International Journal of

Communal and Transgenerational Trauma

Journal of
International Humanistic Psychology Association

Collective Trauma

As war continues to rage in Ukraine, with thousands of families and loved ones being separated by death and displacement, people around the Western world have responded to the heart-wrenching pain with a sense of affinity and even solidarity. Collective trauma, it seems, is a paradoxical human phenomenon, one without borders.

The science of epigenetics points to the residues of unprocessed trauma and their transgenerational transmissions, which can leave modifications on the genes’ affecting genetic expression in a family’s younger generations. But might it be possible for nervous systems to be influenced beyond familial or even ethnic lines? Can human emotion run so strong that, like a river, it can at times jump its prescribed banks?

Studying generational trauma patterns, it becomes clear that a people’s identity is bound up with its national journey. Especially when there is a history of protracted persecution, oppression, or injustice, trauma legacies are formed and transferred from generation to generation. The sequelae of such complex traumas can leave its descendants with imprints such as isolationism, hypervigilance, and a sense of unsafety in the world. As a family’s elders pass down tales of hardship and survival, reiterating the collective saga of their communal persecution, they strengthen the family’s trauma legacy and reinforce a sense of belonging through suffering and ethnic identity.

But another trope is also discernable among those whose collective stories have survived long enough to testify to a sense of post-traumatic growth. And herein lies the paradox of intergenerational collective trauma: a trajectory with a dual tendency—both born out in the human nervous system.

One example of jumping the banks from one tendency to another is that of Rami who lost his14-year old daughter in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. For an entire year, Rami was in a rage all the time. He fantasized revenge and retaliation, a cycle of violence that would never end. Then one day, Rami’s well-defined structures suddenly collapsed. There before him was “the enemy,” as bereaved and as vulnerable as he was.

“I remember seeing an old Arab lady coming down from the bus with this long black traditional dress, and she had a picture on her chest of a 6-year old, exactly like my wife carries with the name of our daughter.” It was the woman’s granddaughter who had been killed by Israelis. Seeing her grief brought Rami to a state of extreme cognitive dissonance that distressed and transformed him. His heart broke open. “From that point on, everything changed.” (From Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Trauma.)

Rami’s first tendency was that of distrust, anger, and tribal self-protection. These are some of the natural psycho-emotional reactions to violence and protracted racial or religious discrimination. In time, these imprints of historical trauma and the imprints to retaliate and protect “our own” can create a collective ego-centrism, an “us” against the world, that may in some cases even reshape itself transgenerationally into a narrative of defensive ethnic superiority.

Such trauma responses are typically harbored in the brain in the amygdala, where fearful or threatening stimuli are processed, and in the hippocampus, where memory is consolidated and transferred for long-term storage. Based on these, personal and national identity are later formed in the medial and dorsal prefrontal cortex.

But humans harbor another tendency as well: the bio-emotional capacity to apply one’s own history to the story of another. Here, as in Rami’s story, we see the human proclivity allowing one to feel empathy for the other’s plight.

Empathy is the capacity to sense, feel, and understand what another person is going through. Neuroscientist and Buddhist teacher, Rick Hanson writes that empathy is more than generic behaviors such as reaching out to another person in an act of generosity. Empathy is a complex set of “neurological systems that enable us to get a feeling from the inside out – a kind of echo or resonance – about what it is like to be another person.”
Neuroscience research demonstrates that the ability to empathize, lives in an area of the brain called the anterior insular cortex, understood to be the activity center of human empathy.

When we feel empathy, scientists explain, the insular cortex and other linked circuits in our brain are activated in a kind of “emotional contagion,” such that the distress of others stirs up similar feelings within ourselves.

Is it possible that awareness of these two human tendencies—tribal self-protectionism and the capacity for empathy—might afford us the ability to choose our own response? Renowned traumatologist, Dr. Yael Danieli, puts a high valence on awareness as an interceptor of trauma legacies. She teaches that awareness of transmitted trauma processes can actually inhibit transmission of pathology to succeeding generations.
International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma (1998 edition) Springer Publications
Yael Danieli (Editor)

A beautiful, if uncomfortable, liability of becoming more fully aware of our own ancestral histories and the traumas that we have personally suffered may in fact be a sense of kinship with those who are suffering in the world today—humans as well as other species.

Our trauma legacies will own us if we do not own them! All that has landed in us from our forebears—both our ancestral imprints of anxiety, reactivity, or unsafety in the world, as well as the intergenerational wisdom and resilience that we have inherited—help us to know who we are.

As human beings we have the gifts of awareness and choice. We can cull our ancestral legacies to discern which qualities and behaviors we wish to amplify and cultivate. We can thus grow beyond our familial and personal reactivities, and activate the positive legacies of our lineages—as well as the capacity for empathy, which is our birthright as human beings. We can learn to cultivate the moral leadership, deep wisdom and compassionate ethics that can be of service to an ailing world.

Cited sources:

International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma (1998 edition) Springer Publications
Yael Danieli (Editor)

Firestone, Tirzah: (2019) Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma Monkfish: Rhinebeck, NY.

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