Birth Trauma and Anxiety

IMG_6629When working with anxiety and intrusive thoughts, the essential component is to resist the gravitational and habitual pull to attach onto the stories that appear like planets in our inner galaxy and assume that they’re true.  The story of the day – whether it centers around your relationship, your fertility, your job, your health, or your children – occupies so much space and presents its argument with such conviction that the untrained mind will naturally attach and interpret in a lightening flash second. That’s why the first step is to name all of your go-to thoughts so that when they appear you can immediately identify them for what they are: flares from psyche that come bearing gifts in the form of the alarming story of the current thought.

Once we detach from the thought-sphere, we must then ask, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling? What is the need embedded in the thought that is crying for attention?” Sometimes the feeling is current and clear: an immediate transition (getting married, becoming a parent, moving), a subtle transition (the change of seasons, an anniversary), a painful familial relationship or friendship that is changing or dying. But sometimes the source feelings embedded in the thought have their roots in early, even pre-verbal trauma. I discussed one of these traumas briefly in last week’s post, Moment By Moment, when I referenced early pain stemming from being labeled as a “difficult baby” because of digestive issues. There’s an even earlier pain that many, if not all humans, experience: the trauma of being born.

The first time I came across the link between birth anxiety and the blueprint for how we experience life, another piece to the anxiety puzzle fell into place for me. There are some passages we read that stand out in the psyche for years and even decades. They speak to the place where soul meets soul, leaving an invisible imprint that informs the way we think, feel, and act. It’s one reason why books can change our lives, for poetic writing bridges left and right brain, intellect and heart, as the words dart and weave into deeper and deeper aspects of Self and cause neurons to fire and synapses to unite.

This particular passage came from Marion Woodman’s work, where she says*:

Life moves in cycles, consciousness expands. Each time we are faced with some new truth about ourselves part of us dies and a new part is conceived. In the fullness of time we have to move through a birth canal and birth canals can be dangerous. In any experience people tend to repeat their original birth trauma each time they attempt to leave the warm womb they have cuddled into. If they were Cesarean births they may hesitate to confront; if they were breech births, they might go at things backward; if their mother was drugged, they will tend to find some anesthetic (drugs, alcohol, food) to throw them into unconsciousness. These points of transition where we are called to stretch into new maturity are the points where the addiction is most liable to resurface.

I distinctly remember my jaw dropping when I read that passage as a 23-year old graduate student. I remember a zing traveling from the tips of my toes to the top of my brain. I put the book down and just sat still, allowing the power of those words to begin to work their magic.

Why did that passage effect me so deeply? Likely because it resonated as true for my own life and the work that I would birth throughout that decade. At twenty-three, I had suffered my first panic attack and had spent two years struggling through the morass of anxiety. It would be years before I would connect all of my anxious dots and understand why my psyche reached a breaking point and panicked, but in that moment I knew that my birth trauma played a role. The zing was the resonance of yes. And I had learned by that point in my life to follow the yeses.

The story of my own birth tear-dropped into memory: a natural birth, but then taken away and placed in the nursery almost immediately upon delivery, as was the practice at that time. A nursery full of other lonely, crying babies. I imagined the loneliness I always felt in groups, sensing into everyone else’s loneliness: My homesickness and separation anxiety that surfaced at an early age. The need to be close to my mother. My mother later told me that when they would bring me to her to breastfeed, I was so deeply asleep that she couldn’t wake me up. And then the 10-minute allotted time expired and the nurse would whisk me away again. How hungry I must have been! Why was I so soundly asleep that my mother couldn’t wake me? Dissociated from trauma, most likely. Synapses fired again, making connections to the struggle I was having at age 23 with swallowing, the anxiety having taken residence in my throat. Soul-excavation isn’t a scientific endeavor. We loosen the limits of mind and swing into the amorphous realm of psyche as we would a dream, listening for the a-ah moments as signposts of yes, you’re close, yes, there’s a connection, yes, a piece of the puzzle just fell into the place.

