The Neurobiology of Transgenerational Trauma-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Trauma Legacy

Unresolved trauma can disrupt your life

I was once asked to describe the genetic component of transgenerational trauma. The question posed was: If my parents had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) does this increase my likelihood of having it too? This question stopped me in my tracks and I have been exploring this concept as it applies to psychotherapy ever since.

The development and expression of PTSD is complex and involves not only being exposed to a traumatic event but also your perception of it, the amount of current support, existence of previous traumatic events, your early family life, and biological factors that shape how you adapt.

“Research is suggesting that unresolved PTSD can facilitate lasting physiological changes and that these modifications can be passed on to the next generation.”
-Dr. Schwartz Continue reading

Medications and the Mismanagement of PTSD

Psychotherapy vs. Medication

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Large scale, long term studies reveal that psychotherapy is as effective as medications, lasts longer than drug treatments, and avoids the harmful side effects. Despite growing evidence for the efficacy of psychotherapy, the use of therapy has decreased in the last decade while the use of medications has been on the rise (APA, 2012). This is due in part to the billions of dollars allocated to “direct to consumer” advertising by pharmaceutical companies. Psychotherapy simply can’t compete for marketing airtime and the results are misleading to those suffering with mental health conditions.

“We are all vulnerable when we experience anxiety, panic, or despair and in these times we are especially dependent upon the experts around us to provide sound medical and psychological care.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz Continue reading

Trauma and Resilience-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Resilience as Path


Did you know that only 8% of individuals exposed to trauma develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Most people respond with resilience and some report feeling stronger or having grown in some way in response to the traumatic event. PTSD develops when your natural adaptive capacity to respond to a traumatic event isn’t accessible. This can leave you feeling stuck, panicked, or hopeless. If this is you, it is not your fault and you have not failed. There are a variety of reasons why some people are more susceptible to PTSD.  These include lack of relational support systems, genetics, intensity of the experience, duration of exposure, and early life experiences. However, with sufficient support most people do recover from PTSD.

“Resilience involves practices that you can actively engage in to strengthen your likelihood of recovery from trauma.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz Continue reading

Resilience-Informed Parenting-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Transformational Parenting

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Our family just returned from 10 days in the wilderness. With our 9 and 11 year olds, my husband and I hiked over 40 miles, shared one small tent, told stories, sang songs, and pressed the reset button for our family. Musings on Resilience-Informed-Parenting through the lens of a summer vacation.

“What in your life gives you the space you need to reflect on the abundance around you? In what ways can you allow yourself to be nourished by what you have rather than focus on what is missing?”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz Continue reading

How Relationships Change your Brain – Heal Attachment | Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Relationships, Loss, and Vulnerability

Depresses woman EMDR

One of the common reasons that clients come into therapy is the experience of pain associated with the loss of an important relationship; such as the ending of a marriage, the death of a family member, or repeated feelings rejection and abandonment. Relational losses are universal and they can leave us feeling vulnerable and destabilized. However, your brain may have the capacity to be “re-wired” through connection.

“Neuroplasticity points toward our potential to be changed by relationships throughout our lifespan. Healthy relationships allow us to shape and be shaped in the directions that most serve us.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz Continue reading

Polyvagal Theory Helps Unlock Symptoms of PTSD-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Getting Unstuck from PTSD

Polyvagal theory Dr. Arielle Schwartz

One of the painful repercussions of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the experience of a lack of control that can occur when you feel trapped by feelings of anxiety, panic, overwhelm, or despair.  Polyvagal theory, the work of Stephen Porges, Ph.D., offers a valuable framework for understanding and effectively responding to the intense emotional and physiological symptoms of PTSD.

“Healing the nervous system can take time and requires patience. Put the polyvagal theory into action in you life to increase your sense of freedom in body and mind” -Dr. Arielle Schwartz Continue reading

Stress, PTSD, and your Health-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Trauma and Your Health


The connections between unresolved trauma and the immune system provide insight into a wide array of medical symptoms. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are meant to work in a rhythmic alternation that supports healthy digestion, sleep, and immune system functioning. However, chronic stress and unresolved trauma interfere with the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. As a result, unresolved PTSD takes a significant toll on physical health.

