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Intergenerational trauma and its relevance for Personal Injury work

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Intergenerational trauma and its relevance for Personal Injury work

Imagine being raised by someone who has experienced a trauma that changed their life so significantly – possibly without them even being aware – that their whole mindset was affected by this event or series of events.

That parent became wary of certain people; they felt they had to fight for everything they needed; they felt misunderstood by those they spoke to; they were desperate for people to reassure them that “it’ll be ok in the end”.

And every conversation reflected these negative beliefs, leaving them feeling constantly anxious, stressed and angry, with behaviours that were consistent with those feelings.

In addition, their body was physically keeping the score of the distress. As well as feeling physical tension, with adrenal glands producing cortisol and the amygdala inducing panic, their genes were passing on physiological and neurological trauma expressions to their offspring: your client. Your Personal Injury client, who also now has their own injury trauma to navigate.

The mind-body connect at play yet again, with a genetic spin.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests prenatal exposure to socio-political traumas – such as wars, famines, discrimination – has negative impacts on the offspring’s future life: anxiety, disease risk, low self-esteem, respectively (for examples, Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018). There is support for the idea that parental (and even grandparents’) trauma can be passed down generationally.

To unpick what might be going on, let’s first describe what we mean by trauma.


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Regardless of who is instructing, our treating Psychotherapy Clinicians and Specialist Case Managers are specifically trained to understand the legal journey and the commitment to the client’s rehabilitation.

Our Director and Founder, who is also a Clinical Psychologist and an Advanced BABICM Case Manager, balances a unique service that ensures any treatment work we do for our clients is effectively communicated to the Referrer and legal teams in a proactive manner to ensure the best evidence is available to maximise rehabilitation outcomes and achieve a fair settlement.

Find out more about Psychworks Associates


Types of trauma

Trauma is typically defined as an emotional response to a tragic event that someone has directly experienced – for example, an accident, abuse, natural disaster or tragedy in their environment. Long-term or complex trauma is characterised by flashbacks, emotional dysregulation, and physical symptoms like headaches and weakened immune symptoms.

The theory of Intergenerational Trauma purports that trauma can also be inherited by altering the subject’s DNA in some way. The trauma-induced genetic changes do not damage the gene, but alter how it functions. Also known as epigenetics, in short, the theory asserts that one does not have to directly experience trauma to be affected by it.

In addition to epigenetic changes and other physiological impacts of trauma, it is known that the transmission of trauma across generations is liable to be influenced by cultural, psychological, or socioeconomic factors, as found by Costa et al (2018). One way to understand this idea is that acknowledge that people whose parents experienced trauma are more likely to grow up with a caregiver who is unstable, emotionally unavailable or anxious. In turn, these parenting styles may also contribute to the trauma that is passed down to another generation.

What does Intergenerational Trauma mean for Personal injury clients?

As Personal Injury professionals, we know and talk a lot about injury trauma being part of a client’s post-injury experience. It is a psychological process that colours how the client relates to their litigation journey, their rehabilitation, their care and their belief in goal achievement.

But, as with the vignette that opened this blog, there is another perspective of trauma that could be taken into consideration when working with injury clients: the intergenerational trauma transmitted from previous generations to the client themselves. It is possible that the experience of the injury compounds the inherited traumas, through psychosocial influences and epigenetics.

The influence of Intergenerational Trauma is of particular interest to us at PsychWorks Associates because our clients are typically living within family contexts. The psychosocial factors and epigenetics shared by these generations perpetuate the client’s experiences of trauma and distress, potentially making rehabilitation and care approaches less effective. Ford et al (2015) interestingly suggested that due to the cumulative effects of historical and present-day stigma and discrimination, our minority (EDI) clients are more vulnerable to severe trauma symptoms. This can negatively affect engagement with the professional teams around them.

Trauma-informed support, when done correctly, takes into account prenatal as well as current traumatic events. This is a crucial step towards understanding clients’ (and even their family members’) potentially challenging reactions to what might seem like standard models of rehabilitation and care. There is therefore a need for practitioners to become better informed about the socio-political experiences which can influence current and ongoing trauma.

We need to ask ourselves – and our colleagues – is our client really ‘difficult’… or are they simply bearing the uninvited burden of current and past traumas within their psychological and genetic make-up?

This blog was produced by Dr Shabnam Berry-Khan, Managing Director of PsychWorks Associates, a Case Management and Treating Psychology service for people with serious and catastrophic injuries, including those from diverse backgrounds.

About PsychWorks Associates

PsychWorks Associates was born from over 10 years of experience working in Personal Injury with a wide range of clients and client needs. Understanding the role of trauma and other psychological processes in the work we do – including with our diverse clients – informs our case management as much as our psychology work. Equally, our Treating Psychologists specialise in medico-legal cases and are uniquely placed to apply their highly-trained skills within the litigation context. Our aim is to provide culturally-sensitive, cost-effective, proactive and transparent input to your clients’ rehabilitation, maximising quality of life and settlement outcomes.

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