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This Boricua Psychologist Wants Latinas To Understand The Different Types Of Trauma

Dr. Lydiana Garcia is a bilingual and bicultural (Puerto Rican) licensed psychologist in Los Angeles. She is also the creator and founder of The Beyond Resilience Life podcast which focuses on overcoming trauma and life adversities in order to live a beyond resilient life. Follow her on Instagram @lydianagarcia.

The word trauma originates from the Greek and means “wound” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Although the term was used for only physical injuries, nowadays it is also used to refer to other injuries; such as emotional, psychological, spiritual, etc.

There are many definitions of trauma, but I really like Elaine Miller-Karas, LCSW (Miller-Karas, 2015) definition:

It is an individual’s perception of an event as threatening to oneself or others

Something considered traumatic for one person, may not be “traumatic” for another. This applies to family members, loved ones, friends and in the general population.

One important fact is that trauma happens in the body, as the body created a response to a perceived threat and responded to it.

Depending on how the body interprets the imminence of the threat, then the body either has a mobilized (for example: fight or flee) or immobilized (freeze) response. The trauma responses can happen for perceived threats to our physical safety, our personality or “self,” to our loved ones, what we care about, our beliefs and our dreams.

There are many reactions associated with experiencing trauma.

Some of the most common reactions are the repetitive recollection of the traumatic experience through dreams, thoughts, images and sensations as if the person were back in that time; avoiding consciously thinking about the trauma. Others react to trauma by going to places or spending time with people that remind them of what happened. The heightened sense of needing to be in alert for another possible similar situation (hypervigilance) is also common. And being easily startled, irritability, poor concentration, fear, difficulties falling and/or staying asleep are also common symptoms.

Some people experience a shift in perspective about themselves.

Amnesia, feeling numb, feeling out of the body, or as if the world is not real; depressive symptoms like sadness, hopelessness and some even experience suicidal ideations; interpersonal difficulties including having difficulties relating to others, not feeling close to people, fear of abandonment are also sentiments that people feel when they are dealing with trauma.

The literature on trauma has made reference to different types of trauma including “small-t,” “Large-T,” and “C-Trauma.” These refer to the events or situations that can result in trauma. “Large-T” refers to the typical events most people associate the word trauma with, for example: natural disasters, war-related violence, sexual assault, child abuse, car accidents, and near-death experiences. “Small-t” refers to events that the majority might not consider it traumatic, but the individual did. Some examples of “small-t” include medical procedures, ending a relationship, and moving. “C-Trauma” refers to cumulative trauma that can result from systemic oppression, racism, micro-aggressions, poverty, colonialism and other similar experiences. When someone has experienced several types of traumas, or for a long period of time, this can also be considered complex trauma. Another type of trauma that can be relevant to mention in developmental trauma; this refers to the traumas that happened in childhood and tend to have a significant impact in our attachments; our ability to relate to others and feel safe.

Generational trauma then refers to trauma that has been transmitted from generation to generation.

This refers to the recipients of this trauma, as the “inheritors.” Think of this as a kind of second-hand story that has been invisible, often unacknowledged, but detrimental to our ability to be whole.

Generational trauma can be passed down through our genes (epigenetics), in the womb (during pregnancy), and through psychological and social aspects. One of the ways it is transmitted epigenetically is when a child is raised in the same environment as their ancestors from generation to generation, triggering a reformation of the gene; therefore, creating epigenetic imprinting (Sullivan, 2013).

In your earliest biological form, as an unfertilized egg, you already shared a cellular environment with your mother and grandmother. When your grandmother was five months pregnant with your mother, the precursor cell of the egg you developed from was already present in your mother’s ovaries (Wolynn, 2016).

This means that what your grandmother and mother experienced during pregnancy can be passed down to you. Your inception can also be similarly traced in your paternal line.

The psychological aspects referenced previously refers to the effect trauma can have in an individual that can affect raising a child, not only behavioral but also in terms of psychological factors like emotion tolerance and management, relationships, and beliefs. For example, a mother that experienced complex trauma in her childhood; including her caregivers neglecting her needs and not offering physical affection, might be triggered by having a child on her own that is crying and needs to be changed or fed, and can react by becoming very overwhelmed and anxious about it or the opposite, repeat the pattern. 

The oppression and injustices that many minorities groups experienced can continue to impact the following generations.

For example, the racism that Latinx encountered when they immigrated to the US continues to be present. Some might argue that is less due to their children being able to speak perfect English and attend school in the US, but these children are still being considered different and are mocked and ridiculed regardless of their US citizenship. Their caregivers, in an attempt to protect them from these injustices, tend to also promote values of family unity as a way to keep them safe, being afraid of the police and authority, and not trusting friends or outside-of-the-family people. These factors and more contribute to the passage of trauma experience and reactions from generation to generation.

Many people learn about generational trauma and initially might be shocked about it, but also feel somewhat hopeless in regard to all the things that are out of their control and continue to impact their daily lives. However, others might use this knowledge as part of the beginning of their healing journey by increasing the awareness of their bodies, recognizing what is theirs and what can be a result of generational trauma. Seeking help to process unhealed wounds is another way to take actions to reduce the transmission of trauma to their families and communities. The question is which path will you take?

Works Cited

Baack, G. A. (2017). The Inheritors; Moving Forward from Generational Trauma. Berkley, CA: She Writes Press.

Miller-Karas, E. (2015). Building Resilience To Trauma; The Trauma and Community Resilience Models. New York: Routledge.

Online Etymology Dictionary. (2019, July 26). https://www.etymonline.com/word/trauma. Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com: https://www.etymonline.com/word/trauma

Sullivan, Shannon. Inheriting Racist Disparities in Health: Epigenetics and the

Transgenerational Effects of White Racism. Critical Philosophy of Race 1(2),

2013, pp. 190–218

Wolynn, M. (2016). It Didn’t Start With You; How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. New York, New York: Penguin Books.

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