What You'll Learn
- The Science Behind Cycles of Generational Trauma
- The Mind/Body Connection of Generational Trauma
- The Value of Breaking Generational Cycles of Trauma
- How to Start Breaking Generational Trauma Cycles
- Reminders On Our Path to Breaking Generational Trauma Cycles
Many of my clients come to me worried about breaking generational trauma cycles. We often don’t even realize these cycles of trauma are waiting underneath the surface until we become moms.
When we think about motherhood, we expect our lives to change. We expect our priorities to change. We expect new challenges and responsibilities.
But what we often don’t expect is for our past to rise up. Motherhood has a way of bringing our old wounds, unmet needs, and childhood trauma to the surface.
We might find ourselves struggling to regulate our emotions, to stay calm in triggering moments, or to be the moms we envisioned being. And when this happens, we blame ourselves, carrying guilt and shame for not being able to “do better.”
But what if we’re carrying emotional baggage that’s been present, not just in our lives since childhood, but for generations?
The truth is that healing is important, not just for ourselves and our own inner peace, but for the way we show up for our children. Breaking generational cycles of trauma isn’t easy—but it is worth it.
Today, I’m joined by psychologist and author Dr. Mariel Buqué to discuss how moms can break generational cycles, free ourselves from our past, and show up as the moms we want to be.
The Science Behind Cycles of Generational Trauma
Dr. Mariel became drawn to the concept of breaking cycles of generational trauma during her work as a therapist at Columbia University. While other clinicians focused on depression or the struggles at hand, Dr. Mariel wondered if there was more underneath those struggles. She saw patterns of families going through multiple generations of abuse, with women falling into similar relationship patterns their mothers and grandmothers had.
Trauma often gets overlooked, even in clinical settings like the one Dr. Mariel was working in, largely because it’s abstract. But we often feel the weight of trauma even if we can’t pinpoint or identify it.
It shows up when we’re triggered, when we have trouble regulating our emotions, and when we can’t seem to change patterns we’ve fallen into.
Dr. Mariel pointed out that the full context of intergenerational trauma is both biological and behavioral.
On the biological side, we can begin carrying effects of trauma before we are even born, absorbing cortisol when we’re in the womb. If a mom is experiencing trauma or stress while pregnant, the baby might have a predisposition to being more tender to stress and trauma.
But the behavioral aspect has a large impact as well. If a baby is in an unsafe situation, full of conflict, yelling, or domestic struggle, they absorb that, and their nervous system almost begins to default to a state of hyper threat. As life continues, and they end up encounter other stressful situations, they might develop their own trauma symptoms that compound that nervous system response.
Both of these situations intersect to carry out intergenerational trauma. But the good news is that even even if we were impacted by cycles of generational trauma, both biologically and behaviorally, we can make changes to disrupt the pattern.
The Mind/Body Connection of Generational Trauma
Understanding the way trauma shows up in our body is important when we want to break those generational cycles.
Dr. Mariel said that we often look at a person who gets easily overwhelmed or irritated and assume “that’s just how that person is.” But in reality what might be happening is that their nervous system is overactive due to trauma. When we don’t realize that’s what’s happening, that reacted nervous system can perpetuate generational cycles.
When our nervous system is in a state of hyper threat, we go into “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” mode:
Fight: Lashing out or yelling
Flight: Avoiding conflict or withdrawing
Freeze: Dissociating or refusing to engage
Fawn: Appeasing or people-pleasing in order to neutralize a threat
When our nervous system stays in a perpetual overactive state due to ongoing trauma, we might find ourselves falling into those responses even when there isn’t an active threat present. Our body is perceiving high levels of threat.
Dr. Mariel said that our nervous systems are actually designed to move through stress or work through difficulties. But trauma keeps our bodies from learning how to do that.
So we might react in these ways at the slightest tone change from our partner, when we make a mistake at work, or in triggering situations with our children, without even realizing our body is carrying out a trauma response.
If your body is already struggling to move through stress, it’s easy to get pushed over the edge.