“This post takes a closer look at the relationship between stress, trauma, and your health. Developing an understanding of how your body responds chronic PTSD can help you to feel empowered to take a greater role in your health care. When you are informed about your body and mind you attend to challenges of chronic illness with greater success.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz Continue reading

Embrace Your Shadow-Unlock your Creativity

Shadow Integration

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We all have parts of ourselves that are split off, hidden, or denied.  Living in the world cut-off from these parts can leave us feeling empty, as if we are going through the motions of our lives rather than fully living. However, turning towards the “shadow”, a term first introduced by Carl Jung to describe these repressed parts of the self, allows us to feel more grounded, real, and whole.  Just like the lotus that roots in the mud, we access our shadow to unlock our creative energy.

Why Embrace the Shadow?

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It takes a lot of energy to compartmentalize our disowned parts and it feels good to think of ourselves as strong, beautiful, and smart. However, we generally hold equal amounts of fear that we will be seen as weak, ugly, or stupid. In truth, neither the light nor the dark alone comprise our wholeness. The need to be “right” also leaves us at risk of getting stuck in comparison and in dichotomies of right-wrong and good-bad. Rather than being black or white, the shadow lives in the grey and softens the boundaries between “me” and “not me.” Here’s a common theme:

I was working with a woman who was speaking vehemently about her ex-husband and how controlling and selfish he was. We deepened this opportunity to explore her shadow as mirrored in her relationship. She revealed that felt tentative about taking up space and grieved events of her childhood when she felt powerless and resigned. She expressed the rage that had been suppressed behind her need to be “nice” and realized that her choice to marry her ex-husband was aligned with the part of her who felt safe staying small. As her process drew to completion she described feeling a deep sense of compassion for herself and even for her ex-husband. She described an experience of freedom and possibility that had previously been unknown. While there remained some fear about whether she could sustain this expansion she was willing to take the risk and committed to listen to that quiet voice inside that had so long been discounted.

Shadow as Access to Creativity

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Attending to the shadow not only illuminates the darker parts of our personality but also gives us access to the disowned positive parts that we find too risky to bring out into the world. New possibilities awaken when working with the shadow. Now rather than “either-or” polarities we have access to a “both-and” reality. So an opposition of rage and niceness, for example, are no longer mutually exclusive contradictions. The energy that was previously expended towards managing the disowned self is now available and can be applied towards your creative endeavors.

Psychotherapy and Shadow Process

One of the tricky parts about working with the shadow is that we generally cannot see it! This is where working with a psychotherapist comes in as an external witness to help you gain insight into the unknown parts of yourself. The initial phase of integrating the shadow can be very vulnerable, uncomfortable, and can even feel shameful.  We often need some coaching and encouragement at the edge because is it seems easier to turn away. By holding a safe place for curiosity and mindful exploration we can lean into the uncomfortable edges together.

Further Reading:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Complex PTSD, EMDR Therapy, Somatic Psychology


Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.

Seven Steps to Embrace Your Shadow

Embracing Your Shadow

shadow 7The process of working with the shadow takes many different forms and ultimately broadens our range of available responses to the world. In my experience, there have been times I was called to put on boxing gloves to stand up to an inner bully, or I was dancing with a new found inner lover, or I bowed in reverence and awe to my soul. Your shadow process is unique to you; however, there are many common gateways to this profound process:

