When 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.