This can happen for moms when they are constantly dealing with stress, coping with the mental load, thinking about the to-do list, juggling all the mental pieces, and essentially never resting. If your body is already struggling to move through stress, it’s easy to get pushed over the edge into hyperthreat mode.
Ongoing states of stress can even make us predisposed to physical chronic illnesses, like heart disease or digestive struggles.
Dr. Mariel said that’s why it’s important to look at trauma holistically—treating not just the body and physical stress responses but also the mind and the trauma at the root.
The Value of Breaking Generational Cycles of Trauma
Once we understand the way trauma is showing up in our body, we might feel disheartened. If we’re predisposed to trauma and stress, it can feel as if there is no way forward. And for moms, whose biggest fear is often traumatizing their children through their own mistakes, that can seem scary.
But Dr. Mariel pointed out that our fear of messing up our children actually keeps us preoccupied in a state of anxiety, rather than allowing us to show up as the most present, centered, safe version of ourselves that we want to be for our children.
Sometimes when we experienced childhood trauma or unmet needs, we might push ourselves to hard to do everything right so that we don’t harm our children. But we don’t realize that we’re still parenting from a place of trauma. Our threat response is still strong.
When we focus on trying to “just do better” without considering our nervous system, we often fall back into old patterns. We might find ourselves stressed or reactive, snapping or yelling without even meaning to.
Dr. Mariel said that instead of worrying so much or shaming ourselves, we can instead focus on settling our own nervous systems. Then, we can show up as the safe space for our children when they need us. This can allow them to move through their stress without staying in a heightened state. That’s how we begin breaking cycles of generational trauma.
Healing our trauma and calming our nervous system can benefit the entire family.
Healing our trauma and calming our nervous system can benefit the entire family, allowing us to be more attuned to our children and help us with our own wellbeing.
How to Start Breaking Generational Trauma Cycles
The first place to start is awareness, and putting language to trauma. Dr. Mariel pointed out that past generations didn’t even have the language to speak to family trauma or to understand that we can love each other and still be perpetuating it.
Embracing the concept of trauma and the language around it allows us to unravel the past.
It’s also helpful to remember that even if we’re the only ones trying to break the cycles of trauma in our families, the work we do has a ripple effect on those around us. Eventually, we can see tangible ways that our healing produces change in our lives and our family’s lives.
Dr. Mariel recommends starting small and working on our nervous systems. She pointed out that body memory is strong—it takes approximately 300 repetitions of a practice in order to default to a calmer state of rest and relaxation.
But one simple way to begin is by practicing five minutes of deep breathing every day. This helps our body default into rest instead of hypervigilance. We can even do this with our kids and establish it as a family exercise.
One simple way to begin calming our body is by practicing five minutes of deep breathing every day.
If we did that for a year, we will have taken a big step toward releasing some of the trauma response and changing the way our bdy functions.
Therapy and inner healing is also important. When we focus on both the body and the mind, we can start to counter the trauma we’ve been carrying and restore a state of peace.
We can also ensure that we’re creating safe spaces around us. Engage with people who allow your body to be safe and heal. We can build safety, connection, and security with those around us.
Reminders On Our Path to Breaking Generational Trauma Cycles
Breaking generational cycles of trauma takes time and work. It’s important to be forgiving of ourselves in the process. We will make mistakes. We will repeat patterns we don’t want to sometimes. And we will sometimes end up dysregulated—no matter how much we heal.
But those mistakes are also opportunities. We can repair, reconnect with our children, and show them how important healing and wellbeing are.
Repairing after losing our cool shows our children that nobody is perfect, and that it’s okay to make mistakes.
And when we focus on our own healing, we can actually model for our children how to cope with stress in a healthier way. When our children see us model practices, like mindfulness and meditation, they might start to carry out those practices and help their own bodies stay calm in stressful situations.
Every day is an opportunity to break cycles of generational trauma. All you have to do is take it.
Dr. Mariel said that every day is an opportunity to break cycles of generational trauma. All you have to do is take it.
If you’re struggling with breaking generational cycles of trauma or staying emotionally regulated, working with a mom therapist can help! Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today.