Oh Good – You Can Inherit Your Grandparents' Trauma, Even If You’ve Never Met Them

When you read about traumatic world events in history books, it can be difficult to relate to them in this day and age. Though tragedies such as the India and Pakistan partition of 1947 have been talked about in my own house as a south Asian woman, I’ve never really understood how its trauma can impact me even in 2024.

My grandparents had to move from India to Pakistan, leaving behind family in search of a better life — but with that came the feeling of displacement and anxiety of the unknown.

Though I wasn’t directly affected by that, their experiences and traumas have probably played a part in my own mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, according to an expert.

Dr Lalitaa Suglani, an award-winning psychologist and author who is releasing her book ‘High-Functioning Anxiety’ on May 28th, spoke to HuffPost UK about how certain events experienced by our previous generations, can impact us today.

“The trauma experienced by our grandparents, such as the Partition of 1947, can impact us through intergenerational trauma. This occurs when the effects of trauma are passed down from one generation to the next, influencing the mental, emotional, and even physical well-being of subsequent generations,” she explains.

This means that for example, the intense fear, loss, and displacement experienced by grandparents during the Partition could have been internalised and subsequently transmitted to their children and grandchildren.

What it could mean for our generation is a presence of anxiety, hypervigilance, depression and difficulties in forming secure attachments.

In fact, even the coping mechanisms and behaviours adopted by our grandparents to survive trauma may influence our family dynamics and interpersonal relationships.

Dr Lalitaa says: “For example, if our grandparents developed avoidant coping strategies or struggled to express emotions due to their traumatic experiences, these patterns may be mirrored in subsequent generations, impacting our ability to regulate emotions or form healthy attachments.”

She also says that the stories and memories of a traumatic event shared within the family can contribute to a collective sense of fear, grief, or unresolved trauma, which may be unconsciously passed down through generations.

“This can create a sense of cultural or familial identity rooted in the trauma, shaping our worldview and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Thus, the trauma of previous generations can deeply impact our psychological and emotional health, highlighting the importance of acknowledging and addressing intergenerational,” she added.

Anxiety can also be contagious and trauma can build within the family in different ways, according to Fiona Yassin, family psychotherapist, and founder and clinical director, at The Wave Clinic.

For example, growing up in a family filled with anxiety can make us naturally more wary of things.

Fiona says: “If you think about being parented by someone who says, ‘don’t walk on that because you might fall’, or ‘don’t eat that as you might choke’, the messaging that you take away is always don’t. And when we live under this injunction of don’t the world becomes a very scary place.

“This is what tends to happen with intergenerational trauma. We constantly experience this message of don’t or the world is scary within the family system, and it feels near impossible to shift.”

With this in mind, if your parents or grandparents experienced a war or lived through something traumatic, their systems will be on high alert, she says.

This ‘don’t’ will be their narrative which means they then carry a message that the world is a scary place, whilst also parenting from a protective place of super vigilance. And of course, this can really impact the decisions that young people make.

“We can clearly see that the things our grandparents have experienced not only carry on, but can directly impact two generations or more beneath them. This is one of the reasons that family therapy (as a unit) can be so beneficial.

“Ultimately healing the individual is just one part of a system that is the scaffolding holding up adverse mental health,” says Fiona.