EMDR Therapy and Intergenerational Trauma
Healing across generations: Using EMDR therapy for intergenerational trauma
Trauma has a profound impact on individuals, families, and even entire communities. While the scars of trauma can be deeply personal, they can also be intergenerational, affecting subsequent generations in ways that are not immediately evident. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a powerful tool for addressing intergenerational trauma, offering hope for healing and breaking the cycle of pain.
An article from The Washington Post (June 2023) describes how intergenerational trauma has become a hot topic as people seek to understand the mental health of younger generations. Intergenerational trauma refers to the transmission of traumatic experiences, behaviors, and emotional wounds from one generation to the next. It has been observed in various contexts, including descendants of Holocaust survivors, victims of war, and individuals from marginalized communities who have experienced systemic oppression. The American Psychological Association (2023) defines intergenerational trauma as “a phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotional and behavioral reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself.”
The transmission of intergenerational trauma might occur through a combination of different factors, including genetics, environmental, and social issues. These traumas may manifest as emotional wounds, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and even physical health issues in subsequent generations. Understanding and addressing this phenomenon is crucial for breaking the cycle of pain.
How can EMDR address intergenerational trauma?
Breaking the cycle: EMDR can disrupt the transmission of intergenerational trauma by helping individuals process their own traumatic experiences. This enables them to heal by developing healthier coping mechanisms, which reduces the likelihood of passing on unresolved trauma to their children.
Resolving unconscious patterns: Intergenerational trauma often manifests as unconscious behavioral and emotional patterns. EMDR therapy helps individuals access and reprocess these patterns, allowing them to make conscious choices and break free from destructive cycles.
Resolving unresolved grief: Many individuals with intergenerational trauma carry a deep sense of grief and loss, often for events they did not directly experience. EMDR can help them reprocess this grief, facilitating emotional healing and closure.
Enhancing resilience: EMDR equips individuals with the tools to cope with life’s challenges more effectively. By addressing their trauma, individuals can become more resilient, not only for their own sake but also for the benefit of future generations.
Reprocessing representations of events: Individuals can reprocess the movie that keeps playing in their minds when they think about the trauma that their parents or other past generations experienced.
Normalizing and reprocessing collective trauma with Group EMDR: Individuals can join a group that shares a traumatic event or a history and reprocess with EMDR group protocols the collective trauma experienced by their current communities and their past generations.
Supporting minoritized communities and people of color: Lipscomb & Ashley (2021, p.4) state that “even when acts of aggression are not direct, racial minorities still may be impacted by intergenerational trauma. Research reveals that the trauma of the elders of a community impacts the descendants through storytelling, giving warnings, modeling behaviors, and the survivor’s approach to parenting, including racial socialization (Hughes et al., 2006). For immigrants and their descendants, the intergenerational trauma may take the form of forced migration as a result of a conflict, natural and chemical disasters, famine, and xenophobia (Bryant-Davis, Adams, Alejandre, & Gray, 2017). After the migration, they may have experienced stigma, racism, and discrimination along with anxiety surrounding familial and country separation.” EMDR can be used to reprocess such acts of aggression and their effects.
How can EMDR therapy help?
Maria was the daughter of two immigrants from El Salvador who were survivors of the Civil War that affected the country for 12 years (1980-1992).* Maria was born in the United States, and her parents made efforts not to talk about the effects of the war. However, their loving parenting was affected by the trauma of the war that they had witnessed and experienced in ways they did not notice. Maria began EMDR therapy to address a recent traumatic incident that heightened a general feeling of anxiety and lack of safety that had been present in her chest for as long as she could remember. After reprocessing the recent event, the sensation in her chest still remained. Maria’s therapist asked her to focus on the feeling of anxiety and lack of safety in her chest and asked her if there was an image that represented the worst part. The EMDR therapist encouraged Maria to be curious and not to hold any judgment for whatever image her brain might connect to the sensation. Maria was surprised that her image was connected to the war in El Salvador even though she had not experienced it. Maria and her EMDR therapist used standard EMDR therapy to reprocess this representation of the war in Maria’s brain. Maria and her therapist continued EMDR reprocessing using sets of bilateral stimulation to address the thoughts, feelings, images, and body sensations connected with a war that was experienced by an earlier generation. After completing the reprocessing, Maria reported that the sensation of anxiety in her chest was not there anymore, and she felt relieved. Maria and her therapist were pleasantly surprised that Maria could use EMDR therapy to reprocess the impact of intergenerational trauma. Maria described this reprocessing as liberating her brain and body from some chains that she did not know she was carrying.
Intergenerational trauma is a profound and often overlooked aspect of mental health that affects countless individuals and communities. EMDR therapy offers a path toward healing intergenerational trauma by empowering people to break the cycle of suffering and reprocess their traumas so they do not pass it on to the following generations. Also, EMDR is a valuable approach to reprocess the inherited trauma from past generations to shape a better future for the next generations.
*Names and places were changed to protect client confidentiality.
Viviana Urdaneta Melo, MDiv, LCSW is an EMDRIA member, EMDR certified therapist and consultant. Urdaneta Melo has worked with survivors of trauma, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault for more than 12 years. She uses an intercultural and intentional approach around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has worked in different settings such as mental health agencies for domestic violence survivors, university health centers, and private practice. She is an immigrant from Colombia, South America, and practices in both English and Spanish. She works at the EMDR International Association as the chief of clinical affairs. Urdaneta Melo is committed to increasing awareness around the challenges, strengths, and opportunities of working with diverse populations and their intersection of identities.
Alter-Reid, K. (2023). Interrupting the Transmission of Trans-generational Trauma. Presented at the EMDR International Association conference. Arlington, VA.
American Psychological Association (APA). (2023). Intergenerational trauma. https://dictionary.apa.org/intergenerational-trauma
Nickerson, M. (2010). Undoing stigma: EMDR applications in the dismantling of socially based internalized oppression and prejudice: Theory, examples, and practicum. Presented at the EMDR International Association conference.
Lipscomb, A., & Ashley, W. (2021). A critical analysis of the utilization of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) psychotherapy with African American clients. Journal of Human Services: Training, Research, and Practice, 7(1). Open access: https://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/jhstrp/vol7/iss1/3
Zimmerman, R. (June 12, 2023). How does trauma spill from one generation to the next? www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/06/12/generational-trauma-passed-healing/
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