The Invisible Wounds: Understanding the Long-Term Effects of Pre- and Perinatal Trauma
Pre- and perinatal trauma refer to any experience of trauma that occurs during the period from conception to birth. These experiences can include physical or emotional abuse, neglect, substance abuse, maternal stress, maternal illness, maternal malnutrition, or other adverse experiences that occur during pregnancy or childbirth. The impact of peri- and prenatal trauma on a person's life can be significant and long-lasting, affecting their physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing throughout their life. In this blog post, we will explore pre- and perinatal trauma, birth psychology, and the impact of early trauma on a person's life.
What is Birth Psychology?
Birth psychology is the study of the psychological and emotional experiences of the fetus and newborn before, during, and after birth. Birth psychology is based on four foundational concepts:
In birth psychology, it is recognized that a baby is not just a passive recipient of sensory information, but an active participant in the birth process.
Pre- and Perinatal Trauma
Pre- and perinatal trauma refers to experiences of trauma that occur during the prenatal and perinatal periods, which includes the time before birth and the first few weeks after birth.
Prenatal trauma can occur when a mother experiences stress, anxiety, or depression during pregnancy. This can be caused by a variety of factors, such as exposure to environmental toxins, domestic violence, or a high-risk pregnancy. The developing fetus can also be directly impacted by traumatic events experienced by the mother, such as a car accident or a natural disaster.
Prenatal trauma plays an important role within birth psychology because it can significantly impact a child's development and psychological well-being both during and after birth.
Prenatal trauma can affect the developing nervous system of the baby, leading to potential physical and emotional distress during labor and delivery. The stress and anxiety experienced by the mother during pregnancy can also have an impact on the baby's emotional state and stress response during birth.
Perinatal trauma, on the other hand, occurs during the actual birthing process or shortly thereafter. This can include traumatic birth experiences, such as a difficult or prolonged labor, medical interventions, or complications during delivery. It can also include postnatal trauma, such as medical complications or separation from the mother due to illness or other reasons.
How Does Peri- and Prenatal Trauma Affect a Person Over Their Entire Life?
The impact of peri- and prenatal trauma on a person's life can be significant and long-lasting. Here are some of the ways that it can affect an individual throughout their life:
Implicit Memory and Birth Trauma
Implicit memory refers to the non-conscious or unconscious memory that is stored in the brain, body and nervous system and affects our behavior, emotions, and thoughts without our conscious awareness. Implicit memories are formed through repeated experiences and are often triggered by environmental cues or situations.
In the context of birth trauma, implicit memories can refer to memories of the traumatic experiences that are stored in the subconscious mind and influence our behavior and emotional responses throughout our lives, often without our conscious awareness. These memories can be triggered by events or situations that are reminiscent of the original trauma, such as medical procedures, hospitals, or birth-related events.
For example, a person who experienced a traumatic birth may develop an implicit memory of fear or anxiety in response to medical procedures, even if they do not consciously recall the traumatic event. This implicit memory can cause the person to feel anxious or fearful in medical settings, even if they are not consciously aware of the underlying cause.
It is important to note that implicit memories are distinct from explicit memories, which are conscious and can be recalled and described by the individual. While a person may not be able to consciously recall the details of a traumatic birth, the implicit memories associated with the event can still have a significant impact on their emotional and psychological well-being.
Understanding and addressing implicit memories from birth trauma is important for individuals who have experienced traumatic births, as it can help them to identify and manage their emotional responses and improve their overall well-being. Techniques such as trauma-focused therapy and Somatic Experiencing can be helpful in addressing implicit memories from birth trauma.
Stanislav Grof and his Research on Birth Trauma
Stanislav Grof is a Czech psychiatrist and psychotherapist who is best known for his groundbreaking research on altered states of consciousness, particularly in the context of psychotherapy. Grof's work on birth trauma and perinatal psychology has had a profound impact on the field of psychology and has helped to shed light on the origins of psychological problems and disorders.
Grof has created a more comprehensive understanding of the effects of birth on our development, identifying four distinct stages of birth called Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM). These matrices generate different types of traumas and positive experiences, resulting in varied effects on our future development.
According to Stanislav Grof's perinatal matrices theory, there are four distinct stages of birth, each giving rise to different kinds of traumas that can affect an individual's life.
Here are the traumas that can occur in each of the four perinatal matrices and how they can affect a person's life:
The first perinatal matrix is called the Basic Perinatal Matrix I, or BPM I. This stage represents the time when the fetus is still inside the mother's uterus, and labor has not yet started. The trauma that can occur at this stage is related to the quality of the womb environment, which can be nurturing or stressful, depending on various factors. Traumas at this stage can lead to anxiety, phobias, and neuroses later in life.
Basic Perinatal Matrix II (BPM II) is the stage in the birth process where labor has commenced, and the baby is pressed against the cervix by the mother's contractions. However, the cervix has not yet started to dilate or open. This experience can be quite terrifying, and individuals who were traumatized during this stage of birth may experience various negative consequences such as claustrophobia, existential angst, depression, and feelings of terror.