  1. Turn towards your shame: You can either brace against shame or you can recognize that when shame presents itself you have access to deeper relationship with yourself.  We want to reframe our relationship to shame as the invitation to enter the hero’s or heroine’s journey. When shame arises work to build tolerance for this highly uncomfortable emotional with the goal to accept and embrace the experience yourself just as you are.
  2. Get into your body: Listening to your body and feeling your experience from the inside out provides ample opportunity to work with the shadow. If pain presents itself, explore asking “what are you here to teach me?” and “What do you need from me?”  Perhaps experiment dancing with your shadow by turning out the lights and move knowing no one is looking. Afterwards take time to notice how you feel.
  3. Express yourself: creativity 3Paint your emotions, become a poet, make music.  Don’t worry that it looks or sounds good for anyone else; It is the process not the product that is important. Getting out of the linear left brain is a great way to get in touch with your shadow. Write or paint from the non-dominant side of the brain.
  4. Dream work: Dreams have long been understood to be a valuable access to shadow material. Approach your dream with the assumption that all characters and symbols of your dream are parts of you. Bring these images to life through re-imagining them, writing them down, or acting them out and examine the feelings and associations that you have.
  5. Free the Fantasy: Jung wrote in his autobiography, “[I] had to try to gain power over [my fantasies]; for I realized that if I did not do so, I ran the risk of their gaining power over me.” Obsessive fantasies can rule our lives. Perhaps the obsession is about an ex-partner, a fascination with the stranger across the room, or the idea that one more piece of piece of chocolate will do the trick. One trick to freeing up the shadow that is bound in fantasies is to reclaim what this object or person represents for you. Try saying, “you are the part of me that…” Maybe you find your unexpressed rebel, your playful self, or your longing for sweetness. Recognize that reclaiming your obsession may feel scary or sad at first because we often project our shadow on another person when we don’t know yet how to hold it yet on our own.
  6. Invite your shadow off the pedestal. One unexpected place to find your shadow is in the people we deem can do no wrong. When someone is on the pedestal it is sign that there may be valuable shadow material for you. Perhaps by keeping someone in a position of greater wisdom or power this is a way of avoiding stepping into our own. What messages did you get about staying small? What will really happen if you were to step your of your “lesser-than” box? Seeing your heroes as human may also allow your human experience to be heroic!
  7. shadow 6Embrace Your Enemy: Extend loving kindness towards the people in your life who challenge you the most. We spend a lot of time avoiding or feeling hatred towards those who have hurt us. One of most powerful and transformational shadow integration moments I have experienced was practicing loving kindness for a person in my life that I struggled with. I breathed into my own hard-heartedness and found that the more compassion I felt towards this person the softer my heart became. The tears flowed and I felt love that softened the boundaries between us. In our next interaction I felt that the pain that had once left me feeling trapped and hopeless had shifted. I had more choice in how I acted rather than feeling stuck in reaction. In the words of Carl Jung “when an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside of your as fate.”

Support for Shadow Integration

While there are many ways to integrate shadow material on your own; there are times when we need professional support to process those parts of us that are split off, hidden, or denied. There are vulnerable and uncomfortable edges in all of us that benefit from the compassionate presence of another. It is an honor to support you. Click here to read more about the work of Dr. Arielle Schwartz, PhD.

Further Reading:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Meet Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.

Your Family Ancestry – Awareness of Trans-Generational Trauma Facilitates Resilience

Trans-generational Healing and Your Family Ancestry

We are all aware of the impact of stressful or traumatic events in our lives such as the death of a loved one, facing a life-threatening illness, or unexpected job loss. Most of us acknowledge that even positive events such as the birth of a child or a move into a new home can also be stressful. However, what about the invisible threads of stress that can linger from the family generations that preceded you? Research on trans-generational healing suggests that attending to your family stories enhances emotional health and facilitates resilience in both adults and children.

family ancestry

What is Trans-Generational Trauma?

Family systems theory has long understood that the relational, behavioral, and emotional patterns across generations provide a broader understanding of us as individuals and our children. Trans-generational trauma refers to the ways that trauma gets transferred from one generation to another either directly or indirectly. Unresolved trauma of one generation is a legacy that can be passed down to the next generation.

yelling-parents-hurt-kidsParents will often say “I don’t want to hover over my children like my mother did and I’m doing it anyway” or “I don’t want to yell at my kids the way my father did but I find myself saying the same words sometimes!”  Why do we repeat painful emotional and behavioral patterns across generations? According to neuroscience, we all have implicit memory systems that hold our experiences of the past in the form of images, sensations, and emotions. The facial expressions, voice tone, and how you felt in your body as a child are readily accessible as you parent your child across similar situations and developmental stages.

