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BIRTH TRAUMA How Do We Re-enact the Effects of Early Trauma in Our Lives?

Updated: Jan 15


One of the most confusing, and generally least understood effects of experiencing emotional shock and/or traumatisation is the way in which our body and our psyche become conditioned. This conditioning causes us to unconsciously re-enact the specific dynamics of the trauma in our everyday lives.

The earlier the trauma, the more significant the impact it has upon us.

This process, known as traumatic re-enactment, or recapitulation is the focus of this article.


Whenever we have an intense experience, synaptic connections are made at an alarming rate. These connections form neural superhighways that become reinforced by the high level of stress hormones and neuropeptides circulating in the bloodstream.

These connections do not just encode our physiological state at the time but also encompass our psychological and emotional state, as well as any particular survival strategies that were used.

These neural superhighways become activated when we find ourselves in a situation that is similar in some way to the original event.

For example,

if as a result of experiencing intense pressure during birth, a baby gets stuck, baby may start to feel a high level of frustration and anxiety.

As a result of this experience, their developing brain will wire the whole of this situation into a neural superhighway.

This wiring will include the posture of the baby at the time, the feelings of intense pressure, the sense of being stuck, the anxiety and frustration together with the attempt to fight against it.


This is why, in somatic therapy, we take on a posture and exaggerate that posture, to give space for the body and soul to consciously re member the charge that is being held in the implicit (pre-verbal) body memory.


The body's intelligence brings us into these postures organically in psychedelic spaces and during breathwork experiences as well with the innate impulse for whatever energetic charge and emotion and belief associated with it to be made conscious and reclaimed in a good way.


If in later life, this person finds him/her self re-experiencing any flavour of these conditions, the neural superhighway formed at the time will start to be activated and they may become flooded with sensations and emotions that seem completely out of proportion and irrelevant to their current situation.


This way of being will become identified with and they may just resign themself to the fact that he/she is the “type of person that doesn’t handle pressure well and finds that he/she gets really frustrated and anxious whenever they are in a pressured situation.”

However, this is not true. These ways of being are often related to how we have learnt to be rather than who we truly are.


Our true nature has had to adapt and project in order to contain the effects of the traumatic experience. These effects of these experiences influence every aspect of who way are, including our physical health, emotional state, thoughts, beliefs, behaviour and speech.

The effects of early traumatic experience go even further as we will unconsciously recreate these dynamics in our lives in some way.

(More details on this below)

There are several ways in which this occurs. We may attract specific people/situations to us as if we were some sort of magnet for them.

Conversely, we may also find ourselves attracted to these same people/situations.

Another way in which we can recreate these effects is to behave in specific unconscious ways that then causes others to act out the dynamic of the original trauma upon us.


For example, if we have experienced rejection early in life, we may act in such a way that tries to stop people from rejecting us, such as with clingy, needy or controlling behaviour.

However, in doing this, we find that people become tired and frustrated with us and are actually more likely to reject us as a result, creating the very situation that we were trying to avoid in the first place.

All of this is an additional lens to learn about ourselves through. We can also connect some of these survival strategies with the 5 Personality Patterns as well.


Direct recapitulation

In direct recapitulation, we unconsciously attract, or are attracted to, specific situations and/or people who recreate the exact dynamic of the original trauma towards us. For example, if we experienced intense pressure during birth that was overwhelming, we may directly recapitulate this by constantly putting ourselves in relationships and work environments where we feel consistently pressurised and overwhelmed.

Avoidant recapitulation

Avoidant recapitulation is where we unconsciously avoid the specific dynamics of the original trauma.

For example, if we experienced some form of early chemical toxicity e.g. maternal smoking, drinking and/or drug use during pregnancy, use of pain-relief medication during birth, we may avoidantly recapitulate this by leading a “clean” lifestyle by not drinking, smoking or doing drugs and making sure that all food and drink is clean, pure and organic. We may even be reluctant to take prescription medication, preferring more natural remedies.

Perpetrator Identified Recapitulation

This form of recapitulation occurs when we identify with the specific forces of the trauma and project it onto others. This person recapitulates their trauma by becoming an aggressor.

An example of this type of recapitulation can be seen in the person who experienced their boundaries being invaded during birth as a result of intense contractions and/or interventions.