The third Perinatal Matrix is the BPM II, is characterized by intense feelings of fear, panic, and paranoia, and it represents the experience of being in the birth canal. The individual may experience feelings of being trapped or unable to escape, and may also feel as if they are being attacked or persecuted. This stage can later manifest in life as issues with control, anxiety, and paranoia, violence and fixation on strangulation in later life.
The fourth and final stage of birth, Basic Perinatal Matrix IV (BPM IV), marks the moment when we leave the protective environment of the womb and enter the outside world. As a result, individuals who experienced significant trauma during this stage may develop complex feelings of expansion, agoraphobia, separation, or loneliness later in life. This stage has also been linked to experiences of rebirth, particularly in religious contexts. In fact, some individuals who have undergone significant spiritual transformations may have re-experienced the sensations associated with BPM IV during these profound moments of personal change.
Grof discovered these matrices while using LSD therapy with patients suffering from mental disorders in Europe and the US. He now uses a method he developed, Holotropic Breathwork, to reveal and heal the traumas associated with these basic perinatal matrices, as well as experiences from other stages of development.
It is important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma at these stages will have negative consequences in their later life. Some individuals may develop coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma, while others may seek therapy or other methods of healing to overcome the trauma's effects.
Birth as a Portal: The Ecstasy & the Agony
Sheila Kitzinger was a British social and cultural anthropologist who is best known for her work on childbirth and women's reproductive health. Throughout her career, Kitzinger conducted extensive research on the social and cultural aspects of birth and sex, and her work has had a significant impact on the fields of anthropology, midwifery, and women's health.
One of Kitzinger's key contributions was her exploration of the sexual and socio-cultural dimensions of childbirth. Her research highlights the importance of social support during labor and delivery, and she argued that birth should be viewed as a psycho-sexual event and a socio-cultural rite of passage rather than a medical procedure. Kitzinger emphasized the need for respectful and personalized care during childbirth, and she advocated for greater involvement of women and their partners in the birthing process.
Birth and sex are often viewed as contrasting experiences in the West, when in reality they both involve the same rush of hormones in a drama where the mind and body work in harmony. When a woman is able to follow her natural instincts and give birth without interference, waves of endorphins surge through her body with the same intensity as during ecstatic lovemaking.
Birth and sex blend together to become a thrilling, sweet, and overwhelming experience of creation. However, in the Western high-tech birth culture, the environment often inhibits the spontaneity of birth, resulting in pain and distress. Pregnancy and birth are treated as medical conditions, de-sexed and turning women into mere objects for doctors to act upon.
Researchers have found that women who experience ecstatic or orgasmic birth tend to report feeling empowered and in control of the birthing process. They also report feeling a deep connection with their baby and a sense of spiritual transcendence.
However, it is important to note that not all women experience birth as a positive or pleasurable experience. Factors such as medical interventions, (sexual) trauma, and cultural expectations can all impact a woman's experience of childbirth.
Addressing the Impact of Peri- and Prenatal Trauma
While the impact of peri- and prenatal trauma can be significant and long-lasting, there are steps that can be taken to address its impact. Here are some of the interventions that can be helpful in addressing the impact of peri- and prenatal trauma:
Addressing Implicit Traumatic Memories through Somatic Modalities
Somatic modalities can be helpful in addressing and healing birth trauma or prenatal trauma. These modalities aim to work with the body to release tension and stored trauma, rather than solely relying on talk therapy. Some examples of somatic modalities that may be used to address birth trauma or prenatal trauma include:
Birth is a complex and multifaceted experience that can have a profound impact on our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Birth trauma, in particular, can have long-lasting effects on our lives, potentially leading to a range of negative consequences such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It's important to note that every individual's experience of birth or prenatal trauma is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. It's recommended to work with a trained and licensed therapist who can help guide the healing process and determine the best course of treatment for each individual.
However, there is also growing recognition of the potential for birth to be a positive and even orgasmic experience, with benefits for both mother and baby. While more research is needed to fully understand the complexities of birth and the role of birth trauma and orgasmic birth, it is clear that this is an area that deserves our attention and support. By understanding and addressing the challenges of birth, we can help to ensure that all families have the opportunity to experience this important life event in a safe, healthy, and fulfilling way.
Red Beard Somatic Therapy has a team of trauma informed practitioners that specialize in applying interventions that help you embrace your embodied self and release traumatic memories from birth or prenatal trauma.
We will teach you tools to calm your nervous system and connect with yourself, others, and the world on a deeper level through embodiment.
List of references:
Grof, Stanislav (2021): Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research. Souvenir Press.
Kitzinger, Sheila (2013): Birth and Sex: The Power and the Passion. Pinter & Martin Ltd.
Levine, Peter (2015): Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory. North Atlantic Books.
Murphy Paul, Annie (2011): Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Free Press.
Verny, Thomas/Kelly, John (1982): The Secret Life of the Unborn Child: A Remarkable and Controversial Look at Life before Birth. Summit Books.
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