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Solutions for Strength: Generational Trauma Explained

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Perspective written by M. Jacqui Lambert

The Qargizine, Spring 2019 #9

Not a lot of people know that in the past, I have seen multiple mental health professionals for symptoms of both the Bipolar and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. The crazy part about the diagnoses was that I initially recognized the symptoms myself because of my past studies of psychology in college. I’ve always wondered what would have been different if my field of study wasn’t in psychology. What would have happened if I wasn’t learning some of the concepts in depth? How many people (who don’t study it) aren’t aware of their own symptoms? Is there an abnormally high rate of misdiagnoses and mistreatments hidden in the statistics about Natives? Can our people be accepting the (quick and) wrong diagnoses, resulting in going through the wrong treatments? 

I was one of those people for a couple years. I accepted the wrong treatments. I listened to the wrong answers. Even though I knew something was wrong, I believed them when they said only the medications will cure me. But I knew just enough to raise an eyebrow at the system and finally sought help outside of the Indian Health Services (IHS). I believed that there was more to do than to take any pills for the rest of my life. 

It was a long journey to first admit something was wrong and that I needed help. Then, to look for it—initially while I was living in Kotzebue, rural Alaska. Fortunately, it was in a hub town where the regional hospital is located. It would have been an even harder trek had I been in a surrounding village, for many reasons but one of them being the lack in simple access to the resources that were down the street from me in Kotzebue. 

I do not want to go into many specific details of my own story, because we all have our own ways of going down our healing journeys. But, there are concepts that I believe the general public should know as more common knowledge. Memorizing actions to take while in public emergencies should be balanced with remembering what to do in a personal emergency, too. We’re more often told how to help others in their mental health crisis or look for their warning signs, but we should also be taught how to recognize the state of our mental well-being, too. 

Please note that I am not a mental healthcare professional. I am providing this information to raise awareness on what I’ve learned while seeing them. If you or someone you know needs more information, please reach out to a professional. 

Three things to know about our mental health: 

#1 We can inherit trauma from the generations that came before us. 

Just as we can look, sound or act like our parents, we can also think, feel and cope like them, too. 

There were studies done before on lady lab rats where they sprayed a cherry blossom smell, then immediately shot the lady rat with a BB gun. There is a concept called Classical Conditioning, which means that after a while, all the lady rat had to do was smell the cherry blossom and she reacted to the feelings of being hit by a BB gun shell, even though they didn’t shoot her. She got anxiety, expecting the pain from the BB gun because she’s associated it with the smell of the cherry blossom. Her body went into Fight or Flight mode, the survival tactic in our brains to keep our bodies alive. 

Then, the lady rat had a baby. Guess what happened? Generational trauma showed up. Something we talk about a lot when it comes to Native issues. The baby of this lady rat smelled the cherry blossom and experienced the anxiety her mother went through. All without the use of a BB gun at all. She was reacting to the pain her mother experienced. She had no explanation for this anxiety. It was inherited because it wasn’t healed in the earlier generation. 

This is something we experience at the human level, as a result of the trauma our Ancestors and Elders experienced during the waves of missionaries and boarding school teachers. Many victims of this era did not learn how to heal the trauma, causing it to trickle into our generation through our genes. The unresolved wounds of the past can lead to substance abuse, violence and other community problems. This does not mean it has to stay like this forever. We can be the generation that heals the wound, which ultimately can mend the trauma of both the past and the future. 

The most important piece of advice I want people to remember is that we are not at fault for these issues we’ve inherited. Sometimes carrying full responsibility or accountability for our mental health can feel so heavy and we can feel like it’s only our fault, only our problem. The load is lighter to carry if we remember that the past plays a role, too. 

#2 There is a physiological reason for psychological symptoms

It does not come out of the blue. It is not a spiritual or moral curse. It is not just “all in our heads.”

There is a literal brain-to-body process to explain it! And let me remind you, everyone’s brain has the same foundational function. They vary amongst individuals for sure, just as our fingerprints do, but for the most part, a brain is a brain no matter the skin color. So, this is not just a Native discussion. This does not only apply to Natives. Non-Natives can also inherit trauma and experience a dysfunction in this brain process. 