They may then recapitulate this by being incredibly invasive or aggressive towards those people around them.

Victim Identified Recapitulation

Victim identified recapitulation is the exact opposite of perpetrator identified in that we take the dynamics of what has happened to us and put it onto ourselves in such a way that we feel like victims of life. For example, as a result of being pulled out by forceps, an adult may later recapitulate this by feeling completely powerless to prevent others from manipulating, overpowering and controlling them (all feelings that individuals have attributed to a forceps birth), and will in all likelihood attract/be attracted to people who will treat him in this way..

Retroflective Identification

In this situation, we take the specific belief that the trauma imprinted and we identify into it. For example, as a result of experiencing abandonment either in utero or during the birth process, (separated from mom, incubation, treated aggressively or unconsciously) we have deep feelings of distrust toward the world and people. As a consequence of this, there may be a belief that "I must have done something wrong." or "it's because of me" This belief is the one that was then identified with as a baby. We are totally merged with our environment at this stage.. We are not separate. So baby then forms a belief that get lodged in the body as shock/terror, anger, despair, loss...and can manifest in different sequences of expression. Basically baby believes, If this is the world, and this is how I'm treated, then i'm that...then there is be something inherently wrong with me.

Compensatory Retroflection

This form of recapitulation is the opposite of retroflective identification. In this situation, we identify with a belief, but we compensate for it by acting out its opposite. For example, if as a result of early experience we felt that we were a failure, we may compensate for this feeling by needing to be successful. This unconscious drive to be successful will continue unabated unless the underlying feelings of failure, and its causation are addressed. or an adaptive strategy that goes something like... "You have it, I need it, Ill do it FOR you to meet my own need" because there is shame about having needs, and those needs might get you rejected..

Victim Advocate Recapitulation

this strategy involves an unconscious projection of the trauma dynamics into the social sphere in order to help and support others. This is most often done by working with others to help them overcome the same dynamics that we experienced. For example, as a result of being disempowered, controlled and manipulated by forceps/ventouse during birth, the victim advocate might become involved in teaching such principles as assertiveness, self-development and empowerment.

Confrontational Recapitulation

This strategy requires that people actively seek out and challenge any circumstances, issues and/or social policies that remind them of their original trauma.

For example, confrontational recapitulation of early rejection might mean that you feel compelled to work to try to influence social policy with regard to others who are rejected e.g. adoption policy.

It is my experience that if we can start to become more conscious of how we organise ourselves around our early experiences, then we can bring more clarity and understanding to our work. When we are able to meet others with a greater degree of accuracy with regard to their personal process, this allows for a much deeper acknowledgement of the experience within their psyche.

Stage One


Stage one begins with the onset of labour and explores the ways in which the baby relates to the intensity and pressure of contractions whilst being prevented from moving forward due to an undilated cervix. We will also explore some of the more important cranial and somatic tissue patterns that get imprinted at this time, and we will look at how these early relationships have impacted us.

Common psychological themes associated with this time include:


  • The lie side. The lie-side is the one which must bear the most and the strongest pressure in this transit phase.

  • how we relate to stress and pressure with no way out.

  • initiating projects

  • and how we handle transitions

Stage one ends with the dilation of the cervix and the initial descent of the baby.

Stage Two

Stage two explores the four main rotation styles that baby’s use in transitioning from having their heads in a more transverse position at the pelvic inlet to an anterior-posterior position at the pelvic outlet. Using experiential processes, we will then explore our own rotation dynamics and see how these have impacted both the tissues of our body and our psyche.

Rotation styles are dependent upon the size and shape of our mother’s pelvis, the use of any obstetrical interventions (especially pain-relief medication) as well as any unresolved prenatal issues, specifically those related to transition.

Major psychological themes associated with stage two include:

  • decision-making,

  • orientation and balance,

  • sense of direction

  • and our relationship to our intuition

In Stage Three


the baby has to negotiate its way through the pelvic outlet. At this stage, the face is pressed against the sacrum, the occiput directly against the pubic bone and the sternum against the lumbo-sacral promontory. Each of these areas can be adversely affected at this stage.

As this stage is towards the end of birth, both mother and baby are often exhausted. Other issues that can arise here are related to the umbilical cord. At this stage, the cord is often being compressed between the baby’s body and the mother’s pelvic bones. This can lead to feelings of suffocation and depletion of resources. These issues can be compounded if the cord is around the baby’s neck.

