Trans-generational Trauma: How trauma affects families, and not just the victims and survivors
23 May 2018

Trans-generational Trauma: How trauma affects families, and not just the victims and survivors

Trans-generational Trauma

By Joseph Gitau-IMLU Network Psychologist

Survival is the primary preoccupation of any living being and this demands the application of all the faculties, that is, abilities and capabilities for the ultimate purpose of the individual to hold on to dear life. Unity, stability and equilibrium in the functioning of the person are the critical benchmarks of integration and full self-regulation. Our minds are sensitive to all threats to that survival and will in the face of any perceived danger take necessary precautions to safeguard that existence, by means of what is known as either flight, freeze or fight response. Flight response refers to running away from the danger, freeze response to passive and total inaction and fight response to applying oneself to confront the danger with all the resources at one’s disposal, be they physical, emotional, mental, intellectual, social and spiritual or a combination of these abilities.

One however may at some point be overwhelmed by the danger or prevailing situation and undergo serious injury not only physically in the case of accident, brutality, violent encounter or even extreme rejection but also more critically emotionally and suffer serious damage to their mind. The wound in the mind is invisible to the naked eye but is not any less painful or debilitating. In fact, it can continue to fester for many years and surreptitiously influence the relationships with self and others, so that one may appear to be a different individual from his or her attitude prior to the incident. One then may harbour oppressive thoughts about the environment or oneself. In turn, these may precipitate depressive feelings such as irrational guilt, anxiety, fear, low self-esteem among others. The depressive feelings may predispose them to possessive beliefs about themselves, such as “I am hopeless, helpless, incapable, not good enough, ugly, weak among many others” and together perpetuate obsessive behaviour, such as “avoidance, overindulging, self-isolation and many others” to define their default mode of coping for survival. Negative coping mechanisms include abuse of drugs and substances such as alcohol, tobacco, various types of hard drugs, promiscuity and even over-spiritualizing of issues and engaging in religiosity.

Any and every incident or experience which seriously threatens that existence is recorded in the memory of the organism, stored in what is known as the reptilian or primitive brain located in the lower part of the spinal cord and will in future trigger automatic reaction of the individual in the event of encountering what may appear to be a similar situation. The reactions are not governed by rational evaluation but by the perceived need to escape or avoid real or imagined threat or danger. These reactions can be extremely disruptive if left to reign supreme because they can be subjective, irrational and at times completely misplaced and uncalled for in the eyes of other people. In other words, one manifests maladaptive behaviour, which departs from the norm and is in great need for rehabilitation, healing and reintegration in the society.

History is replete with innumerable acts of torture in many parts of the world up to this age and time, including in those countries, which are recognized to be the most advanced.  Many atrocities including displacements and genocide have been perpetrated in various parts of the world in the past even to this day. The latest such a case is that of the displacement and massacre of Rohingya people in Burma.Torture, defined as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, whether perpetrated by state agents or other actors is an abhorrent practice that must be stamped out of every civilized society.  It dehumanizes the victim by inflicting inconceivable pain without regard for the law and the inalienable rights of the victim.

According to the United Nations Convention against Torture: this is any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions.

Anybody who undergoes torture will recognize how cruel, that is, extremely painful to the point of death, totally lacking in humane considerations, terribly degrading or reducing one to a lower animal level. This is what some of our survivors of torture have undergone in the hands of fellow human beings, who are charged with the duty of protecting the rights of all the citizens. These perpetrators of torture are in effect wayward or loose law-enforcers, who happen to be placed in positions of authority, but rather than adhere to the laid down rules and procedures, they become instruments of inflicting senseless physical, emotional and psychological pain to the unfortunate victims, who for some reason or other pass through their hands. The law enforcers assume the roles of interrogator, prosecutor, judge and jury, all rolled in one to the exclusion of the full criminal justice system.

One of our roles as therapists is to rehabilitate such individuals psychologically so that they can resume their normal way of life, without the burden of trauma and related symptoms, which very radically impair the normal functioning of a person. Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event such as an accident, rape, torture or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotional turmoil and turbulence.
Common emotional reactions to traumatic stress for adults include: fear and anxiety; sadness and depression; anger and irritability; numbness, withdrawal, or disconnection; feeling a lack of involvement or enjoyment in favourite activities; feeling a sense of emptiness or hopelessness about the future.

Common physical reactions to traumatic stress manifest in sleep difficulties; gastrointestinal problems  -  (diarrhoea, cramps); stomach upset, nausea; elevated heart rate;  elevated blood pressure;  lowered blood sugar and with extended stress, suppression of immune system’s functioning, that is, Traumatic stress also evokes cognitive reactions, which include: difficulty concentrating, difficulty with memory; intrusive memories; recurring dreams or nightmares; questioning spiritual or religious beliefs; flashbacks…

Psycho-trauma - Emotions buried alive never die – (Joyce Meyer)
It manifests itself as follows:
Emotionally becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody; feeling fearful; feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control; having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind; finding it difficult to trust anyone;  feeling shamed; having difficulties to emotionally engage (emotional numbing); feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed;  avoiding others.

