Trauma is something that everyone has even if they may not realize it. Family trauma is trauma that affects an entire family unit, and is often discussed in conjunction with generational trauma or trauma that is passed through generations.
Whether the cause of the trauma is a one-time thing or a series of occurrences, trauma is often difficult to understand and defend against at the time. Family trauma can be especially difficult because though it affects a family unit, each individual may experience their trauma differently.
In this article we’ll discuss the ways in which you can process and heal family trauma.
What is trauma?
While there are many ways in which trauma is categorized, trauma is the result of a negative event or experience.
Trauma is an event or experience that causes significant psychological, physical, or emotional harm to the person (or people) experiencing it. It is typically something negative that happens too fast or too much for the brain to process it. Trauma can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to function or cope and may lead to lasting psychological or physical struggles.
Trauma can come in many different forms, but there are many things that are generally considered traumatic events. In their life, a person may experience a traumatic event such as:
- Abuse (physical, emotional, or financial)
- Physical or sexual assault
- Car accident
- Death of a loved one
- Physical injury
- Parental abandonment
- Witnessing a crime, accident, or death
Symptoms of trauma
While trauma affects all people differently there are some common reactions that a majority of people have to experiencing trauma.
Symptoms of trauma can include:
- Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks (intrusive memories): Intrusive thoughts or memories are unpleasant and unwanted thoughts and memories often triggered by something that reminds you of the traumatic experience.
- Hypervigilance and hyperarousal: Following a traumatic event it is natural to feel on-guard or hyper aware of your surroundings or the environment that you are in. You may also feel more on-edge or anxious as your body is more sensitive to potential danger and preparing to fight, flee, or freeze.
- Feeling unsafe: Traumatic events or experiences shatter the idea of the world being a safe place, as many occur suddenly and unexpectedly. They can make formerly safe spaces feel threatening and anxiety-producing.
How to heal from family trauma
Healing from trauma as a family can be especially difficult, as every individual experiences trauma differently, however there is always hope for recovery.
No matter who your family is, it probably has its secrets…or more likely unprocessed traumas that are now impacting multiple generations even if they are unacknowledged. Many family dynamics don’t give space for honest discussions about what members are feeling or what experiences have impacted their lives in significant negative ways.
It is easy to share the positive experiences that you are having with loved ones but much harder to be honest about any struggles you may be facing. However, avoiding certain topics, memories, or feelings doesn’t help anyone process them at all. In fact, avoiding such things can sometimes make their impact on your life worse.
While everyone’s process of healing trauma is different, there are several steps that you and your loved ones can take to process family trauma:
- Recognize and acknowledge the traumatic experience or event
- Acknowledge the feelings that come with that traumatic experience or event
- Seek proper support
Acknowledging and sitting with the emotions that come from experiencing trauma can be difficult and in family units, each member will probably come to acknowledge these emotions at different times.
It’s important that each individual processes trauma in their own way and at their own pace. That said, communicating and talking about the trauma can be an extremely positive experience as well, as long as everyone’s feelings are respected.
Processing your emotions
The first step in processing your emotions is identifying what you are feeling as you feel them without distracting yourself or pushing them away. You can either sit with your emotions, acknowledging them and letting them pass, or use methods such as journaling to work through them.
When you’re working on processing your emotions it is important to remember that emotions aren’t processed overnight. It can take time to become comfortable with sitting with your emotions or even understand the wide variety of emotions you may feel about the experience. Giving yourself and those around you time to process feelings is important for truly healing from trauma.
Seeking help and support can feel daunting, especially if you haven’t fully accepted the reality of what you’ve experienced. While it is possible to work through some emotions on your own if it feels too overwhelming or difficult it is important to reach out for help or support.
Having a support network of trustworthy family and friends can be really beneficial during this time and finding a professional counselor or therapist may be something to consider if you are really struggling.
No matter where you find help and support, being as honest as possible and giving yourself grace as you navigate this process is extremely important. Take your time and don’t let anyone (even yourself) make you feel like you should be healing at a faster rate than you are.
Wherever you are in your healing journey it’s important to take time for yourself to just relax. If you are able, find time to go on a walk or do something active that helps to get you out of your mind and into your body. Talk to people about everyday things and find ways to create a sense of normalcy even if you don’t feel “normal” quite yet.
Know that in time much of the pain you are feeling will diminish, even if it never goes away completely. This is not to say that there won’t still be trials and bad days or in any way saying that what you and your family experienced is something that can be forgotten. Letting go is not necessarily about letting go of the pain and more about letting go of the power that that pain can have on your life and the lives of your loved ones.