The firing of connections is part of what helps us to pull back projections and make sustainable change. As Clara commented on this post:

“…we go through transitions much the same way that we come into the world (breach, “late”, c-section, natural). Perhaps it’s also true that our soul’s callings are connected to the season inside which we were born”. This lit up another piece of the puzzle for me… I was two weeks late as a baby, and have always been ‘late’ with transitions (puberty, losing my virginity, learning to drive, readiness for motherhood etc…). This fact always baffled me as I have generally been confident and daring in other ways. My ‘late arrival’ was ultimately a natural, uncomplicated and healthy birth… and this was reflected in my puberty transition and my first sexual experience (once I let go of the angst). What hope that brings.

I’ve never done or seen a formalized study on the link between how we’re born and how we navigate through transitions, but based on Marion’s words and my own observations my guess is that there’s a strong correlation. If parents understood this, they may be more apt to honor a child’s natural rhythm instead of imposing the litany of “shoulds” that seems to accompany the mainstream parenting handbook. What if that handbook said something like, “If your baby took a long time to arrive, expect them to need a lot of extra time transitioning in life. If your baby was hurried along, either through medication or herbs, expect them to ask you to slow down a lot and insist on following his own rhythm.” Like most things in life, there isn’t a formula that we can attribute to all children, but the area of birth trauma is one that is underrepresented in the psychology world and deserves more research and attention.

Like understanding the link between our early parenting, peer, and religious experiences and how we regard ourselves, knowing our birth history helps us to decode how we arrived at where we are. As Marion states, knowing how we arrived into this world and the hours afterwards must be one of the most powerful blueprints that informs how we walk through transitions and life in general. We connect one more dot, and then we breathe a little more deeply into our sense that maybe, just maybe, the stories we attach onto so fervently aren’t true but are are instead signposts that invite us inward into the place where we know that we’re okay, we’re good, we’re loved, and we’re whole.


* I originally read this passage in Woodman’s “The Pregnant Virgin”, but this excerpt comes from an online interview, which you can read here.

28 comments to Birth Trauma and Anxiety

  • Emily

    Thank you so much for this! It is such an interesting take on why we make the decisions we do throughout our lives. As always, I love reading your blog posts, especially when you talk about your own journey with anxiety- so relatable! Thank you again!

  • MelleS

    This article rings a bell for me. When It comes to my anxiety, my mother uses to tell me how anxious She was before my birth because of her work (her boss wanted her to carry heavy stuffs although She was pregnant, after my birth She quit her job…). My parents told me too that I didn’t cry when I was born because my throat was obstructed so the nurses toke me away from my parents to make me breath. It felt very long for my parents to wait for me to cry… Maybe that’s why I was so scared, as a child, to be abandoned… And I know, that somehow, this fear is at the core of my relationship anxiety.

    • Yes, that makes so much sense, Melle. As I wrote to Emma, it’s not just the original trauma that creates a blueprint for anxiety but it’s also how it was handled afterward. Was the trauma repeated? How were similar situations around separation handled? These are important questions to ponder as well.

      • MelleS

        Hi Sheryl !
        I’ve been thinking about your questions. The trauma was repeated, I think. When I was a baby and a little girl, my grandmother used to look after me. She had to go to hospital because she had heart issues. Just before going to hospital she hold me tight because she felt It was the last time she would see me. My father told me too that I didn’t want either to let her go, I grabed her, I felt that something was wrong. Then she died at the hospital.
        Then, each time I had to go to school excursions or when my parents were late to take me at school (even 5 minuts and It was rare) I was panicked and sometimes sick because I was scared they never come to pick me up. I’ve never been taught properly to handle It. For my father, It was no big deal, It was just a matter of maturity. My mother, in the other hand, overprotected me, when It was possible she convinced my father to go with me to some excursions. I think, in their own way, they tried to do their best.