Major psychological themes associated with this stage include


  • how we handle fatigue and exhaustion while under pressure, how we complete projects,

  • how we move forwards in life

  • and how we present ourselves to the world

Stage Four


Stage four involves the head, shoulder and body birth of the baby along with the effects of post-natal interventions and treatments. These include early cutting of the cord, separation from mother for cleaning, weighing and possible resuscitation.

This is also the time during which mother and baby should ideally be left to bond with each other. Major psychological themes of this stage involve

  • our relationship to touch,

  • bonding, separation and intimacy

  • how we are met in the world

in regressions with adults it is often impressive and, at the same time, harrowing how powerfully anaesthetics can affect the baby under the birth.

Just as the baby is in the most strenuous, stress-intensive and psychologically formative situation of its entire life, the support of the maternal labour pains is missing, unexpectedly and, for the child, for no apparent reason.

If the mother is under drugs, a paralysis for both the mother and the baby takes place during the birth struggle which stops, confuses, intoxicates and disorients all activity and foils the baby's own efforts and any success.


For the personality a momentous outcome: "No matter how hard I try, I cannot reach my goals on my own because that is my experience." It is not surprising that such an experience of one's own debility and powerlessness in this highly sensitive time can also negatively influence one's own self-confidence.

According to Karlton Terry, the impacts on future life patterns are influenced by the frequency and the exact timing of giving drugs during the birth process.


He differentiates between birth phases and how often a medicament is given, for example in the second rotation phase or in the third stage of the birth and then makes the connection to difficult behavioural patterns, e.g. problems in the ability to orientate or present oneself.

The psychological consequences of a forceps birth are reflected in later life patterns which correspond to one's own birth.

At the end of the birth, and thus often, at end of one's strength, help comes from outside, this is what one's own personal experience has shown.

For example this could be a person who loses energy (e.g. during an examination or a house relocation) and can not bring things to an end but who always needs another person (often a life partner, teacher or a coach) to finish things off.


When the birth process trauma is reactivated later in therapy, even in the case of adults, the forceps can be seen imprinted on the face.

These impacts during birth remain unprocessed in the psyche, for example, whether they have felt supported by their mother or––through drugs or fear––have felt emotionally abandoned by her.

The subjective experience, (e.g. whether one felt positively supported by the mother or deserted, perhaps due to anaesthetics or fear), is also formed by the birth experiences.


This experience pattern (e.g. whenever I feel bad, I feel really deserted) reappears in difficult life situations without any understanding of the causes.

Karlton Terry thinks, that the way people enter a new area with strangers (a new job, a new group, a lecture in an unknown building) or how they discover in their individual way their world may be compared to the subjective birth experience.

People develop strategies to enable them to deal with their traumatic experiences. In which birth stage or stages the strongest negative impact occurred frequently shows in typical action patterns or it can be recognized in their behaviour.


It is interesting that, in healing our own birth traumas in therapy, we can change those strategies as they are made more conscious or use them as one of many conscious choices because they are no longer necessary in the existing form.


Patterned behavior can be shown as constantly repeated recapitulations through avoidance behavioural patterns to strong compensatory abilities or automatic response systems which are not processed by the higher consciousness.

An example of this - a trauma during the rotation state can show in substantial orientation problems.

The behavioural variant would show a recapitulation that a person who drives a car constantly loses his orientation.

The avoiding person would try to drive with somebody else or find other ways of reaching his destination.

The avoidant compensatory type would know his way around perfectly because he has noted or learnt every meter meticulously so that driving in the "wrong" direction simply cannot occur.

b) The individual birth stages and their psychological effects, with different traumatic causes The question arises, in which birth stage a trauma developed, how it can be recognized and which actual short and long-term effects are possible.

It is particularly interesting. The focus is not only on the psychological factors, such as the bonding quality, apathy or fears, shame or self-esteem, but also on physical characteristics, like pronounced hyper- or hypotonic muscle tones, hyper-excitability or strong asymmetries, like torticollis and certain cranial expressions.

Essentially, Karlton Terry differentiates between four stages of birth, which he studied under Emerson (who was accompanied by Franklyn Sills in the early days when these stages were first explored).

