Where is the Trauma in Birth Trauma?

Written by Gunnel Minett
Birth Trauma has always been top of the list of problems that Rebirthing claims to be able to heal. According to Leonard Orr, birth trauma is even a basic cause for most terminal diseases. Birth is also reflected in the name Rebirthing and many Rebirthing training courses take place over a nine months period to reflect the nine months of pregnancy. Many also claim to have relived their time in the womb, their own birth and even their own conception in some cases. But is birth trauma really such an important factor in our lives? It certainly has the potential to be so but maybe the time has come to rethink the role of Birth Trauma in relation to disease later in life.

Is birth always traumatic?

Birth is a very well researched area of human life. It is also an area where surprisingly little has been done to follow the advice given by the scientists conducting this research. For instance, studies have shown that the ideal birth scenario is a safe and quiet place where women can give birth without being disturbed. The birth process is controlled by the very oldest parts of the brain. If the mother is given a chance to ‘rest’ the younger parts of the brain and focus all her resources on the hormone-controlled birth process, she is more likely to have a problem-free birth. This means pre-verbal reassurance by people she knows and trusts. For many this would be giving birth at home or in home-like situations. Still many hospitals represent the opposite environment despite the fact that stress is a major cause of complications during the birth process. In addition, cameras, chatting people, even light-hearted interference of any kind, which we might we normally appreciate is not recommended during labour. And even worse, as is now common in USA for instance, caesarean section or scheduled delivery times, are much more common than is strictly required for medical reasons. The explanations for this may be many, some of them financial and/or fear of getting complaints or being sued by angry parents if anything should go wrong. But what they have in common is that they are disturbing the natural hormone-controlled birth process which in itself may lead to complications.

But, apart from this bias towards the unnecessary ‘medicalisation’ of the birth process, women in the developed world now have a better and better chance of giving birth without trauma. A major factor here is the growing understanding of what takes place during the birth process. Scientists have been able to map the whole process and conclude that it is heavily controlled by nature and a perfectly normal part of life, which should generally not require hospital treatment. In other words, even if the birth process in itself can be quite traumatic, it is accompanied by a flood of hormones aimed at guiding and soothing both mother and child. Even the pain usually experienced by the mother triggers a flood of hormones aimed at easing the pain and moving the child forwards towards being born. The whole process, from conception onwards, is, in effect, a detailed ‘pre-programmed’ course of events where each phase will trigger a subsequent phase until the child is safely born and adjusted to life on its own. So from this perspective birth does not need to be traumatic. Nature has done its utmost to make sure we are able to deal with this trauma and to be able to use it to give us a positive start in life. Stanislav Grof, who has studied the birth process for his Holotropic Breathwork technique, even points to the fact that children born by caesarean section tend to have less ‘fighting spirit’ in difficult situations. In his view the difficult passage through the birth canal can be a first experience of managing stress that will be useful for stressful situations later in life.

Life is not always ideal

Even if, in the ideal world, birth does not have to be traumatic, for many birth is by far the most traumatic event in their early life. And when things go wrong it can lead to life-long trauma that need to be healed. In such cases body-oriented techniques such as Breathwork can play a very important role. Because birth trauma takes place at a stage in life when the brain is not developed enough to register ‘memories’ in the same way as it does later on in life, we can’t simply talk about the trauma we ‘remember’ from birth. The only possible ‘memories’ from that period in our lives are what would be described as ‘body memories’ i.e. bodily reactions on a deeper, unconscious level. They can be accessed but not through trying to remember, or by trying to talk about them. They are instead expressed through deeper, unspecified feelings of discomfort, fear, or worse, as phobias or physical malfunctions in body parts or organs.

A biased view in Rebirthing?

According to Leonard Orr his number 1 ‘biggie’ (among the problems that Rebirthing claims to heal) is “Birth Trauma – including prenatal and infancy memories”. “Infancy memories stuck in the body are the basic cause of most terminal diseases. They are terminal only because we use wrong methods for attempting to heal them.” Orr does not offer any evidence to substantiate these claims and apart from dismissing modern medicine totally, they do not take into consideration the range of causes of disease that are not birth related. As a consequence many Rebirthing practitioners have moved away from this rather strong claim to more balanced views. Still early trauma is definitely a very important factor behind some psychological and physical problems.

There is no doubt that birth, as well as the time in the womb, can be traumatic. But many Rebirthing schools seem to have a biased focus on the time up to and including birth. It is not uncommon to hear accounts of ‘memories’ from conception and the time in the womb being direct causes of problems in adult life. Apart from difficulties in drawing such conclusion, such early memories simply can’t be explained by a scientific understanding of how memories are formed. As far as science can tell the first traces of ‘memories’ can be recorded from around 3 months after conception. Before that the foetus is simply not developed enough to register anything that can be described as memories. So to give a vivid account of one’s own conception should only be seen as purely a creation of one’s own imagination. As such it can of course give a useful insight into unconscious beliefs and thoughts, in a way similar to dream interpretation. But to see it as an account of a historic event has no backing in science.