  • Diedre Mans

    Dear Sheryl, I recently went for an MRI Scan. I told the Radiographer that I am do not do good in confined spaces, but she re assured me, asked me about my job (Psychology Registered Counsellor & Pastoral Carer) my foot!!!! in this experience. She tried her best even asking for help with her child’s separation anxiety.

    After the second attempt to “send me through the tunnel”, I got a full blown anxiety attack for the first time in my 56 years, I could not breath and just wanted to get out. They had to stop the procedure and get a medical doctor to administer something to take the anxiety edge off.
    According to my mom I was born face to pubis, very painful, very difficult, the doctor had to use instruments to pull me out and I was injured around the throat area.
    When I told this to my Neurosurgeon who prescribed the MRI for my back, he said “YES THE LIMBIC CORTEX REMEMBERS EVERYTHING”

  • Clara

    What an unexpected joy and honor to be quoted in this article. I didn’t even remember writing those words two years ago, but there you are! Now, as a new mother, this wisdom holds a new potency. My twin boys, born 5 weeks early, by emergency caesar, taken straight to the special care nursery where they had to be tube fed for the first 10 days until their sucking instinct kicked in… None of it ideal, but all of it necessary. What transition profile would you expect to develop from that particular birth experience, Sheryl? I’d love to be able to meet their blue print with sensitive atunement at their times of transition. Xxx

    • From what I know about your parenting style, Clara, you’re already meeting the trauma and have likely repaired it already. But yes, understanding the blueprint will be helpful for future transitions. I would expect that they might need extra time through transitions, as well as extra nourishment on all levels. As I suggested to Emma, I always recommend a few cranial-sacral sessions for babies to address the physiological effects of birth trauma that can then lead to emotional residue. Also, when babies are born especially early, I’ve recently learned that it’s especially important to attend to their brain stem, which may not have been fully formed at birth. I haven’t read this woman’s work yet, but she’s been recommended to me. Perhaps you’ll find some insight here:

  • Tündi

    There could be a connection indeed! My mother always tells me how terrified she was when she went into labour with me. I was her first-born and upon arrival at the hospital she was left alone in a dark room with her pain and fear for hours (it was the middle of the night). Then when the time came they discovered that I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck 3 times and almost got choked in the process. The whole episode was very stressful and it took more than 20 hours for me to finally arrive.
    The whole experience translates perfectly into the way I feel through transitions: horribly stuck, angry and helpless, and the most characteristic symptom I have is that my throat closes up in an instant and I really struggle to breathe. What an interesting discovery! Thank you Sheryl!
    Sending you love & light!

  • Worrier96

    I definatley think there’s a connection! When my mother went into labour I was early, she was rushed to hospital when I apparently decided I didn’t want to come out after all. They sent her to a different hospital, and on the way I changed my mind and suddenly decided actually yes, I want to see the world! I’ve been indecisive since birth! But I think I also am always hesitant to leave my comfort zone (womb), but there is a part of me that desperately wants to take the risk….thank you for opening my eyes to this! I had never considered this before!

  • Emma1404

    Oh Sheryl the synchronicity of this post is baffling! My baby boy is turning 4 months on Thursday and now that the newborn stage is fading, I know that I need to turn inward and process his birth, which was traumatic for me (and am afraid for him too!). I had a dream yesterday about he birth, which I know was an invitation to explore it.

    My baby was “overdue”. My water broke but I had no contractions for a few hours, so I had to get induced to avoid an infection. The birth itself is a long story – the pain was excruciating and it lasted for hours, but it is the time after the birth which was the most traumatic for me. I stayed with my baby for a few hours after the birth and then my husband took him to get checked.

    However my husband came back with an empty crib – they kept him in the neonatal unit because his oxygen level was too low (because of the very long birth and induction drugs I believe). I found him in a gigantic room, alone, with a tiny oxygen mask and a screen monitoring him. I was so exhausted ans sad. I stayed with him as much as I could, but I had to go sleep in another room and he had to leave him there the first night. I could go there anytime though and the staff called us whenever he was hungry or cried. I slept for 5 hours and got t up at 4 am to see him. He was lying there, awake and all quiet. His oxygen level got back to normal and we were reunited.

