What you need to know about historical trauma



Depending on your occupation or background, you may not have heard of the term historical trauma before. Historical trauma has become a well known concept amongst social workers, historians and psychologists, however if you have an occupation outside of any of those industries there’s a strong chance that you’ve never come across the phrase. The impact of historical trauma however, is vast and impacts a large number of people worldwide. So, why hasn’t this knowledge become more widespread?

While social media and online resources have made a variety of content more accessible to a wider range of individuals, there’s surprisingly not many easily readable resources or articles on the term. Fortunately, there is a Wikipedia page that offers comprehensive information that is helpful, but outside of that resource there’s not as much as one would hope. So what exactly is historical trauma and why is it important for people to know about it?



What is historical trauma?

The term initially came to life in the 1980’s through the work of associate professor and social worker Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. In her article titled The historical trauma response among natives and its relationship to substance abuse: A Lakota illustration, she discusses historical trauma and its significance to the Lakota communities of the United States. In this context, she defines historical trauma as a “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.” So, what exactly does she mean by this?

Essentially, Brave Heart is referring to the experiences faced by groups of people (specifically those who have faced mass discrimination or abuse) over generations or large amounts of time. People who have experienced historical trauma can experience a Historical Trauma Response or HTR in reaction to this trauma.


Who is impacted by historical trauma?

People who are impacted by historical trauma include groups such as the Native American/First Nations People of the United States, immigrants, people of color, and families living in poverty. The pain these groups of people experience in relation to historical trauma is referred to as the Historical Trauma Response (HTR). Brave Heart states that the HTR can include “depression, self-destructive behavior, suicidal thoughts and gestures, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions.” Groups that experience violent colonization, segregation, cultural assimilation, discrimination, racism, and genocide are all at risk for experiencing historical trauma.


What to do if you’re experiencing historical trauma response (HTR)?

In order to work against the impact of historical trauma, individuals should primarily focus on renewing or repairing the impacted culture and an individuals specific relationship with it. Treatment can include individual therapy or counseling that helps repair a connection between one's culture and self-image. Community gatherings or events can also be helpful to repair the damage done through historical trauma.

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Historical trauma has huge implications for several different groups of people. As a society, we need to advocate for cultural diversity and acceptance to better work with all marginalized groups who have experienced historical trauma. Through social activism and change, we can work towards a better and more just society for all.

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Contributing Writer: Brittany A. Hamilton


Photo Credit: Daniel McCullough @d_mccullough

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