What I mean by brain process is that there are different regions of our brain that control specific things, and there’s a communication link between three different areas that can help or hurt us, depending on the trauma we inherit or that we’ve experienced in our lifetime. The three different areas in this are the Brain Stem, Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex.

The brain stem is in the back and bottom, connecting with our spine. Think of it like our animal part of the brain, it helps to keep us alive by sending messages to our bodies (through the spinal cord). It’s our basic survival part of our brain, right in the back of our neck.

The amygdala is the region that controls memories and emotions. It’s more on the right side of our brains, closer to our ears. It’s like our brain’s souvenir box or yearbook, reminding us of different things when we smell, see, touch, taste or hear anything. 

The prefrontal cortex is kind of like the more human part of our brain. It controls our logic and reason. It’s in the front of our brain, basically in between our eyebrows. This part is very critical when it comes to making decisions. 

So, back to the lady lab rat study. It was the brain stem that smelled the cherry blossom and the amygdala remembered the BB gun. So, amygdala told the brain stem to tell the body to be ready for pain, to try to survive the BB gun shot. When the body reacts to the smell and remembers the hit, that’s the amygdala doing its job. And the brain stem is doing its job by making the body anxious for the shot. 

Normally, here’s where to prefrontal cortex steps in with all its logic and interrupts to tell the body, “It is okay! That was fear from a past event! This is a present moment, not attached to what happened back then.” and the brain stem says “Oh, okay!” to slow down and alleviate the fear in the body. It recognizes the present senses and re-associates.

This communication between the three regions explains why an old song can bring back vivid memories, why you remember elementary class when you smell the Mr. Sketch markers or why you remember not to touch a hot stove. It’s even why soldiers may react to loud noises back at home, because their brain is reminded of the war zone. This process is meant to protect you. It keeps you alive. It makes sure you’re okay. 

But when this process is linked to something traumatic (like the lady rat or a soldier), it becomes problematic and doesn’t work correctly. Your prefrontal cortex totally shuts down when the amygdala remembers something bad and doesn’t remind your brain stem that it’s okay. Which means your brain stem is not telling your body to calm down. Reason and logic go out the door because of the prefrontal cortex shutting down. This broken process is where bad habits and addictions may root. Our loss in reason or logic means that we cannot simply talk ourselves out of drinking, fighting, smoking, etc. until we restart our prefrontal cortex (I’ll explain in a bit). 

An example for how this applies to our communities is when the older generations were abused into speaking English in the past, many of them did not speak their Native languages even after returning home and having babies or grandkids. They may be too scared to speak or teach it because their prefrontal cortex is shut down; their amygdala remembers the abuse that is associated with speaking their Native language. The brain stem keeps telling the body to be prepared to be hit but our prefrontal cortex is not saying “It’s okay!” This can apply to other situations where abuse was used, too. 

This might seem random but this is where I want to mention our Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep cycle and why it’s important for this process. Our eyes rapidly move in all directions during this cycle which is the restarting process of our prefrontal cortex after each day. This means both sides of our brains are working at the same exact time together, rather than how it normally works during the day where the right brain controls the left body and vice versa. When a prefrontal cortex is shut down and causes the broken process, we’re not getting enough time in the restarting process (using both sides of the brain simultaneously, like during REM sleep). A symptom of experiencing trauma is the lack of REM sleep, which adds on to the stress that lingers after the traumatic event. 

But we can also restart the prefrontal cortext while awake by simply tapping back and forth between the sides of our bodies. For example, there is a process called Emotional Freedom Technique, or the Tapping Solution that’s proved to change our responses and reduce anxiety and restlessness. In aligns our mind and body connection. You can simply Google or YouTube this process. Or through professional help, you can receive something called the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. Eventually, the process won’t be broken anymore and life will change. Our logic and reason will be back and we’ll continue to heal. Then our REM sleep improves too which helps us to maintain mental health!

#3 We have something called the Window of Tolerance

It has to do with our highs and lows and it can play a big role in our addictions and habits. 