What does science say?

Science has shown that the time before birth is important in that the cells and later foetus needs a ‘positive’ environment to develop as programmed. The genes that determine this programme represent the potential for a certain development. In order for them to be ‘expressed’ (i.e. actually used to create proteins) they require an environment that will encourage their expression. This means that the mother carrying the foetus should be aware that her actions have a direct influence on her unborn child. If she lives a stressful life, eats and drinks inappropriately or is exposed to negativity in her environment, this will have an effect on the foetus. It is well established that illnesses such as the flu or mumps can also have a serious effect on the foetus. Even a minor illness for the mother at the wrong phase of the pregnancy can lead to serious disability for the unborn child. In a similar way research has shown that if the mother is not getting enough to eat during pregnancy (as was the case in Holland during WW2) this can lead to metabolic problems in generations to come.

We are all premature

When every human baby is born it is, in effect, premature. Unlike most other mammals, who can get onto their feet, walk and feed themselves almost immediately, we can’t manage on our own for several years. Human premature birth is partly required because of the size of our brains and the fact that humans walk upright. These postural changes shifted the position of the human pelvis. This, in turn, has meant that the child needs to be born before its head gets too big. Another, perhaps more important factor, is the enormous complexity of the human brain. This requires enormous input from the environment in order to develop.
When a child is born the brain has very few neural pathways compared to the adult brain. It can be described as the scaffolding put up in order to build a house. Only the main pathways are in place. The rest have to be formed after birth, via learning and the impact of experience. The learning capacity of a small child is much greater than that of a mature adult. And, as every parent will confirm, small children have a strong urge to learn and absorb information of all kinds. Every time an experienced is recorded in the brain it creates a neural pathway. The more the experience is repeated the stronger the pathway grows. In effect, it takes around 20 years for the brain to develop fully. This means that the environment throughout the whole of childhood, puberty and early adulthood is important for the development of a healthy and fully functioning adult brain.

The fact that it takes so long for the brain to develop is not fully recognised by Rebirthing. The period in the womb and birth are just two experiences out of many on the route to building an adult brain. It’s true that the earlier the experience the more important it is. But, even if the earlier phase of childhood is more important than the later stages, the whole 20 first years are important for brain development, with each phase needing to be in place before the next phase is triggered. And, just as any building needs a good foundation to be solid, the brain needs a good start in life to develop a solid foundation for further development.

Self-healing and plasticity

A positive factor to remember throughout this development (and later on) is the enormous plasticity of the brain. Nature has equipped us with a powerful drive to self-heal and compensate for problems caused by negative input from the environment. Recent research has overturned the idea that we are born with all the brain cells we will ever have. We now know that brain cells, which, for various reasons, have been destroyed, can be replaced by newly grown neurones. We can also re-route neural pathways in the brain to compensate for malfunctioning areas. And it is not the number of brain cells but rather the number of connections or pathways in the brain that matter!

The brain’s plasticity is, in effect, one major reason why psychotherapy works. Every time a memory or experience is brought up in a therapy session, it can lead to a re-routing of pathways in the brain. This means that previous pathways leading to a ‘bad end place’ can be re-routed to lead to a more positive end, thereby breaking the thread of negative associations. By having this effect we can change past trauma into memories in which we are able to disconnect from the trauma and reassure ourselves that the bad experience was in the past.

This plasticity in the brain also helps both children born with missing brain functions and adults suffering from brain damage. For instance, a young baby girl who was assumed to be blind and partly paralysed at birth, turned out to be ‘only a late developer’. A couple of years later than average, she developed into a fairly normal child. When her brain was later scanned it turned out that her ‘late development’ was due to the fact that half of her brain was missing and it therefore took her longer to re-route the neural pathways so that she could compensate for the missing part. Similar research has shown that an adult suffering from a severe stroke was able to regain most of his normal functions, despite the fact that a scan showed that nearly 95 percent of his brain had been damaged and the brain had to do an almost complete re-routing of its pathways.

