The Indo-Caribbean Plight of Intergenerational Trauma
Written by: Jessica D. Maharaj, MA, LGPC, NCC
What is intergenerational trauma?
Intergenerational trauma occurs when one generation experiences an event that negatively impacts their sense of safety and wellbeing, which then impacts future generations. Trauma is not quite like the other traits we acquire from our parents. It doesn’t create visible similarities, but rather it leads to different ways of thinking and unique bodily sensations
Trauma lives in the body and can lead to genetic changes that are then passed down. One such trait is high blood pressure. Almost everyone has at least one nana, nani, ajee, or aja that is concerned about their pressure. When a person experiences a traumatic event, their body increases their blood pressure to push blood as rapidly as possible to all body parts. This ensures that each part is ready to fight off danger and that the person is ready to respond to a threat at any moment. This genetic alteration may have started in one generation after a traumatic event, became hereditary, and led to current prevalence of high blood pressure in the Indo-Caribbean community.
During a traumatic experience, a person has lost all control of themselves and their environment. When that experience has passed, the person is left with a resolve to never feel this helpless again. They try to keep everything in their control, even things it is impossible to control. Many of us might recognize this tendency in older generations. Even the smallest loss of control feels too similar to total loss of control, which can trigger anger or anxiety. These episodes might include extreme aggression, threats, yelling, or even violence. The person has a heightened response because it takes their body back to a time of fear and a need to protect themselves through controlling their surroundings. Living with a parent that engages this way can lead to one of two possibilities; one is that the child grows to engage in that same behaviour, and the other is the development of anxiety as the child grows to constantly worry about triggering the parent. These behaviours are then modelled to and passed down to the next generation and the next and so forth, until someone decides to break the cycle. Typical implications of trauma in a family include unresolved thoughts and feelings about the event that are not often communicated, substance usage, mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression, and complicated parent-child relationships.
How has intergenerational trauma impacted Indo-Caribbean culture?
What happens to a culture when all of its people experience a collective trauma, like indentured servitude? The intergenerational trauma infiltrates the culture for years to come, being passed down over and over, creating a culture even more prone to other traumatic experiences. Trauma becomes so normalized that it is hardly even recognized as a mental health concern. Signs that would typically be recognized as a trauma response in other cultures are something many Indo-Caribbeans are accustomed to. Many times, it’s the youngest generation or the generation that migrates to another culture that starts to notice that maybe this level of aggression might not be normal.
Substance use becomes extremely widespread in communities that collectively experienced trauma. Drinking alcohol has become so integrated into Indo-Caribbean culture, that almost every chutney tune references alcohol as a source of comfort and a part of daily life. It is no coincidence that many people impacted by intergenerational trauma and subsequent anxiety or depression find relief from their symptoms when they drink and that alcohol is such a staple in Indo-Caribbean culture. Alcohol chemically combats physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, mental distress, and most importantly, fearfulness. Intergenerational trauma leads to a sense of fear and alcohol tends to make people feel fearless. Self-medicating with alcohol has become one of the most common coping skills in Indo-Caribbeans communities.
The general sense of a lack of safety that a community is left with after a collective trauma can lead to a desire for control. To the traumatized individual, anything that cannot be controlled is perceived as a threat. Their reactions to a lack of control are sometimes disproportionate to the actual situation at hand, which can lead to stressful encounters for all involved. This shows up greatly in Indo-Caribbean parent-child relationships. Parents may seek to control their children, not for the sake of oppression, but for the sake of feeling at ease knowing that they are safe. Knowing what it is to be unsafe is a motivator for parents, but this is often miscommunicated because their trauma response leads them to engage in a way that feels threatening rather than protective, leading to parent-child conflict.
Where do we go from here?
If you experience anxious or depressive symptoms as a result of interactions with a loved one with unresolved trauma, understand where these behaviours come from and try to make meaning of it. It is easy to internalize it when a loved one lashes out at you, but remember that this is their trauma speaking to you through them. Your loved one still loves you, their traumatic episode will pass, and everything will reset. Stress is often less about the event itself and more about the meaning that you make of it. While you may not be able to resolve this person’s trauma for them, you can still make a healthy meaning of it for yourself by acknowledging that this is more about their need for control to feel safe than it is about you. When you approach the situation with understanding, your own potential for anxious and depressive reactions to their behaviour decreases.
If you see aggressive trauma-response behaviours in yourself, know that intergenerational trauma is not an excuse to hide behind. Take inventory of yourself and catch yourself in the act. Recognize that your trauma is taking over and make a plan. Identify your triggers, list what is within your control, and practice acceptance about the things that are not within your control. This is by no means an easy process. Self-improvement takes a tremendous amount of hard work and reflection. Some ways that you can do this is through journaling, using deep breathing or exercise to cope with physical symptoms, talking about your experiences with loved ones, and by seeking help from a mental health provider.
The hardest and most necessary thing we must do is start the conversations. Talking about emotions, mental health, and history with people impacted by trauma is especially challenging, but it is an essential step to breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
Our ancestors were very resilient to have gone through the trauma they endured. We may have inherited trauma responses, but we also inherited their resiliency. Their strength, their spirit, and their motivation to create a more prosperous life for their future generations were all handed down to us and created a culture that we can be proud of. Our history has some dark parts, but those parts also led to the light that we carry in us as Indo-Caribbeans.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, help is available. Consult with a primary care physician about referrals to mental health specialists. Browse self-help groups for alcoholism and substance use, including 12-Step programs, SMART recovery, and many others.
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