In 1966, Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff began a study to examine the high rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress that had been observed in the children of Holocaust survivors. In 1998, researcher Irit Felsen named this phenomenon “Survivor Syndrome.” The symptoms shown in this unique population included unresolved mourning, agitation, insomnia, nightmares and more.
This study introduced the idea of generational trauma, or grappling with trauma one has never personally experienced. As was exemplified by the children of Holocaust survivors, those whose ancestors had experienced a massive trauma still felt the effects for generations to come. It was a harrowing idea, to say the least, that along with your brown eyes or your dark curly hair, your child could also exhibit an inherent reaction to all the trauma you’ve been exposed to.
The past few years have yielded an unfortunate chain of events, with dire consequences. A common sentiment I’ve been hearing among today’s youth is that people are tired of living through major historical events. Living through a pandemic with variant after variant and having to uproot our whole lives, all in the midst of international conflicts, wars and poverty and even losing loved ones is difficult. Undoubtedly, these large, world-changing events have shaped a portion of who we are in the present day, but arguably, our responses to these events have been caused by circumstances even more uncontrollable than those we have lived through: our genetic response to trauma.
Responses and attitudes towards these events have caused our society to be more polarized than ever before. In a country where a vaccine for a disease has been sensationalized into a political statement, or the very existence of racial injustice is now debated, it seems that for each attitude that one person has to these events, there are 100 opposing viewpoints. This polarization has even precipitated violence, such as the riots attacking the U.S. Capitol in 2021. But, examining the reactions to events like these has shown that while historical events may seem unique to us in the present day, the behaviors we exhibit in coping with them is, I believe, a direct result of the actions of our ancestors. In a wider lens, the trauma and behaviors that have been passed down through generations have helped explain many of the actions and, thus, opposing ideologies that have split us as a country.
One of the most relevant examples of this can be seen in the prevalence of generational trauma in Black Americans today. Having endured hundreds of years of violence, racism and unending abuse, they have become uniquely susceptible to survivor syndrome. While many have striven to invalidate the idea of racial prejudice being alive in what we would call a modern society, the massive toll of generational trauma on such a population is not one that can be easily overlooked. From simple emotions such as stress and anxiety, generational trauma cements itself into a person’s inherent function, putting them into a constant reactive state where the microglia in their brain damage their nerve endings. Generational trauma then causes irreversible genetic damage that is once again passed down further. In the Black community, generational trauma has particularly presented itself through behaviors such as learned helplessness, in which a person is naturally inclined to perceive that they are no longer able to change the state of their present circumstances, and even fatigue that accompanies decades of enduring racial discrimination.
Simply put, there are otherwise unexplainable behaviors that many of us exhibit that are a product of the suffering and hardships that our ancestors endured. We are all living relics of every historical event in society, a manifestation of the experiences that have resulted in us being here today. With this burden come behaviors that are naturally programmed inside of us, but we have the ability to decide how we utilize this trauma.
If we were only a product of the trauma our parents and their parents suffered, we would be doomed to history continually repeating itself. While the notion of survivor syndrome poses an explanation for many of the behaviors of the different demographics that make up our communities, and thus result in the polarized environment in which we live, we have the power to undo that. With students from all 50 states and 122 countries, and a variety of different cultures and backgrounds represented here at the University of Michigan, our campus contains an extremely diverse demographic that inevitably also means a wide variety of traumas and upheavals of the ancestors before us. To create a safe space for the discussion and circulation of ideas, we have to overcome the building blocks of emotions that have been previously set for us.
Sreelakshmi Panicker is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.