Our perception of fear, however, is not hard-wired. It is programmed by our experience. That programming begins before we even exit the womb at birth, and tends to determine how we respond to challenges in life.
Fortunately, we are also designed for love. When we have had a difficult beginning, or extreme challenges in life, we may need to work harder to bypass established patterns of fear and access the love.
As little ones in the womb, we prepare for the world we are to be born into. As with all of our survival needs prenatally, our perception of threat before birth depends on mother. Our growth and development vary according to how mother perceives her environment. If she feels threatened, baby develops a body and nervous system prepared for danger. When mom feels safe and nurtured, baby prepares to live in a safe, nurturing world.
As Bruce Lipton points out in his book, The Biology of Belief, “The responsiveness of individuals to the environmental conditions perceived by their mothers before birth allows them to optimize their genetic and physiologic development as they adapt to the environmental forecast” (p. 157). The rising field of epigenetics explores how genes are turned on and off in this way.
The Gateway of Birth
For many of us, our prenatal programming is reinforced by how we are born. Birth is designed to give the nervous system a jump start as the head squeezes through the birth canal and then expands with our first breaths. Ideally, we experience an ignition to our whole system, with each organ enjoying the massage of our passage out of the womb. We then emerge into the loving arms of mom, supported by her nurturing partner and community. Our bonding with mom is fostered by oxytocin, the “love hormone” naturally released during childbirth.
Modern, western birth is rarely this gentle and welcoming. Many of us were pulled out of the birth canal with rough tools or hands. Birth attendants are usually relative strangers, even if their hands are gentle. Babies are often taken from mom - home and lifeline for the last nine or so months - to be weighed, cleaned and measured. Many are rushed away from mom to another room by strangers in an atmosphere of fear and crisis.
Our first breaths are accompanied by this imprint of how we are received at birth. Our first sight with our new eyes is often the blinding lights of an operating room or neonatal intensive care unit. Our nervous system reacts to this extreme stress. When our cries do not bring us back to the soothing familiarity of mom, and we are too small to fight or fly, we withdraw into shocked silence. Oxytocin is hard to access in this state.
Mom, in the meantime, begins her own physiological withdrawal when separated from her baby. Her body reacts as if her baby were dead, and bonding and breast feeding can be impeded.
While we may appear to recover from this startling beginning, these early experiences leave deep, lasting impressions on our rapidly learning nervous system. We may find ourselves later in life easily overwhelmed by change and challenged by relationships. New beginnings are quickly, unconsciously associated with our birth. We forget that we are now grown, highly capable individuals. We regress into our infantile experience, feeling helpless, alone, unheard, unseen, unloved.
Return to Love
The good news is that love is our essence. We can return to it at anytime.
I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with newborns and small children, as well as adults who harbor an inner little one. I have witnessed first hand how the nervous system and the psyche can shift back to an orientation to something deeper and more essential than one’s trauma history.
When we live in the shadow of an early imprint, we are not really here in present time. Some aspect of us is always interpreting our experience according to that first experience. A major key to returning to love is to bring our attention to the present.
Babies Tell their Story
Babies are not able on their own to differentiate between what they are remembering and what is happening now. They experience everything as now. They readily respond, however, if we differentiate for them.
When I work with babies, they often begin to “tell the story” of their birth, as soon as they sense that I understand this territory. They may begin to push or turn as they did in their birth. It can be helpful for babies, as it is for any of us, to be able to express to others an intense experience they have had. If the feelings associated with that event are too extreme, however, little ones can become overwhelmed by their memory. Babies easily get lost in this past pain. It can be remarkably helpful to make a simple statement differentiating then from now. I might say something like, “Yes, that’s what it was like then. I’m sorry you had to go through that. And you got through it. You are here now. Here’s mom now.”
It can be surprising how quickly babies will settle with this information. And, yes, babies do understand what we say to them. They may not know all the words, although evidence of their comprehension is amassing. They certainly understand, however, our intentions and respond to our words.
Little Ones Within
All of us have within us the influence of our own prenatal and birth experience. In that our modern western culture does not endorse this kind of memory, we are not supported as toddlers in talking about these experiences, which would bring them into more conscious, explicit memory. We are nonetheless under their influence.
We are all capable of regressing into an infantile state, where we lose access to our more grown up resourcefulness. If we have had a difficult birth or prenatal experience, we will tend to slip into this early state when encountering major change or transition. Like the babies we once were, we may be unable to differentiate in this state between then and now. We may then find ourselves unable to cope, depressed, withdrawn, or incapacitated by primal rage or terror. It is helpful to have support at these times from someone who understands the trauma states little ones can experience. There are also ways to support yourself in these situations.
Present Time, Love Present
Just as I help my little clients to differentiate between then and now, it can be helpful to remind yourself that these feelings are from the past, when you were too little to protect yourself. Let yourself remember how old you are now. Remind yourself of all the skills you have developed that you didn’t have back then. For example, you can read. You can walk and talk. You can earn and count money and pay for things. Perhaps you can drive, hold down a job, dial the phone. Make a list of these simple skills that you have that you didn’t have when you were little. This can help you to remember who you are now.
Make yourself look around the room you are in. Take note of the colors, shapes, images you see. Name what you see. This brings you into present time. Similarly, attending to and identifying sensations you feel supports you in being present. Take note of simple sensations like heat in your foot, the sensation of the your body resting in the chair. Make tiny movements with one hand or finger or other body part, and let yourself be with the felt sense of that momement.
Challenge yourself to see how you are safe in this moment. Our fear is never actually about the present. It is about what could happen in the future, and is based on the past. Even if you are in a burning building, your fear is not about this moment. You are relatively ok in this moment. Your fear is that you will never escape… that it will get worse…that you will be burned, or more burned, or lose your things and loved ones, or lose more of them than you have already lost. In this moment, you can always find some sense of safety, something that tells you that you are safe.
As you come into present time, you will begin to find love. You can support this process by thinking of what you feel grateful for or appreciate. Gratitude and appreciate actually shift your physiology. There is always something to feel grateful for, even if it is just the breath you just took.
Breath is Life
By the way, are you breathing? When we are in fear, our breath tends to become shallow and fast, as the sympathetic nervous system prepares us for fight or flight. If you are not in actual physical danger, where you need to be able to run away or protect yourself, it can be helpful to sit or lie down and put a hand on your belly. Let yourself become aware of the movement of the breath in your belly. You will feel your hand rising and falling with the breath. This awareness supports your parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved with rest and rejuvenation.
As you settle, love becomes more accessible. You can begin to think about what you actually desire in relation to the situation at hand. You can begin to appreciate what you have and build on that. You may even choose to share your love with your inner little one. Imagine him or her and ask yourself what that little one most needs. Chances are, it is to be held and loved. This is something you can provide, even if you didn’t receive it back then. Go ahead and visualize yourself holding this little one in your arms, in your heart. It is never too late to love and be loved.
Meeting a new beginning or change from a state of love may in itself be a new beginning for you. You may find yourself going through a different kind of birth in this moment. Welcome to your new life!