    I know it was “just one night”, but this early separation was painful for me – much more than the physical pain, and I don’t know how to deal with it. I know I now have separation anxiety with him. I am on maternity leave and I am always with him, I still want to hold him all the time and make sure he sees me. I think it is not a coincidence that he hates his pram and only wants to be in the baby carrier with me, which I secretly like because nobody can “take him away from me” for walks. I panic if he is out of sight and have had this recurring nightmare where he disappears and I cannot find him anywhere. People tell me he was not traumatized and he was fine. I don’t know about, him, but I know I have some form of trauma.

    In a a way your post and Marion’s words completely spiked me. What impact has his birth had on him? How can I handle the likely trauma now? Like you, I got separated from my mum when I was born and it was something I knew I wanted to avoid when I gave birth myself, but it just happened. Although your post makes sense, I am afraid it creates more anxiety for me about something I simply couldn’t control. I know your invitation is to just be conscious about our birth circumstances and to see it as information to understand oneself better, but somehow it makes me worried that my baby will struggle more than he would have had his birth gone more smoothly.

    However, your post made me realize that I need help to process this, and I remembered that Pam England (who wote Birthing From Withing) offers consultations to process one’s birth story. I think I will book one ☺

    • A consultation with Pam England would be great, as it’s equally as important to process our own giving birth story as it is to process the story of being born. My thoughts are twofold: 1. Every baby has birth trauma of some kind as leaving the safety and perfection of the womb and going through the canal – or being born C-section – can’t be anything other than traumatic in some way. 2. Your son’s entrance was exactly what it needed to be in order for him to enter the world with his own life lessons. Our children have their own path, and we can’t protect them from all pain and trauma. We simply do the very best we can and help them in the aftermath of the trauma.

      What we also know about trauma is that it’s not the trauma itself but how it’s processed afterwards that lays the tracks for long-lasting pain and fear. In fact, Peter Levine, who is the trauma expert of the world, says that trauma is actually healthy because it teaches strength and resilience. Your son may have felt scared or lonely in the room by himself but you’ve attached beautifully every moment since then, which means he won’t likely have long-lasting effects from his first day in the world. I also recommend having a few sessions with a cranial-sacral practitioner to help newborns realign their skull and sacrum after being pushed through the canal (or however they were born). I recommend this to everyone now, not just those who had more difficult births.

      • Emma1404

        Thank you for your kind words Sheryl 🙂 And for reminding me that our children have their own paths and lessons!! So hard to accept but so true!! I also have to remind myself that all the hardships I have been through in my life have made me a more compassionate and wise person. Pain is just part of the human experience! I will also look into cranial-sacral therapy.

  • Angela

    Intetesting blog Sheryl, I was also born 2 weeks later, Natural birth and the first born. I am a late boomer, married late and if im very lucky have a baby late, getting to know myself late..i guess there is no time frame, things happen naturally when the time is right.. When i was ready… Not when the universe was ready ?

    • And we have to be careful about how we assign terms like “late” and “early” to birthing and to life. Our culture measures everything according to its own timetable, but the truth is that we all have our own rhythms that need to be honored. Still, it’s an interesting parallel that you’re sharing!

  • Eileen

    I love this sheryl! I was cesarian two months premature plucked to an incubator and given the last rites. My mum was also in a bad way for a couple of weeks. I was kept on the best place but little me would have had no concept of time. I clung to my mum via an invisible cord all my life till she passed away last year. I had to fight too survive at birth I wonder why my fear of loss is so huge is it because of the fight?