Imagine two horizontal lines that form a window, or hold your index finger and thumb straight out and see this window. Now, picture a line that follows your moods. Sometimes it’s higher, closer to the top when you’re doing great and in a good mood. Or there are times when you have a bad day and you’re feeling down. This line should stay within the window, but it can go up and down as it pleases. But sometimes, things happen that causes it to leave the window like a sudden death in the family can cause it to go out of the window on the bottom, making us severely depressed. Or, we can panic if we’re almost hit by a car, which makes the line go out of the window on the top. This is where anxiety roots, it is opposite of depression. 

When we experience traumatic events and suppress our emotions without healing ourselves, this window gets smaller! Imagine putting the horizontal lines or the index finger and thumb of the window closer together. That means it’s easier for the line to leave the window, resulting in anxiety or depression. So we’re stuck in those emotions for much longer, it’s harder to stay in the window because now a simple bad day can cause us to feel depression the same way we’d feel the loss of a loved one. It is when we seek help and nurture our wounds that we can help the Window of Tolerance get bigger again. 

We must now know how to recognize if we’re out of the window below it or above it. So, when we’re below and feeling depressed, that means our heart rate is low. We don’t want to do anything. Or, if we have substance abuse problems, we want to get higher somehow. To get back into the window, we need to get our heart racing again. This is why exercise is important when going through a hard time, too. We need to move around and get the line back to normal to rid ourselves of the depressing moods. But, if we’re keeping ourselves too busy and we’re moving ourselves around too much, we experience anxiety. Our heart rate is too high and we’re out of the window too much. This is when we need to settle down to enjoy a sunset, do some yoga, practice meditation or simply just rest to slow down our heart. 

The Window of Tolerance is connected to addictions because of this high and low dynamic. Some people smoke weed because they want to calm down and bring the line down from the top of the window, which brings us down to below the window. Some people get addicted to cocaine because the line is below the window when they’re not feeling great, so they want to bring it above the window. This is also applicable with other things like alcohol, meth, heroine, etc. That is why it’s important to widen this window if it’s small due to trauma. This is why it’s important to heal the wounds of the past, the things we go through now. 

Bonus: Help is out there for you. 

You can receive all types of professional help and there isn’t just one way of going through therapy. Here are some examples. 

I mentioned the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy earlier before. This has to do with helping your process improve by restarting your prefrontal cortex. Therapists get certified in this type of therapy and it’s becoming more accessible. It is especially suggested to go through when you experience symptoms of PTSD. 

There is also something called Sensorimotor Therapy. If you’ve been physically or sexually abused, this type is suggestion. It is a body-centered approach. Sometimes, going to therapy where you just talk with a professional isn’t enough because the trauma is within our bodies and how we carry ourselves. Within the moment of trauma (like with domestic abuse), the victim may not fight back and it becomes an unfulfilled response. These unfulfilled responses stay in your nervous system (brain to body communication) and can result in things like slouching, shaking, nervous tics, anxiety, depression, etc. Sensorimotor Therapy allows you to fulfill the responses in a safe space. 

Cognitive Behavior Therapy helps you change your patterns of thinking or behavior that may affect your day to day life. This could be helpful when it comes to verbal abuse and it causes negative self-talk. We never think we’re good enough because we’ve been told over and over before that we’re bad people. If we’re told something enough, we begin to believe it even if it may not be true. CBT changes our minds from being negative to being more positive. It takes a lot of practice and support. 

These are just a few examples amongst many types of therapies out there. There’s also Interpersonal Therapy (for relationships), Mindfulness-based Therapy (relapse prevention), Family Therapy, Group Therapy, and Psychodynamic Therapy (early childhood) for a couple other quick examples. You can even find therapists who help through texting or e-mailing these days!

If you are interested in learning more about receiving professional help, a great resource for local therapists is at That is where I found my help after deciding to look somewhere else other than the Indian Health Services. Google is a helpful source to look further into these therapies. 

Please take care of yourself before taking care of others. Try to be honest with yourself and don’t be afraid to call these professionals. They want to help you. 

And for those who live in rural Alaska, the first step to getting the limited help that is already available in or near your home is still a big, important step. As a Native community, we can push this conversation forward and start talking about more specific solutions. We do not have to accept the wrong diagnoses, treatments and answers. We are not a bad statistic. We are not the lack of resources. And just as our trauma can be inherited or passed down, so can our strengths. 

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of First Alaskans Magazine and was re-published with permission.

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