What Is Historical Trauma?

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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2019
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Historical trauma refers to emotional and psychological wounds lasting a lifetime and passing from one generation to another. The theory looks at modern-day psychological and physical illness stemming from past events inflicted on a racial, religious, or ethnic group. Historical trauma is based on the belief that unresolved grief from abuse in the past is passed from parent to offspring and accounts for a myriad of problems in certain cultures.

One example of historical trauma studied extensively focuses on Native American populations, which experience higher rates of alcoholism, suicide, diabetes, depression, and adolescent pregnancy than the general population. High rates of incarceration and domestic abuse also affect American Indians. Historical trauma looks at the mistreatment of these peoples by early American settlers, missionaries, and educators and how that history affects current behavior.

Some researchers believe the retelling of stories about how these people were expelled from their land and confined to remote reservations contributes to social and physical problems. Native Americans tend to relive the injustices and pass down the feelings of loss to children, experts found. One study theorized Native Americans believe suffering for past trauma is a way to honor their ancestors.


Psychologists working with these groups attempt to help people understand history as the root of their current problems. They aim to address unresolved grief that contributes to relationship and personal difficulties without forgetting the past. Historical trauma is considered a fairly innovative concept in sociology and psychology within the mental health field.

Opponents of the theory believe current trauma determines present-day health issues. They look to incidents of domestic abuse, for example, that might lead to alcoholism and depression. When people become depressed or victims of abuse, they face greater risks of physical ailments and are less likely to seek medical treatment, opponents say.

Historical trauma is also the subject of study involving Jewish Holocaust survivors, African-American slavery descendants, and war veterans. It explores how deprivation and group pain from external events in history affect subsequent generations. In war veterans, effects of post traumatic stress disorder might influence parenting skills.

One study delves into how individual memories evolve into collective memories among these groups of people. This might be especially true for people who were confined because of their race, ethnicity, or religion. If starvation, physical or sexual abuse, or severe punishment occurred, the pain remains in their collective consciousness and is passed from generation to generation, according to the study.


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Post 3

@pleonasm - I took some classes in anthropology when I was at university and even though they don't have a huge amount of use in terms of getting a job, I'm still glad I did. One of the things I learned there which I have not had pointed out to me before is that people simply aren't aware of how much their culture influences them. They are like fish that don't understand what water is because they are constantly immersed in it.

And if your culture has absorbed emotional trauma of course it's going to affect the people who are exposed to it, even if they weren't exposed to the trauma itself while it was happening.

Post 2

@Mor - I think it's very difficult for people to realize how badly a traumatic historical event can affect a people. And it will in many ways that aren't going to be immediately obvious.

But slavery should be one of the easiest to recognize, because it completely severs people from their culture. Children were taken from their parents and never saw them again. Every scrap of knowledge they might have known in their own culture wasn't available to them. You can't just magically make that kind of knowledge reappear without a lot of work.

There is a lot of systematic racism in the United States (and elsewhere of course) as well which doesn't exactly make the path to recovery clear and easy.

Post 1

I went on a backpacking trip around the USA about a decade ago and I was dismayed by how much racism I encountered. It wasn't so much the local people that surprised me as the foreigners I met in backpacking hostels and the like.

One discussion I remember very clearly was between myself and a young Welsh man who went on a rant about how his ancestors were working in the mines and that was almost as bad as slavery, and how his people don't use that past as "an excuse" for their circumstances today.

At the time I was very young and, honestly, I had a lot of trouble understanding his accent, so I made it clear I disagreed

with him but didn't argue the point. But I often think about that night and wish that I had been able to be more eloquent about the extreme differences between bad working conditions and actual slavery. There's just no comparison.

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