B. Ellefsen
Mar 15, 2017 · 4 min read
Third generation Indian American toddler visits India. Photography by Lisa Hanchinamani Barton

The comfort of family and old friends nearby, the ease of navigating life in one’s first language, the effortless ability to intuit cultural nuances, the familiarity of communal rituals to process grief or commemorate celebrations… these are some of the traumatizing losses that can accompany immigration. Sometimes these losses are compounded by (sometimes-but-not-necessarily “immigration-related”) traumas such as surviving torture, fleeing for one’s life, experiencing poverty, experiencing exploitation/trafficking or domestic violence, familial conflict, or other life experiences.

This week, our Theology class discussion group looked to the work of trauma experts Dr. Rachel Yehuda and Dr. Bessel Ban Der Kolk for some insight into the trauma experience of Asian American immigrants and their children.

We discussed how, for many Asian immigrants, there are limited outlets for acknowledging trauma in their lives as Americans. Those of us with Asian immigrant parents recalled challenges our parents faced in processing trauma, such as the loss of their cultural resources to process grief (e.g. one of us mentioned the role of a village in mourning the death of a loved one, another mentioned a communal ritual of marking the anniversary of the death of a loved one, another mentioned the physicality and conversational role of nightly family walks in easing some of the effects of trauma). Other barriers included generational/gender dynamics that prevent one from speaking freely about trauma (including norms for expressing respect for elders), the stigma of exposing family secrets or accessing mental health resources, the lack of a language for “trauma” or a lack of access to trauma treatment resources, and the pressures of a new work/family balance that limit the time available to “sit” with one’s own grief.

Even when trauma is not spoken aloud or has no recognizable outlet, the memory and impact of trauma lodges in the body, according to trauma expert, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk.[1] These effects in the body can themselves be a barrier to addressing trauma (such as the numbing effects of disassociation).

Furthermore, as the work of epigenetics expert Dr. Rachel Yehuda suggests, such trauma not only impacts immigrants directly, but likely impacts their children as well.[2] The field of epigenetics examines how the expression of genes can be modified through experience such as trauma. For instance, this can happen through transmitting a gene marker in reproduction or by giving a child an experience that results in the child’s own genetic adaptation in response to that experience — which could happen anywhere from conception and beyond.

Third generation Indian American toddler walks with maternal grandmother. Photography by Lisa Hanchinamani Barton

Remarkably, Yehuda describes opening a clinic to serve Holocaust survivors and found that the majority of the calls they received were not from Holocaust survivors themselves, but from their children. It would be interesting to explore the reasons why fewer Holocaust survivors were not accessing this resource directly. However, it was also fascinating to consider the link between the trauma experienced by the Holcaust surviving parent and the experience of survivor’s offspring. According to Yehuda, some of this had to do with being traumatized by witnessing the effects of trauma on their survivor parents or by feelings of pressure they had as children of survivors. Yehuda also found that the children of Holocaust survivors were three times more likely to develop PTSD in response to their own exposure to trauma than those who were not children of Holocaust survivors. Offspring of holocaust survivors had the same types of “neuroendocrine or hormonal abnormalities” as Holocaust survivors and persons with PTSD. Yehuda’s research suggests that these trauma dynamics extend beyond Holocaust survivors to other types of non-Holocaust trauma (such as a study she conducting with 9–11 survivors and their children).

Our group discussed the ways it seems logical that traumatized Asian immigrant parents impact Asian immigrant children in similar ways. For instance, these children could be traumatized by witnessing the effects of unprocessed trauma in their parents’ lives. These children could also be vulnerable in their own stress responses and susceptibility to acquire PTSD and/or stress related neurobiological abnormalities/genetic modifications. This would be an interesting field to research. Some of us found this theory to be consistent with our own felt experiences.

The work of both Yehuda and Van Der Kolk offers much hope in that trauma treatments such as psychotherapy can cause new neurobiological/genetic adaptations to emerge in helpful and healing ways, and that even the very knowledge of the effects of trauma can empower trauma survivors and their children with coping strategies. Tippett and Yehuda discussed how the biological language of epigenetics opens new doors to discuss trauma. For cultures where mental health services may be stigmatized in ways that other areas of medicine are not, the scientific language may help open doors across generations to have healing conversations, share coping wisdom, and increase accessibility to educational and treatment resources.

Third generation Indian American toddler visits India. Photography by Lisa Hanchinamani Barton

[1] Our discussion group read Chapters 11 and 12 of The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk for this assignment. Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014.

[2] Our discussion group listened to a radio interview of Rachel Yehuda entitled, “How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations”. Tippett, Kristen. Interview with Rachel Yehuda. How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations, On Being, July 30, 2015.

Chiaroscuro Theology

"may the chiaroscuro … this mixture of sanctity and stupidity, of wisdom and vulgarity, which characterizes much of our existence … May this chiaroscuro not last forever; may we cease misunderstanding, thwarting thy intentions…" Barth, *Prayer*

B. Ellefsen

Written by

Chiaroscuro Theology

"may the chiaroscuro … this mixture of sanctity and stupidity, of wisdom and vulgarity, which characterizes much of our existence … May this chiaroscuro not last forever; may we cease misunderstanding, thwarting thy intentions…" Barth, *Prayer*

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