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Systemic trauma and hereditary impacts

One of the big things we look for in family system dynamics is the impact of trauma, not just on the individual in the counselling room, but on the family in general. Like pieces of a puzzle coming together, sometimes we have an opportunity to see how a client’s depression or anxiety may result from the confluence of a number of confounding variables, including personal internal (often invisible or unconscious) conflicts between the client’s own lived experiences and inherited family values intended to keep the family unit together and, in theory, protected.

Values around protecting family secrets, especially those rooted in perceptions of shame around an old suicide, history of mental health issues or substance abuse, or sexual traumas (for example) sometimes become internalized in the system as a value for secrecy or simply not discussing difficult subjects. These values in turn get handed down to subsequent generations who then learn that not only are they not to talk about difficult subjects, but that difficult emotional expressions are not tolerable within the family system; children growing up within family systems organized around the value of “keeping the peace”, for instance, often have limited effective skills for handling conflict, as one example of a hereditary outcome to a previous generation’s trauma.

This article provides a simple overview and opening discussion around such issues, from an interesting scientific standpoint of how the brain chemistry may actually be modified by trauma in ways that also potentially transmit from one generation to another. This certainly opens up the discussion of whether depression as a hereditary predisposition is due to being a learned behaviour or a genetic one, or (as my own suspicion has long been) a combination of both kinds of factors.

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