External brain power

During the early phases of childhood people in the environment surrounding the child will, in effect, provide it with ‘external brain power’. This applies, in particular, to the immediate family, with parents and siblings helping the baby with all the aspects of that life s/he still has to learn. The baby gets help from the environment to be fed, to be kept safe and comfortable and to learn, from examples, how to walk, talk and learn the social behaviour necessary to fit in with society. From the m the beginning, the mother (or other immediate carer) is the most important figure but gradually the other family members become equally important. Throughout this period the most important requirement for the child is to get its basic needs met. It needs to be safe, nourished and feel accepted as part of the family or group in which it grows up. It is also very important that the child gets sufficient opportunities to play. Play is an extremely important way for children to practice adult skills. Through play they learn important lessons as to how to use their bodies, form relationships and exercise creative thinking, among other necessary skills.

Pre-verbal phase and Personal Laws

It is during this early phase, before we develop language and a sense of self, that we form our perception of the ‘world out there’. In later life, we do not recognise that our worldview was formed from these first impressions. Much of this world view is developed by ‘copying’ what we experience from our immediate carer/s, via (un)conscious, non-verbal communication.

In Rebirthing terminology this person perception of the world is referred to as ‘Personal Laws’, i.e. the strong ideas we all have that ‘this is simply the way the world is’. The first six months is also the period when we learn a basic structure as to how to handle relationships. This is a pattern that we generally keep for the rest of our lives (unless we are able to change with the help of therapy). During this period we also set our stress reaction pattern, mainly copying it from that of our immediate carer/s.

Throughout this early pre-verbal period, the child will react more strongly to physical than to verbal experiences. During the first year of life, the brain is busy constructing the basic neural network for a number of body functions. Consequently, other, more fine-tuned functions, such as language, social learning have to wait to be developed later. In particular, during this period, physical pain tends to be more traumatic than other forms of stress. On the positive side, this means that stress caused by the environment can be compensated by physical contact.

Physical contact

Parents who struggle to connect emotionally with their children can compensate for this by offering physical contact. A stressed child can be comforted by physical contact. A child that gets a lot of positive physical contact will most likely develop a healthier stress reaction, and a stronger sense of security. Examples of these phenomena were, sadly, observed in children from orphanages in Albania: they manifested many forms of psychological problem, ranging from poor development to intense stress. This was because, despite being looked after and fed properly, they barely received any physical contact. Even when this was remedied later, by caring adoptive parents, in many cases it was too late to reverse the trauma caused by this early lack of touch.

It’s important to note here that a stressed carer may not be able to sooth their child by physical contact. Before the child has acquired language, its sensitivity to non-verbal communication is heightened. This means that if a baby is held and soothed by a stressed parent this may actually result in increased stress signals for the child. Instead of experiencing the parent as a safe place, the child is confronted with stress signals coming from this important source. These reactions to stress signals will gradually be mixed with input from verbal communicating, but it is important to remember that children will always respond more strongly to non- verbal communication than do adults. Or as the saying goes, a child does not learn from what you say but from what you do.

In particular, when it comes to another of Rebirthing’s focuses – The Parental Disapproval Syndrome – it is important to emphasise that it is not just direct or verbal disapproval that a child will react to: It’s more likely to be non-verbal stress signals, in particular if the stress has been there from the beginning of the child’s life. Parents who do their best to be caring, but are unable to connect adequately with their child because of their own trauma or stress, may cause more trauma for their child than will emotionally connected but disapproving parents.
What can be done to heal early problems?
One of the really exciting features of body-oriented psychotherapy, such as Breathwork, is that it can actually help to access even very early problems. By helping the body to relax and open up, via the breath (or other body-focused techniques), early ‘body-memories’ can be activated and/or released. This means that such therapies can help us access the earliest parts of our lives; the time when we set future parameters for stress, relationships, physical health etc… With competent assistance from a trained therapist, the client can be helped to understand material that is normally confined to the unconscious parts of the mind, and thus be helped to re-route negative neural pathways. It is this process of gradually mapping and re-routing the unconscious mind that has the healing potential. Usually all it takes is to understand the origin of our behaviour to be able to change it at will and to do away with unwanted problems.

It is this unique ability to access the earliest formative phase of our lives that puts body-oriented therapies at the cutting edge of psychotherapy. For Breathworkers this means a great opportunity, but also a responsibility. If techniques such as Rebirthing are to have a future they need to recognise the power and potential of the breath and to take it more seriously. This means recognising the need for proper training for therapists. It also means ‘cleaning up’ Breathwork’s theoretical framework in line with science rather than with unsubstantiated ‘New Age’ claims, to move it from ‘guru-teaching’ to proper training and qualifications. With so many adults struggling with the consequences of a poor start in life, it would be really sad if such a potential tool for healing, as breathwork represents, should not take centre stage in psychotherapy. A position which it can justifiably claim.

© Gunnel Minett 2015
Key words; birth trauma, psychotherapy, parental disapproval, personal laws, Rebirthing, Grof, Orr,
Further reading: Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt