Birth trauma can have a lasting impact on your life well into adulthood. How you first enter the world can affect how you relate to yourself, to other people, and to life itself. Below, I share my personal story of birth trauma and outline the resources that are helping me heal this trauma. I hope they will help you heal, as well.
Back in Time
On December 15th, 1986, my mom was 7 months pregnant with me. She started having contractions and was rushed to the hospital after spending the last few months of her pregnancy on strict bedrest.
Before me, she had given birth to twin boys and lost both of them – one about a week after birth, the second a few days later. She had also lost another pregnancy between her twins and me.
Needless to say, her womb was a place of anxiety and trauma. This was not her fault on any level, and she suffered because of it. She also knew when to ask for help and immediately started therapy to cope with her losses. My mom has been a shining example of how to thrive and find joy, peace, and deep meaning in life despite whatever has happened in the past.
She was also anxious, stressed, and scared as the day of my birth approached, and throughout her pregnancy with me (understandable). Knowing what I know about nervous system wiring, I realize now that I absorbed much of her fear and anxiety while in the womb and during my early years of development. Which, again, was not her fault on any level.
Due to her complicated, high-risk pregnancy, her doctor decided to go with a C-section and cut me out at 7 months.
Although I can’t explain how I remember this – or whether it makes rational sense – I recently had the visceral memory of being pulled out from the womb. I was able to remember, somehow, how that scalpel sliced into my mom’s womb and the doctor’s hands reached in to pull me out.
I viscerally recalled – and felt – this jarring memory while reading a book about boundaries, of all things.
The author was talking about the importance of boundaries in childhood, and how precarious or violated boundaries in infancy can have a lasting impact on our lives.
The Effects of How We Enter into this World
When I read those words – violated boundaries – the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I was paralyzed. I froze.
I could remember in my skin, in my body, in my bones the experience of being cut out of the womb. How that womb had served as an intact boundary for me; as a safe haven of comfort, soothing, and warmth. And then, just like that, with no warning, my safe home was fractured and I was ripped out. Not yet fully formed or ready for the outside world.
I spent a month in an incubator before I could go home.
Looking back now, I can say that being born early – being forced into the world early – has had far-reaching implications throughout my life.
First, I was always an anxious child, and overly attached to my mom. Sleepovers were a very rare occurrence, unless I felt extremely safe – which didn’t happen all that often outside of my own home.
Second, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety as a young adult, mostly due to my catastrophic and black-or-white thinking. I spent many years of my adult life in hypervigilant mode, always fearing that death or a disaster was right around the corner.
Knowing what I know now about the effects of our mothers’ nervous systems, moods, emotions, trauma, and internal experiences on our developing nervous systems in the womb, it makes a lot of sense. It makes sense that I would constantly fear for my own life and safety – just as my mom did for those 7 months I was in the womb and during my childhood.
Third, as I write this, it’s December 14th, 2021. One day before my birthday. And all day (all week, really), I’ve been having feelings of emptiness, apathy, and trepidation. It makes sense that these feelings would come up now, and that they’d be related to how I came into the world. Especially as they come up so strongly 24 hours before the time of my birth – the moment when the trauma first happened.
And it also makes sense that I’ve spent the past few years working nonstop, taking care of others, accomplishing one thing after another to avoid having to confront these feelings and sit with them.
The Past Blending into the Present / Frozen Trauma
It can be overwhelming to acknowledge our trauma. Just talking or thinking about it – or, of course, remembering it – can be overwhelming to the nervous system.
The nervous system doesn’t really operate within linear time (or logic!), so our nervous systems might still be “stuck” or frozen at that point in time when the trauma first occurred.
I think this is what’s happening to me this year – as I approach the day and hour of my birth, my nervous system is giving off warning signs, almost bracing for the same trauma to happen again.
Fearing that it will happen again. That I will be ripped from a place of safety and well-being and thrust into chaos in some way. I’ve often felt these feelings as part of my anxiety in the past, but they are especially acute today. On December 14th, the eve of my birth.
Now that you’ve read through my story (thank you!), maybe we can extrapolate some general points about how birth trauma might operate, and what we can do to heal.
The caveat is, of course, that we’re all unique beings with unique birth experiences. And even if we had similar birth experiences, your nervous system is going to respond and be wired differently than mine.
But here are some points to consider that could be relevant to you as well.
The Circumstances of Your Birth
First, it’s important to be aware of the general circumstances of your birth – or as much as you can find out. For example:
- Were you born naturally (vaginally) or via C-section?
- Was the birth complicated or high risk for any reason?
- Did the birth take an extremely long time, or was it fairly short, or somewhere in between?
- Were you your mom’s first birth experience, or second or third, etc?
- Were you born in a hospital, at home, in a tub (water birth), etc? What was the setting? Did your mom feel comfortable in this setting? Was it her first choice?
- Did you need any medical support or interventions right after being born?
- Did you spend time in an incubator or in the NICU? If so, how long?
- Were you born premature, full term, or past your mom’s due date?
Second, investigate the circumstances of your mom’s life and internal experience during pregnancy and labor. For example:
- Was your mom happy and excited to be pregnant?
- How old was your mom when she had you?
- Was your mom experiencing anxiety, stress, depression, or other mental health issues while pregnant with you?
- During her pregnancy, did your mom live in a supportive and safe environment?
- What kind of support did your mom receive during pregnancy and during labor? (i.e., who was there with her?)
- What was your mom’s recovery process after labor?
Since you might not have answers to all of these questions, this might open up a worthwhile conversation with your mom – if you’re able to have it. Or you might be able to ask grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, or anyone else who was there at the time and might have this information.
Becoming more aware of the circumstances of your birth might reveal some important insights about your adult life, your nervous system patterns, how you relate to yourself and to the world, and whether you feel grounded and safe in your body now.
That’s the first step.
Resources to Heal Birth Trauma
Once you have a deeper awareness and understanding, you might explore a few resources to heal your birth trauma and alleviate the consequences it has had on you.
For me, these have been the most helpful things:
Somatic Experiencing. SE practices like grounding, orienting, the self-hug, and activating the vagus nerve are helping me slowly and gently rewire my nervous system.
These practices are also helping me to re-establish what feels like a protective outer layer or boundary around myself (the boundary that was violated when I was cut out of the womb). SE is an ideal tool for this as it focuses on developing a sense of containment and safety within our bodies.
To explore this modality, I recommend starting with Dr. Peter Levine’s book Healing Trauma.
You can also listen to my podcast with gifted healer and Somatic Practitioner Rachel Hardy: Healing Trauma and Nervous System Regulation.
Acupressure/acupuncture. I went to an acupuncturist for many years and eventually learned about meridians and acupressure points throughout the body, especially the ones that need the most attention in my own body. For me, these include the spleen points, the stomach points, and the triple warmer meridian.
In energy medicine, the triple warmer is seen as the meridian that controls the fight, flight, or freeze response, so if you’re frequently on high alert and unable to relax fully, you will want to sedate this meridian. Here’s a helpful video on how to do so.
Radical self-compassion. These days, I’m treating myself as though I’m that little baby who was ripped out of the womb before she was ready. As though I’m an infant who needs so much care, love, and gentleness. Because, on some level, I am still that little baby.
The part of me that holds my birth trauma hasn’t grown up over the years; it has stayed frozen in the trauma. And she needs my unconditional love and compassion, as I learn how to thaw the frozen trauma gradually and help her understand that we are now in 2021, and the danger has passed.
Self-care as a priority. And I mean Priority. Not self-care as the last thing you check off on your to-do list, if you ever get around to it. Not self-care where you’re half present and half thinking about what you need to do next. Not self-care that you do while feeling guilty or selfish for not prioritizing others’ needs. Not self-care that you do a little bit here, a little bit there.
To work through and heal birth trauma, you must be committed to your self-care and take full ownership of it – making it the most important thing you do all day. (At least for now.) Find the self-care practices that make you feel supported, connected, and grounded in your body. Make a list of those practices and do at least two of them every day.
My daily self-care at this point includes:
- morning journaling
- pulling a daily tarot card
- acupressure & massage with magnesium-rich lotion
- gentle movement of the body (yoga or walking)
Re-establishing violated boundaries. As you read in my story, disordered, violated, or unhealthy boundaries growing up can have a lasting impact on you. Examining your own boundary story and patterns can help you identify the areas where you need stronger or more self-protective boundaries. I’ve written about boundaries in these articles:
Working with a healer. I’ve benefitted greatly by working with two healers who have helped me explore my birth trauma in different ways. If you’re interested in working together on this, you can learn about my healing sessions here.
The Emptiness as a Doorway
I’m so grateful that you’ve taken the time to read my story. I hope something has resonated with you, and that you will give yourself the time and space you need to heal.
Often, the emptiness or lack of purpose we feel is a precursor to a deeper journey, a deeper self-exploration, a necessary redirection of our energy and focus.
These feelings, as uncomfortable as they are, can serve to guide us towards what really does hold meaning for us – what we really value, what really matters.
And, in the meantime, we must feel the feelings and acknowledge where we are. Without rushing to be someone or somewhere else. (As hard as that can be. I know.)
Wherever you are today, thank you for reading this and for seeing me. I hope you feel seen, too.