Physical signs of Psycho Trauma include: low energy; headaches; upset stomach, including diarrhoea, and nausea; aches, pains, and tense muscles; chest pains and rapid heartbeat; insomnia; frequent colds and infections; loss of sexual desire and/or ability; nervousness and shaking, ringing in the year; cold or sweaty hands and feet; dry mouth and difficulty swallowing ; clenched jaw and grinding teeth.

Cognitive manifestations of Psycho Trauma are: constant worrying; racing thoughts; forgetfulness and disorganization; inability to focus; poor judgment; being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side.

Behavioural manifestations of Psycho Trauma include: changes in appetite -either not eating or eating too much; procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities; increased use of alcohol, drugs, or tobacco; self-medicating especially with pain killers and sleeping pills; exhibiting more nervous behaviours, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing; risk taking behaviours

Spiritual manifestations of Psycho Trauma may take the following forms: being over religious; stop believing in any religion; spiritual questioning (where was God?)

The parents ate sour grapes. Will the children’s teeth be on edge? (Ezek. 18:2)
Loaded with the baggage of liabilities described above, after undergoing the harrowing pain of torture or other traumatic experience(s), parents, if not rehabilitated through psycho-social treatment, will relate among themselves and with their offspring in a similar manner as defined by their negative attitude. Children live what they learn. They learn by observation, imitation, role modelling and their behaviour is shaped by their experience at home and in the environs. Traumatized people will inflict pain and perpetrate acts that are traumatizing to those around them through their disproportionate and inappropriate reactions to what may appear threatening or distressing. To illustrate, let us cite one such a case:

A client who sought psycho-social support for the loss of her brother through extra judicial killing was also worried about her thirteen years old son being one of the other presenting issues. Her son had been under psychiatric and psychological treatment prior to the demise of the uncle and no lasting solution had been found.  The mother already separated from her alcoholic husband for some time, feared for her own life after her brother’s death and was worried about her teen-age son’s future. The son was normally extremely obedient and docile so that he appeared to have no will of his own. He did all his mother’s bidding and would not even defend himself if accosted by his peers in class or elsewhere. Other times he would become rebellious, belligerent and threaten both the mother and siblings. In this state he would refuse to go to school for weeks, stay in bed and would be demanding for his favourite foods.

In exploring the life of the family, the counsellor learned that the mother had been traumatized by her own parents. Her step father was an alcoholic and the mother used to punish her severely under whatever pretext, so that she was constantly victimised among her eight siblings. She joined a boarding secondary school away from Nairobi and did not want to go home for end of term school holidays during the entire period of four years on account of the cruelty she would have to endure through her mother and step-father. She got married almost immediately after completing school to escape the harsh realities at home.

The son, who underwent therapy,  narrated to the counsellor the ordeal he used to under-go of severe punishment perpetrated by both parents from the earliest he could remember. What he was manifesting, in the counsellor’s view and with support of his supervisor, was a state of dissociation in order to cope with the pain of maltreatment. Through co-therapy and application of hypnotherapy the supervisor and the counsellor were successful after twelve sessions in reintegrating the personality of the boy. He now manifested the normal behaviour for his age and did not need any further treatment. The mother was also assisted in dealing with the loss of her brother although her own childhood trauma could not be addressed.

Slave trade and thereafter.

Three hundred years of slave trade between 1500 and 1800 and subsequent colonization of Africa after the famous Berlin Conference are indisputable historical facts, which have serious implications for the mental health and well-being of the peoples of Africa. Fifteen million slaves were captured and sold far away from home and these were subjected to slave labour and all manner of torture so that they could submit and obey the orders of their new masters.
The young, energetic and productive age groups were the main target for enslavement. These left behind, the aged, feeble and less active segments of the population apart from perhaps the little children, who were of no interest to the traffickers of human beings. The effects of this nefarious trade were serious psycho-trauma to the entire population left behind and that in diaspora, so much so that the seemingly absolute subjugation of the African race was realized, albeit also through superior weapons of the gun and gunpowder.
Some of the highest cases of violent crimes are recorded in the predominantly African-American areas, where, aside from higher levels of poverty, discrimination, segregation and other social ills were rampant even after the ban of slave trade.

The entire Gikuyu population was either in detention or in the 800 village concentration camps or in the forest during the War of Liberation. Mandatory communal labour from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. followed by a six p.m. to six a.m. curfew with only one hour for food gathering was the punishment for revolting against the colonial authorities. This lasted between 1952 and 1960 with some relaxation after 1957. Fathers were either in detention or in the forest, while mothers and the children were subjected to the harsh treatment by the so called home-guards.  Those in the forest suffered greatly from hunger, threat from wild animals and bombardment from the air apart from the encounters with the military. Those in detention were subjected to untold torture so that they could relent and betray their cause by confessing and divulging important details about their hitherto associations with the Mau Mau.

Whilst it may appear far-fetched and unrelated to the average observer, some of the social ills of alcoholism, abuse of drugs and substances, violent crimes, particularly in the Mt. Kenya Region among other developments may have their root-causes in the traumatic experiences of the past. Research in this area could establish the linkages and the running thread through the beadwork and thus trace the origins of some of our present day family and ethnic conflicts.
A spiritual approach to providing appropriate interventions in such matters is known as healing the family tree. This tries to establish the origins of curses or traumas in the family and through prayer and spiritual rituals to breaks the cycle of repetitive pattern of behaviour afflicting the particular members of the successive generations.

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