Intergenerational Trauma in AAPI Communities

Asian American mother and daughter having a conversation about intergenerational trauma

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What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma refers to trauma that is passed from generation to generation. It is a common phenomenon among the AAPI population. According to Molly Wang, an LPC-S with Thriveworks, it “can show up within a family as well as within a larger community that shares an identity.” 

Intergenerational trauma happens as a result of adverse experiences that pose a threat to survival, such as genocide, racism, and sexual abuse. These experiences, known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), increase the risk of mental illness, physical health complaints, and early death.

Intergenerational trauma can also be transmitted to younger generations from immigrants, forced migrants, and refugees who experienced traumatic stress, acculturation stress, resettlement stress, and isolation.

How Intergenerational Trauma Shows Up in the AAPI Community

Intergenerational trauma can manifest similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals with PTSD may exhibit mood dysregulations, hypervigilance, and impairments in quality of life. Intrusive thoughts or nightmares related to traumatic events may also occur. It is important to note that in the case of intergenerational trauma, one can experience its effects even if they themselves did not directly undergo trauma.   

This is due to what scientists refer to as the freeze, fight, flight, fright concept. Evolutionarily, humans are hardwired to respond to danger and protect themselves from risk. However, when this response becomes over-triggered—as when sexual abuse, brutal or sudden death of a loved one, or serious physical injury occurs—brain chemistry changes to remain constantly “alert.” This results in alterations to one’s DNA, which then gets passed down to subsequent generations. Studies have shown a strong heritability of PTSD from parent to offspring.

Angela Wu, a Taiwanese American LMFT, weighs in on how intergenerational trauma can appear within AAPI communities. “Not having the privilege of emotional and psychological well-being puts individuals out of touch with their emotions,” says Wu. “I see a lot of second-generation Asian Americans struggling to identify and express their feelings because emotions were something that was not talked about in their household. When we are not able to identify, understand, or even reject how we are feeling, we lose a huge part of what makes us human.” 

Angela Wu, LMFT

I see a lot of second-generation Asian Americans struggling to identify and express their feelings because emotions were something that was not talked about in their household. When we are not able to identify, understand, or even reject how we are feeling, we lose a huge part of what makes us human.

— Angela Wu, LMFT

Wu also says that intergenerational trauma can perpetuate the "model minority" stereotype. 

The model minority myth was initially proposed by a White sociologist, William Peterson, in 1966, to suggest that Japanese Americans were to be praised for their ability to gain success and capital in America.

This myth is not only problematic in instilling stereotypes, but also reflects a general lack of cultural awareness and is a prime example of societal systemic racism. It drove a racial wedge between Asians and Black/Latinx folks, with White people in power letting Asians know they could be accepted and allowed closer proximity to whiteness (but never equal) if they were "model citizens." Many Asians wanting to be closer to whiteness/"safer" further distanced from their BIPOC brothers and sisters in the process.

“Our parents, who have endured hardship, knew that to be successful, they had to work harder than the average ‘American.' Asians have also developed a trauma response called the ‘fawn response’ where individuals learn to ‘please and appease’ the abuser."

In being subjected to and immersed in abusive power structures stemming from White supremacy, many Asians adopted trauma responses such as fight, flight, freeze, and appease to survive.

"In order to be 'successful,' Asians have learned to be ‘model’ citizens," says Wu. "This included shutting away parts of their identities that were not deemed acceptable–the ‘otherness’ that made them targets of discrimination. This caused many Asian Americans to reject their own culture, language, food, names, community, etc.”

AAPI’s disproportionate utilization of mental health services makes it difficult to discern prevalence rates of mental illnesses among their communities. However, a 2019 study on Pacific Islanders showed that the instances of generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, and alcohol use disorder were 12%, 21%, and 22%, respectively. Among the general U.S. population, these same disorders occurred at 2.7%, 6.8%, and 3.1%.

Intergenerational trauma may also show up through physical diseases. One study found that Cambodian genocide refugees were more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes as a result of food insecurity and malnutrition earlier in life. Those with Type 2 diabetes had poorer blood sugar control, but the issue was resolved once underlying trauma was addressed.