  • Angela

    Yes, thats precisely what I feel, who cares if friends, cousins, neighbours have had children and I havent, that is exactly how i feel. Im still happy and I am healthy. I have 2 choices, I can either crawl in a ball and feel sad, miserable or to just accept that what I have is more than enough. I choose to feel happy, grateful and blessed. Life is too short and precious to mourn about it. Yes, I have cried and told myself why me? I am a compassionate woman, I would be an amazing mother. The way I see things is Im a preschool teacher and I mother the beautiful children every day at work. ??

  • Gen

    I’m just wondering – with all of this is there a right way to be birthed? And is there a way to remediate
    The trauma we may have felt at birth? Regards, Gen

    • There’s no right way to be birthed. We’re birthed the way we’re birthed and then we learn from it. However, Western medicine doesn’t help with the natural birthing process as it tends to view birth as an illness that requires interventions and medication. While we bow down to Western medicine when we need it, it’s also important to realize that doctors tend to get in the way of the natural process more than they need to.

  • Katie

    Hi Sheryl, what a timely post! My son was born this past September 2 (I also have an almost 3 Year old girl) and this really resonated with me. Not only because I could see the similarity with my own birth and the way I deal with transitions (a long birth, the umbilical cord tied three times on my neck, breech position), but also because even though my son’s birth was fast, with my husband we had a great scare because our Baby boy came out ok but then he was given oxygen and had to spend the night at the neonatal unit because he was too sleepy and not alert enough. According to my doctor it could have been because for years I have been taking a low dose of Prozac (of course supervised by my pschiatrist) and my baby was deprived from the drug when he was born. Supposedly he should have stayed 24 hours monitored, but thank God the next morning he was doing fine and returned with us. Even so, I felt really guilty because somehow I felt it was my fault.
    He is a really pleasant baby, who rarely cries, and I find that even though it wasn’t the arrival I was expecting at the hospital, I feel really blessed with him and our family. So much, in fact, that I remenber a lot one of your older posts named ‘So precious it hurts’. Thank You so much for your work that spreads love and light!

  • Jelena

    Wow, its a very intereting analogy. I remember that i have always had a separtion anxiety as a child, i was never feeling comfortable or myself if my mother was not with me. I too was taken away to a separate room after my birth and i remeber my mother telling me that i cried the loudest of all babies and that the nurses always rushed to give me to my mother first for breastfeeding so i dont wake all the other babies. Also all my family members always had to tell me what an annoyingly loud baby i was and that they could not handle my voice even later in life because of my baby days.
    The negative of the story is that i always felt very unconfortable in new groups and i would not allow my self to speak or stick out in any way so there is the least amount of attention on me. The positive, i am a fighter and i make my voice heard when things really matter just like when i was hungry an crying really loud to get fed. So in uess there is also some positive insights from the whole birthing experience. 🙂
    Sheryl thank you for shining the light on things which we really need to be conscious about!

  • Karolina

    Thank you so much! This is exactly what I needed to read today. xo

  • Stef

    I’ve just woken up and felt the worst anxious feeling in my tummy so I decided I would read your new blog post that I hadn’t got to read yet.
    I found it so interesting!
    I realised I’m not fully aware about the details of my birth and have never really spoken to my parents about it so that’s something I might have to ask.
    One thing I do know that isn’t about my birth but happened when I was about 1 year old is that I was went missing in the city for a few hours. I’m not sure how I got lost at that age but my parents tell me eventually I was found and a lady had picked me up and tried to find my parents.
    I always wonder and my partner always tells me that this might have something to do with my relationship anxiety. Ow.
    I wonder if it could mean my fear of abandonment or something more..
    My relationship with my parents is an okay one. I know they love me but we don’t show much affection or deep communication so I’m wondering if I didn’t get the care I needed after that event in my young life and it’s effecting me now..

  • Jake

    Is it possible to have your emotions shut down from your childhood?
    I feel like I have never been in touch with my feelings it’s like I can’t feel. I question my feelings towards my partner, kids family members. I’m so frustrated with this feeling so cold.

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