How to Identify the Source of Inherited Trauma

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "It Didn't Start With You" by Mark Wolynn. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do your parents or grandparents have a history of mental illness? How can you find out if you have inherited trauma?

Inherited trauma is genetic trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next. According to Mark Wolynn, the author of It Didn’t Start With You, the key to finding the source of your inherited trauma is to identify the aspect of your life that causes you the most stress or discomfort—your pain point. The problem could relate to any area of your life such as your health, work, or relationships. 

Learn more about digging deep in your family’s past to find the source of inherited trauma.

How to Find the Source of Inherited Trauma

What’s the one thing—that if you could move beyond it—would provide you the most freedom? This is your pain point. Maybe you suffer from panic attacks, an eating disorder, or an aching feeling of loneliness. Or maybe you feel like your friends take advantage of you, or your partner is never there when you need her, or your boss never recognizes your contributions. 

(Shortform note: If you struggle to pinpoint one particular issue that causes you distress, you might be among those who are averse to “complaining.” Many factors influence whether and how often we acknowledge and verbalize our dissatisfaction and annoyance, such as age and our desire to present ourselves positively. But, complaining about the purpose of solving a problem can lead to more freedom. To put yourself more at ease around identifying your pain point, remind yourself that this is your access to creating real, positive change.)

Once you’ve identified your pain point, Wolynn says to look for words and phrases that stand out as peculiar, emotional, or misplaced in the way you describe that problem. These words likely point to something unresolved in your past or your family’s past. 

For example, you feel “suffocated” and “trapped” every time your partner wants to hug you, which is causing relationship difficulties. These powerful words and phrases indicate some kind of trauma surrounding past relationships. You might dig into your family history to discover that your aunt was strangled to death by her boyfriend when she was your age. She tried to run to safety, but she couldn’t get out of the house in time. Now you are experiencing the terror your aunt endured even though you are in no danger, which is eroding the relationship you value most. 

What Qualifies as Trauma?

Now that you know what the cause of your inherited trauma is, you might be wondering if you can even define it as trauma. Do everyday stresses and complaints qualify as “trauma”? Are we all traumatized, just to different degrees? Although Wolynn discusses the symptoms and sources of trauma, he doesn’t define trauma or put any boundaries around what it includes. Let’s examine others’ views on this topic.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, trauma is “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”—either experienced directly or as a witness. Some argue that this definition rightly circumscribes the definition of trauma to include only the most severe and devastating experiences. As a result, this encourages people to distinguish truly catastrophic and life-altering events from those that are merely unpleasant, thereby reducing a “victim mentality” that leads people to feel helpless. This focused definition can also help people suffering from real trauma get the appropriate support and treatment. 

Others, however, point out that such a restrictive definition overlooks the emotional causes of distress many people develop from non-life-threatening events, such as divorce or unfair accusations of abuse. Instead, they propose that we distinguish between “large T” and “small t” trauma

“Large T” and “Small t” Trauma

“Large T” trauma would include life-threatening events such as kidnappings, acts of terrorism, and serious car collisions. “Small t” trauma would encompass unpleasant events that are not life-threatening. Nevertheless, they cause some degree of hopelessness and compromise our ability to cope with stress. Examples include infidelity, divorce, and financial strain. 

Although a single “small t” trauma may not alter someone’s life, pain points can develop from many “small t” traumas that significantly interfere with someone’s emotional health. Those who support differentiating between “small t” and “large T” trauma say this distinction helpfully acknowledges the very real consequences that stem from stress and overwhelm. 

Regardless of the definition of trauma, it’s important to note that not all catastrophic or unpleasant events affect people the same way. For example, a natural disaster may deeply traumatize one person. However, another person may emerge from the same experience relatively unaffected. How a person responds depends on several factors, including their beliefs, expectations, past experiences, and the level of support in their lives.

How to Identify the Source of Inherited Trauma

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Mark Wolynn's "It Didn't Start With You" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full It Didn't Start With You summary :

  • A look into the causes of persistent anxiety, depression, and illness
  • How the traumas of your past are stopping you from being truly happy and free
  • How to resolve deeply-rooted trauma by applying a unique therapeutic approach

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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