Yolanda Renteria
The Equity Issue

An Expert Tells All: Breaking the Cycle of Trauma

Trauma. The word itself evokes stark images of car accidents, assaults, natural disasters, terrorism—acute incidents stored in our bodies and our memories for a lifetime. This, however, is a limited understanding of the concept of trauma, what it means to be traumatized, and living with that trauma on a daily basis.

After two years of living in the midst of a pandemic, many of us have begun to understand that trauma can be ongoing, long-lasting, and perhaps not always identifiable as trauma while we're living it. A persistent trauma, such as systemic racism, can have disastrous effects on mental health that can even pass on to your children, which is known as intergenerational trauma.

To learn more about what is actually happening in the mind and body of someone facing significant ongoing trauma, we spoke to Yolanda Renteria, LPC, a psychotherapist and expert on the subject. Through her therapy practice, trauma workshops, and an Instagram that's over 170,000 followers strong, she's getting the word out about how to process trauma and break the cycles that can lead parents to pass their trauma on to the next generation.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Verywell Mind: Intergenerational trauma is a new concept for a lot of people. Could you explain how trauma is passed down from generation to generation, and how that plays out across generations?

Yolanda Renteria, LPC: The main purpose of our body is to keep us alive, right? Survival is the key thing for any human being. So we will adapt our bodies to survive the environment in which we're living. And based on those survival skills, we develop survival mechanisms—we will assess and see the world through those coping skills and coping mechanisms. 

So if we grow up in an environment that is unsafe or dangerous, our body will have a continuous threat response activated, and in turn, that will impact the way we parent, and it will impact the way we live. Because we cannot live attuned to the present moment and feel relaxed if we feel a threat.

Yolanda Renteria, LPC

I firmly believe we can't know what we haven't been taught or what we didn't learn consciously. So that's how things are passed down from one generation to the next—survival becomes a way of life, and those same patterns of behavior, ideas, and values are passed on.

— Yolanda Renteria, LPC

The other part is epigenetics. New research is showing that it's very likely that some of these survival skills are actually survival mechanisms passed down in our genetics. If I have a parent who lives in an environment that's, let's say, abusive, then in order to survive that environment, I need to be hypervigilant, right? Because that's the way that you're going to survive. That's the way that you're going to avoid a lot of pain. So then, my child is more likely to be born with that survival mechanism.

VW Mind: One thing that's been happening over the last two years is that people are getting a better understanding of what it means to be hypervigilant and have this kind of ongoing trauma.

Renteria: Our survival instincts are kicking in. When we think about people panicking at the beginning of the pandemic, we didn't really know what to do because there was no pattern for what to do. We just did what we could, and a lot of that meant just trying to ensure that we had what we needed.

The more that we're understanding the way that we function, we are seeing that human beings go way beyond just getting out of bed and going to work. A lot of people struggle with their mental health and they're still able to do those things. A lot of us didn't really realize how much we were struggling because we live in a society that considered what we were doing to be functional. You're OK because you have friends, you're going to school, you're going to work, right?

Now that we understand trauma as nervous system dysregulation and that internal sense of unsafety, we're learning to see things through a much different lens. We are asking more questions and we are noticing more things.

VW Mind: If you're stuck in that survival mode just adapting to the way things are, how do you overcome that? Whether you're a parent or not, how do you get to a place where you're not just surviving but you're thriving and connecting?

Renteria: I think there needs to be a lot of intentional learning, and there are so many ways and things to learn—that can be overwhelming. Maybe the first thing to practice is awareness, but you can't have awareness if you don't know there's something different. Maybe as a parent, you're used to yelling because that's the way you're used to seeing things. You're not going to be really aware that there is something different. So, intentional learning, and if people can access therapy, I'm always going to recommend that.

Let's say you want to be a better parent. I know that personally, reading books on parenting challenged how I was doing things, and so then I was able to notice as they were happening. And after that, I could be curious. So have some curiosity around Where did I learn this? What was the way that my family disciplined? What was the way I was redirected when I did something wrong? What was my intention, my own intention, when I was a child and did this? You know, that self-exploration.

Yolanda Renteria, LPC

I know that a lot of parents feel like parenting is very intuitive and you just automatically know what to do. But a lot of times we don't know that we are, in essence, repeating a parenting template of what we learned along the way, whether it was through our own parents or later on.

— Yolanda Renteria, LPC

VW Mind: What are some of the hardest things to overcome as a parent or as a person?

Renteria: When we have complex trauma, it tends to be developmental, which means a lot of things happened as our brain was developing. So if there was a lot of abuse or neglect, our brain was literally wired to worry for safety or for survival.

I also think that if that happens in combination with not having a good support system in the present, and not having enough resources, that also makes it harder. Because it's not only about the past, but connecting to what we have now.

The [other] single thing that I notice gets in the way of a lot of people improving is judgment. Because judgment blocks our ability to be curious. We can't be curious and open to exploring if we already determined something is never going to change.

VW Mind: How does racism come into play when talking about issues of intergenerational trauma? If you are faced with racism on a daily basis, how does that contribute to trauma?

Renteria: I think we don't talk enough about how the system perpetuates trauma, and when we think about trauma in the context of nervous system regulation, we can see the impact of it now.

