How Do We Inherit Intergenerational Stress?

WellNest co-founder and psychotherapist Zainib Abdullah discusses the cycle of stress inherited by generations and practices to gain awareness and begin healing from its impact.

When we talk about “stress”, we often frame it as a situational or short-term experience.

“I’m stressed out right now” or “I’ve been feeling really stressed lately” are phrases we use to express feelings of anxiety, tension, and worry.

But what if stress isn’t just a short-term, transient, individual experience?

What if the stress we experience is a remnant of what our parents and grandparents experienced before us?

Our Stress Impacts Future Generations

Let's consider the idea that stress carried throughout our history is passed on to future generations.

If you find that idea a little overwhelming, you are not alone. Maybe you are also feeling sense of relief to know that some of the emotional difficulties we encounter have their roots in the experiences of our resilient ancestors.

After all, we are carrying the stress of our ancestors, while living during our own stressful, historic times as the world comes to grips with its sordid reality of racial oppression, as well as a global pandemic. 

In sharing these facts, my intention is not to add more stress to your life but to share some learning about our stress system, it’s intergenerational history and adaptiveness, as well as ways of coping with it.

By focusing on our healing and getting to know our systems, we can collectively aim towards caring for ourselves and loved ones.

Furthermore, we put ourselves in a better position to sustain our resilience as we focus on fighting against systemic and racial injustice.

The Intergenerational History Of Our Stress

While our stressors can feel personal and unique, in many cases, they can be traced back through generations.

Research in the area of intergenerational stress or transgenerational trauma is relatively new, and was conceptualized when researchers began to study the children and grandchildren of those who survived the Holocaust.

One study in particular found that descendants of survivors exhibited changes in stress hormones levels, suggesting a change in their genetic makeup.

This may mean that even before children are born, they can be affected by stressful experiences their parents and grandparents have lived through.

Racial Stress And Intergenerational Trauma

A lifetime of experiencing race-based stress has intergenerational effects. Indigenous and Black communities have been particularly affected by intergenerational trauma due to race-based stress.

Historical racial trauma- which are the collective psychological wounds that stem from historically traumatic events such as slavery, genocide, or colonialism- has effects that are passed down from one generation to another.

Intergenerational trauma is a collection of deep and distressing experiences that occur within and across generations.

Stress As Survival

The experience of stress is based on survival. To survive, we must experience some degree of stress in order to remain actively aware of threats and to deal with them.

Furthermore, as social beings, we want our loved ones to survive along with us. So, we teach our children the same skills we learned in order to survive.

Stress may be passed on biologically and genetically. In others, these experiences can be taught, even subconsciously.  

For some, the concept of survival is simple. For others, survival is an everyday struggle. In the end, that’s what stress is all about.

But how exactly is stress helpful for our survival?

Why Do We Experience Stress In The First Place?

Yes, stress sucks. Being stressed out is not a fun experience. But why do we stress out in the first place?

It turns out that in certain situations, stress can be beneficial to us. By helping our bodies channel resources to tackle specific problems at hand, stress allows us to become aware of our environment.

Way Back When...

Stress was an important factor that allowed early humans living in hunter-gatherer groups to survive.

Today, when we are faced with particularly stressful events, such as a threat to our safety, we still need our body to react in a way that will ensure our survival.

When we begin to experience constant stress, either through patterns of intergenerational stress or continued stress resulting from racism & racial oppression, colonialism, living in capitalist systems, homophobia and religious xenophobia, that’s when we could encounter and overworked stress systems that leads to emotional and mental health difficulties.

Stress And Our Nervous System

So what exactly is happening in our bodies when we experience stress?

Our nervous system is responsible for coordinating our responses to stressful situations. It has various components that each play a different role in the stress response.

The autonomic nervous system is a key player in our body’s physical response to stress, and can be further divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

In times of stress, the SNS allows us to experience the “fight-flight-freeze” response.

Your brain and body work very quickly to manage the threat, actively redirecting  resources away from anything else you may doing at the moment when you encounter a stressful event.

Once the threat is over, the body should return to its baseline, un-stressed state. 

While these bodily changes can be very useful to deal with acute stressors we encounter in our environment, when they are activated in situations that may not be an immediate threat to our survival (eg. public speaking) they can take a toll on the body.

If our bodies learn through intergenerational stress and trauma to always be on guard in order to survive – this can actually interfere with our physical and mental health.

We’ve talked a bit about this before on this blog but to sum it up: continuous stress can lead to Type II diabetes, heart problems, respiratory disorders, immune system dysfunction.

The Window of Tolerance- Our Roadmap to the Nervous System

Like all things, our response to stress needs to be regulated and balanced. 

The best way to understand to visualize this is with the Window of Tolerance. In this “window”, you are able to react to everyday stressors in a manner that is healthy and functional.

This doesn’t mean you don’t experience stress – you do, but you’re able to deal with it without letting it overwhelm you. You can reflect, think rationally and make decisions when you’re in this window, even though you are stressed.

However sometimes, you may find yourself outside of this “window”.