Why Intergenerational Trauma Is Prevalent in the AAPI Community

Subgroups within the AAPI community have been subject to various atrocities throughout history. For instance, Japanese American internment camps, the Cambodian genocide, Partition of India, trauma of colonialism and martial law regime in the Philippines, the Nanjing Massacre in China, and the Vietnam War have resulted in large-scale death, violence, famine, rape, and geographical displacement.

Though most of these events occurred in the past, their impact and effects are still palpable by those who underwent them. These individuals, in turn, may pass down their anger, anxieties, emotional stress, and maladaptive coping strategies to their children and grandchildren. 

Furthermore, the AAPI community is more likely to experience racial trauma in the United States as a result of ongoing experiences of racism, microaggressions and macroaggressions, discrimination, racist bias in the media, and targeted racial violence. Repeated exposure to these events can result in race-based traumatic stress, or complex PTSD.

Racial trauma has been experienced by many in the AAPI community in witnessing, experiencing, and hearing about the thousands of anti-Asian hate crimes that have occurred since the onset of the pandemic.

Without proper interventions, maladaptive patterns continue to be passed down, perpetuating a cycle of emotional dysregulation

However, internal barriers remain in AAPI communities, hindering many from pursuing treatment. According to Divya Robin, MHC, “There is a lot of mental health stigma in the AAPI community, and because of this many struggle or suffer through their trauma instead of utilizing mental health resources to heal. Additionally, due to discrimination in the health care field, it can be hard for many members of the AAPI community to find mental health clinicians with cultural competence to understand the racial and cultural issues that come with AAPI intergenerational trauma.”

Divya Robin, MHC

There is a lot of mental health stigma in the AAPI community, and because of this many struggle or suffer through their trauma instead of utilizing mental health resources to heal.

— Divya Robin, MHC

Treatment

Asian Americans have a 17.3% lifetime rate of psychiatric disorders. In fact, 70% of Southeast Asian refugees undergoing mental health treatment received a PTSD diagnosis. But as previously mentioned, the struggle lies in the fact that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek treatment than their White counterparts. Research has shown that Asian Americans respond more positively to mental professionals with similar cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds as themselves.

Through mental health treatment, emotions can be processed and thoughts addressed in response to present and historical trauma and different responses yielding different results can be learned and practiced, breaking the cycle of maladaptive behaviors.

Trauma-informed therapeutic treatment can effectively mitigate the effects of intergenerational trauma by accounting for clients’ trauma and taking precautions to avoid triggering clients. Trauma-informed therapists emphasize emotional and physical safety, transparency, competency, and collaboration in working with clients to alleviate emotional distress. 

During trauma-informed therapy, mental health professionals help heal ingrained patterns of dysfunctional behavior, and equip clients with coping skills to manage their specific symptoms. Acknowledging these trauma symptoms is the first step in moving forward and breaking free from the detrimental effects of intergenerational trauma. 

Ways To Cope

Mental illness remains a taboo topic within AAPI communities. However, it’s important to seek support to reduce stigma and address the effects of intergenerational trauma, so that ultimately physical, mental, and emotional wellness can be restored for those impacted. 

Molly Wang, LPC-S offers tips on how to cope. She says, “It’s important to feel like you have permission to grieve lost oral histories because you can’t access your elders in their language, or grieve years of your adolescence that you lost trying to fit into mainstream culture.  Find others with these shared experiences of intergenerational trauma, exchange stories, and build solidarity in shared experiences.” 

Furthermore, emotional healing should be viewed as akin to healing a physical wound or injury. Initially, the pain of revisiting and working through traumas may feel challenging. But with time and commitment, there’s potential for growth and improved quality of life.

A Word From Verywell

Upholding self-compassion is crucial, and it is also important to bear in mind that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. 

There are numerous mental health resources for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The Asian Mental Health Collective and Asians for Mental Health provide comprehensive directories of AAPI mental health professionals in the U.S. and Canada.   

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