For example, we see more people in the Black and Hispanic population incarcerated than White people who are committing crimes at a similar rate. It's not only about people actually going to prison, but what happens after. How does it disrupt a family, a community when people go to jail? It impacts their ability to reenter the workforce and it impacts the way people see them in their community, the way that they see their community. It shapes the opportunities that you can have and can influence also what you may believe your children are capable of doing.

VW Mind: It ties back to the survival of the body and the level of safety someone might feel just walking out the door or passing a police car.

Renteria: We internalize how people see us. It's that internalized message that you can't be trusted. And that's trauma. Because when those ideas start from an early age, then your entire life you're looking for ways to fit in and be trusted and to shape yourself in ways that make other people feel more comfortable.

VW Mind: What can we do to push back against the stigmas around mental health treatment, especially in certain communities where people are less likely to seek therapy?

Renteria: I actually feel very honored to have worked with a lot of people who are older. In my Latinx community, in the border community, in a farming community where a lot of the people are immigrants themselves, a lot of them didn't go until things got really bad. But then after that, they were really proud of going to their appointment and they would tell everyone who would listen and they would encourage other people to go.

Yolanda Renteria, LPC

But I do feel that we need to do better and spread the message that this is as normal as going to a doctor's appointment to get your physical health checked.

— Yolanda Renteria, LPC

When people have always used the skill of just powering their way through things, then that's the advice that you'll get. That's where that idea that if you can't do it on your own, then you're not strong enough comes from.

For a lot of people, there was no space to feel or there was not any space for them to talk about their emotions. And so a lot of people learn to shut their emotions down. Anything that's not working, just put it aside and move through. And you see it reflected in the way that they parent because somebody who's consistently telling you to get over things and that things are not a big deal probably does the same with themselves. But if you have that approach, then you cannot connect to other people, because the way we connect to others is through empathy and vulnerability.

You have to also consider that for some communities, like the Black community, there has been a lot of past trauma. There have been a lot of instances of distrust for the systems. BIPOC people are underrepresented in the mental health field. So most of the time you do have White therapists, and sometimes people have more difficulty connecting.

I think it's so important for therapists to talk about going to therapy and normalizing therapy for themselves. I also think it's the environment, the family environment, and your community, how they see it. I feel like that's changing because I see more and more in the younger generations, they're just feeling more comfortable saying that they go to therapy.

What I love about [social media] is that we're able to have discussions about things that we're experiencing, but we never really talked about it because we didn't know that others experienced the same things or that you could even feel different.

I think back to how many people just live with a lot of mental health problems, but they went unaddressed because the idea before is that you just had to push through them. I do feel like a lot of previous generations were really numb and were really dysregulated. So a lot of that parenting that you saw about controlling children or yelling, a lot of discipline, you know, it was a lot of body dysregulation, a lot of impatience with children.

Yolanda Renteria, LPC

And I believe wholeheartedly that we're seeing a shift in that because now they're gaining more awareness of what is happening and how to do things differently.

— Yolanda Renteria, LPC

VW Mind: The social media component is pretty interesting. Obviously, there are a lot of things with social media that are not so positive, but we've seen—on TikTok especially—a lot of these mental health accounts that really connect with people. Other generations didn't have this easy way to connect anonymously with other people.

Renteria: I think we're going through a generational shift when it comes to mental health. I think we're going to get a lot of things wrong in terms of delivery, or how we talk about things or who's talking about it, right? But I also see this shift where people are more vulnerable. They're talking about their emotions more, they're talking about their internal experience more.

But anything that's too much on one side is going to create problems. So if you have people constantly concerned with their mental health, that could create problems because you're not living. You're not noticing the good things that are happening. But then if you're on the other extreme, where you're never talking about that, you're always shutting that down...we've seen the problems that creates.

I'm hoping that eventually, things start balancing out. The thing that makes me more hopeful is that at least we're talking about it, and we're encouraging people to go get help or go talk to someone or seek a support group. Then that at least gets them somewhere where they can actually talk more about what is impacting them personally.

VW Mind: Outside of therapy, what are some self-care tips that you regularly give to people, either as a friend or therapist? Easy things that people can do on a daily basis, whether they're struggling with trauma, anxiety, or other mental health issues. And what things do you do for your own self-care?

Renteria:  For myself, I try to engage in activities that I enjoy and push myself to do those activities. A lot of the time, we are so used to working, especially living in a capitalist society, where work is something that we're told is our worth, and our value lies in our ability to produce. I think it's super important to be mindful of just pausing, and so I try to do that a lot.

I try to pause, I try to assess, I try to also see what are the things that make me feel rested. I love looking at social media, but I noticed that even though I wasn't technically producing or doing any work, my brain was still active. So I try to engage in activities where my brain is not active and get very intentional about rest.

Honestly, my favorite thing to tell people is to be more connected to the moment and enjoy, play, have fun. Yes, it's important to look at ways to improve the areas in our life that will make us eventually feel better about ourselves. But then there's also a whole lot of things happening in the moment that are also fun. I think it's so important.

I ask people to connect with nature, try to be really present when you're connecting with nature. Socialize, we're social beings. We're built for connection. I talk about balance. Finding that balance of connecting with other people and just talking and being present in the moment, laughing a lot, and having fun.

By Andria Park Huynh
Andria is the senior editor at Verywell Mind, where she helps manage new content production and shape editorial strategy to deliver the highest quality evergreen mental health content in the category.