Trans-Generational Awareness and Resilience

Research affiliated with Emory (Dr. Goodman) and George Mason Universities (Dr. Duke) indicated that assessment and awareness of trans-generational stories facilitates resilience. This was explored after 9/11 and Katrina with results suggesting that individuals who knew more about their family ancestry were better able to manage the effects of traumatic stress. Individuals with an internal narrative about the ups and downs of their family history show the greatest resilience. Here’s an example from our family’s story shared across generations:

grandma and grandchild family storyYour grandfather grew up on the family farm as one of fourteen children. He was born during the great depression and was the youngest child. Life was not easy but he worked hard, went to college, and had his own family. When your grandpa was nine he had an illness that left him with health problems but he was helped by his sister and had a surgery that extended his life for many more years. Your grandparents were great parents who raised three strong boys before your grandfather died. One of our family’s saddest times was when your uncle died unexpectedly. But no matter what we always stuck together as a family.

In the “Do You Know” study from Emory University, researchers asked children questions like: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of how your parents met? Do you know about lessons your parent’s learned from good and bad experiences? The results indicated that children with greater knowledge about their family history were shown to have higher self-esteem, emotional health, and happiness!

One of the questions in the Emory University study asked children if they know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough. Talking about aunt so-and-so’s bitter and hardened face might actually help children trust the internal responses they are having. We might even go so far as to compassionately speak about her losses and hardships. When parents speak the truth, children are validated and their emotional intelligence is supported. looking at photos

Further research even indicates a boost in cognitive performance related to active reflection on family history.  In an Austrian study, entitled “The Ancestor Effect,” university students asked to think about their ancestral “roots” produced higher scores on problem solving and intelligence tests when compared to students thinking about random historical events.

Trans-Generational Healing

The more that we know about our history, the greater choice we have about how we respond to stressful life events and triggering parenting moments.  Take the time to reflect on the influences and experiences you bring from your past.

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Trans-Generational Healing – A loving connection between my mother and my daughter

In my family, my mother and her mother had a highly strained, painful relationship that ultimately resulted in them having little contact. My mother’s father died before I was born and I did not have an active relationship with my maternal grandmother. Despite having a close relationship with my own mother, I have long felt the shadow of my mother’s ambivalent relationship with her mother. As an adult, I have explored the influences of my mother’s and grandmother’s past in my own psyche. When I became a mother to my daughter this maternal lineage dynamic amplified. No longer could I ignore the whispers of the past. When I actively turn toward the traumas caught in the branches of my family tree, I ultimately feel freer. I believe that I am not only freeing myself and my children, but that the unwinding of trauma extends into the past as well, allowing all to benefit.

Bringing the Ancestor Effect Home

Family traditions develop through repeated and repeatable events that are consciously chosen to mark time such as mealtimes, holidays, birthdays. Part of bringing the Ancestor Effect into your home involves actively tying the stories of the past into your present-day traditions. Family members only one and two generations ago have had to face personal and societal problems such as illness, wars, and economic declines. Thinking of the resilience in the generations before us highlights our capacity to overcome the adversities of this generation. Bringing family ancestry into your home might include:family meal

  • Taking time to reflect on the generations before you (both those living and deceased) including their hardships and accomplishments.
  • Making a family tree and researching your roots.
  • Framing and making visible photos of your ancestors.
  • Taking a moment of gratitude for those that provide the foundations of your life today.
  • Developing your own family traditions that help strengthen your family identity

A family tradition in my childhood home was to engage in a check-in at the dinner table. We have evolved this in our present-day home by having a dinner table “hi-lo” conversation.  Each member gets a turn to share a positive moment from their day as well as a challenging or painful moment. When discussing a hardship we also explore ways of overcoming the hardship and what can be learned from the experience.  

Trans-Generational Healing and Resilience Informed Psychotherapy

Whether working with an individual adult, a family, or a child there are benefits to tracking intergenerational patterns in therapy. Therapeutic interventions that illuminate your ancestral roots can provide insight into symptoms and diagnoses, can reveal invisible barriers to life goals, and can guide the healing process. I have a deep reverence for stories and their capacity to either bind us or free us depending on how they are told. As a clinical psychologist, my passion is in strength-based and resilience-informed psychotherapy. Should you need support, it is truly an honor to guide you through your own trans-generational healing.

Further reading:


About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Meet Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.