.

Since 1966, researchers have been exploring the effects and impact of transgenerational trauma. While it can result from many different events, those who experience historical or collective traumas are particularly vulnerable. People who live through events like wars, violent political regimes, climate catastrophes, enslavement, and genocides are highly likely to experience some form of psychological stress and can pass it on to their children.

Transgenerational trauma can occur from individual experiences as well. An example of this is the perpetuation of child abuse. Studies show that "parents who experienced maltreatment in childhood may be at an increased risk of presenting abusive or neglectful behavior toward their own children." More examples of this are domestic abuse, sexual assault, and hate crimes.

It's important to note that the way that trauma transfers generations doesn't always result in an exact replica of the original trauma. For example, a parent who experienced a sexual assault may not sexually assault their children. However, their children will witness the psychological distress caused by their parent's trauma. The parent may exhibit paranoia, hyper-vigilance or low self-esteem, resulting in inconsistent emotional availability for the child. In turn, this can result in the child adopting those same behaviors or adaptive behaviors. 

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

The 300-year enslavement of Black Americans is an essential example of transgenerational trauma. Psychologist Joy DeGruy developed an explanatory theory called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (P.T.S.S.) that describes the multi-generational impact of enslavement on Black Americans. 

In her book, "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome – America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing," Dr. DeGruy describes the adaptive and survival behaviors passed down over hundreds of years. She posits that Black Americans today exhibit three key behavior patterns that resulted from the multi-generational oppression, centuries of chattel slavery, and institutionalized racism. 

  1. Vacant Esteem: Insufficient development of "primary esteem," along with feelings of hopelessness, depression, and a general self-destructive outlook.
  2. Marked Propensity for Anger and Violence: Extreme feelings of suspicion perceived negative motivations of others. Violence against self, property, and others, including the members of one's own group, i.e. friends, relatives, or acquaintances.
  3. Racist Socialization and (internalized racism): Learned Helplessness, literacy deprivation, distorted self-concept, antipathy or aversion for the following:
      • The members of one's own identified cultural/ethnic group
      • The mores and customs associated with one's own identified cultural/ethnic heritage
      • The physical characteristics of one's own identified cultural/ethnic group

P.T.S.S. theory illuminates the impact that chronic and extreme traumatic stress has had on Black Americans over centuries. In a 2019 interview, Dr. DeGruy shared a specific example of how this stress developed into a cultural behavior still practiced today. 

She explained that a common reaction for Black mothers is to denigrate their children when they receive compliments about them. DeGruy posits that this loving denigration was perhaps a strategy used by enslaved mothers to "downplay" their children's strengths so that enslavers would not sell them. Enslaved mothers used appropriate adaptation to protect the lives of their children. However, the child's denigration (though done for protection) harms their emotional state because they cannot understand why their mother does not feel proud. This is a nuanced example of how trauma can be directly passed down through generations through adaptive behaviors.  

How To Heal Ancient Trauma 

When it comes to healing any kind of trauma, feeling safe plays a crucial role. Psychiatrist and trauma researcher Bessel A. van der Kolk explains, "Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma. Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else's mind and heart."

Holding a personal sense of safety is a vital component of healing from traumatic events and stress. However, when it comes to transgenerational traumas that result from major collective events, it can be more complicated than it sounds. For example, in the case of Black Americans, healing on an individual level wouldn't be enough because the Black experience in America is one of constant hostility and trauma. As we've discussed before, racism is deeply embedded into institutions, media, and behaviors. In order to create a safe environment for Black Americans and heal centuries of enslavement and oppression, social justice and change are requisites. 

Awareness and education around how stress and trauma—whether it's big, small, old, or new trauma—manifests into behaviors and impacts well-being is also essential for healing. A professional therapist can help create a safe space to unpack and discuss personal or familial experiences that may be contributing negatively to your mental health.

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