In one case, increased stress may cause you to experience hyper-arousal, where you feel anxious, angry, and overwhelmed. Your body experiences a “fight or flight” response.

On the flip side, increased stress may cause you to experience hypo-arousal, where you feel spaced out, frozen, or numb. Your body experiences a “freeze” response.

When you feel safe, secure and that your needs are being met, it’s easier to remain in the window. When we go through continuous stress and traumatic events, there is a chance that our window of tolerance will shrink.

A smaller window means that we are more susceptible to maladaptive responses to stress. The goal is to build a larger window, so that we’re able to manage our stress without extreme responses.

Window of Tolerance

Dealing With Stress Mindfully- The Window Of Tolerance

Now that you’ve been presented with the history and science behind our nervous systems and its function, let us turn our attention to how we can put this learning to practice as we begin to experientially get to our nervous systems. 

Let’s focus on the Window of Tolerance.

When we’re faced with multiple stressful events, it is understandable that we learn to navigate the world with our guard up.

While it is beneficial from a survival standpoint and often necessary when the systems (micro and macro) we live in are oppressive, functioning in a way that is outside of our Window of Tolerance can be exhausting. 

This exhaustion may in turn make it more difficult to establish the change we want to see around within and around us.

The good news is that your window of tolerance is flexible. It varies everyday, every hour, depending on how you are feeling and what stressors you may be facing.

Recognizing your emotions, whatever they may be, in relation to the stressor at hand is the first step in managing your stress. 

Getting to Know Your Window

Acknowledging/ Cultivating Curiosity

A common practice to start is slowly building awareness of your system by making a practice our of asking yourself:

  1. Where am I in the window of tolerance right now?
  2. What am I feeling right now? (revved up, angry, anxious, hungry, cold, sad, joyful, happy, spacey, sluggish, etc. )
  3. What sensations am I experiencing? (tightness, lightness, buzzing, movement in x part of body, numbness, etc)
  4. What is pace of thoughts, my speech, my movement?

Remember this is a consistent practice, and one that no only helps you get to know yourself and your system, but also regulate it with compassion.

Yes! It’s a practice of self-compassion to be checking in with yourself in this way.

Validate

To continue your practice of compassion, see if your practice of acknowledgment where you are in the window can extend to allowing your response and validating its survival and historical purpose.

Regulating using Wisdom of Our Bodies

Once we’ve practiced acknowledging & checking in with ourselves we can move to regulating our system.

Ask yourself, what do I need right now? What does my body need right now? How can I help my body feel safe and work towards coming back to my window?

Moving Towards Or In Hyper-arousal

If you find yourself moving towards hyper-arousal you can practice some of the tips below:

  1. Paced breathing or box breathing
  2. Coordinate your breath with movement to slow down (i.e. inhale –count of four- while raising arms overhead, finish/coordinate breath with movement, completing movement with breath)
  3. Walking barefoot on the grass
  4. Name 5 things you can sense (smell, taste, hear, feel and see)
  5. Turn technology devices off and shut down stimuli
  6. Progressive muscle relaxation
  7. Use ice-check out our post on Dive Response

Moving towards or in Hypo-arousal

  1. Engage in movement, start with slow and simple stretch
  2. Use Tapping Technique
  3. Cold water
  4. Follow this 3 minute Yoga Sun Salutation Sequence of Mindful Movement:

Then check in with yourself again, where am I in the window now?

Holistic Supports

Understanding our stress responses and learning how to soothe them is one of the ways of healing through the wisdom of our bodies. 

As social beings this often needs to be supplemented with support from communities and ancestral practices to facilitate deeper healing from the stressful and traumatic histories we carry.

We also need spaces that reflect our identities and reassure us of that safety. 

This may look like:

  • Finding groups of people that carry this history
  • Learning and engaging in practices collectively
  • Visiting healing spaces that are anti-racist and anti-colonial which reflect your various identities and honour your history. 

Below is a non-exhaustive list of supports in the Greater Toronto area for anyone who needs it. We would love to hear about resources that have been helpful for  you to add to the list! 

Private Supports

Public and Community Support

Books 

  • Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma- Gail Parker
  • The Body Keeps The Score- Bessel van der Kolk
  • It Didn’t Start with You- Mark Wolynn 
  • The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing- Anneliese A. Singh
  • Judith Herman- Trauma and Recovery

Wrapping up....

As we continue the practice of getting to know our history and the imprints of intergenerational stress on our nervous systems, we can appreciate the power and resilience of our ancestors.

How will you apply the learnings from this post? We would love to know which of the regulating techniques worked for you!

We can honour this by cultivating compassion for ourselves and the ways in which our bodies work so hard to keep us surviving and thriving thus far.

Sending meditations of compassion and healing to you.

Zainib

Zainib Abdullah is the co-founder and a psychotherapist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. Her approach to healing incorporates various therapeutic modalities. She works from a client-centred, anti-racist/oppressive/colonial & trauma-informed framework. As a yoga teacher and student in the lineage of Classical Yoga, she further incorporates mindfulness based therapies to support clients in accessing greater connectedness to their inner wisdom and peace.