These are stages (St.) 1a and 1b,

2a and 2b,

3a and 3b

and 4.

In stage 1 the lie-side of the face appears at the start of the birth.

The lie-side is the one which must bear the most and the strongest pressure in this transit phase. A specialist can recognise this by analysing posture and comparing the two sides of a face.

In a trauma at stage 1a the cervix is still firmly closed and strong contractions press the child's occiput and os pariatal against it. Even in adults this trauma can still be recognized optically by the profile of the forehead.

In stage 1b the cervix opens,

the cranium descends but the passage is stopped by the position of the sitz bones (ischial spines).

Emotional perinatal reaction patterns to a trauma in this phase can include rage, then depression or shame and lastly submission as a consequence of the enormous stress and the life-threatening situation for the child.

These behavioural patterns and dramatic experiences can accompany these people their whole lives. Particularly in acute stress or transition situations it will be repeatedly and constantly updated.

On the psychological level personal identity problems are frequently found in people with the St.1 trauma. ( leaving pattern in the 5PP) Besides fear, claustrophobia, extreme reactions to traffic back-ups, OCD.

The second stage describes the rotation of the child under the birth.


2a designates the beginning

and 2b the end of the rotation.


Here the child struggles with or is pushed into which direction to turn.


During this phase it is important to ascertain whether and how easily the child's head passes through the maternal pelvis, which can have different (narrow or wide) forms.


A circular movement, like a corkscrew, or a movement back and forth, like a "zig-zag-parcours", which Karlton Terry calls "zig-zag birth", can also happen.


For an expert these marks are discernible in the face and they remain a life long––unless the emotional, psychological and somatic adhesions can be released.


Psychologically a strong ambivalence and an inability to decide are typical symptoms of stage 2.


Alternatively depending upon the recapitulation style of the person, dogmatism and narrow mindedness can manifest.

Unresolved stage 2-trauma leaves adults and children feeling constantly indecisive and quite desperate as they often do not know where they are heading and where to go in their life.

In the third stage

the cranium is anterior or posterior, which a specialist can recognize by comparing the two halves of the face as well as posture.

With his sharp awareness Karlton Terry is able to reconstruct the exact course of birth on the basis of the facial expression, the body axis in profile and the body symmetries of head, shoulders and arms.

In stage 3a the transit occurs, but the head can not be seen yet.

The body is squeezed at different points depending on the position itself and there is sometimes reduced oxygen because of umbilical cord compaction.

The baby has already turned and its face is pressed either against the symphysis or against the spine and the coccyx.

This stage, like the metaphor that no light is to be seen at the end of the tunnel, is often described subjectively as hopelessness, submission and overwhelming tiredness.


If the birth is quick and there is a hold-up only in this phase, i.e. the head can be seen but the baby doesn't come for a long time, it is a stage 3b trauma.

This can be seen posterior.

Sometimes the back of the baby's head can be remarkably flat.

It is very helpful if midwives are aware of these problems so that they can suggest optimal foetal position for the mother giving birth or they can recommend several meetings with an osteopath or baby therapist.


The psychological effects of stage 3b traumas are often connected to the ability to finish projects and to present oneself.

How people feel when they enter a new space or a new situation (panicky, afraid, courageous, open),

how they present themselves and whether they are able to follow things through with staying power and bring them to a successful conclusion.


It is just in this stage of the birth that the babies are often at the end of their strength and fighting against exhaustion.



The stage 4 birth stage

includes all trauma which take place immediately after the birth.


This could be cutting the umbilical cord too early so that it was felt by the child as pain, stabbing of heels to obtain blood, painful suction (of oral and nasal passages) or a handling which is too rough and inadequate for the newborn sensibility.

A trauma often occurs if the separation from the mother is too long, which can cause a split in the close relationship.

According to Karlton Terry the bonding (which is impossible under the effect of drugs), with all its effects on a good mother and child relationship occurs in this important phase immediately after the birth.

If one is dealing with the individual birth stages and their possible trauma with their accompanying impacts, it is logical that especially midwives and other professional groups look for preventive ways in practical birth assistance. There is still a lot to be done in this field, but interest is growing in finding a more sensitive "birth-aid" i.e. in supporting the natural birth process by having empathy for what the baby is experiencing and by supporting the mother in trusting her intuition


birth trauma’s, as caused by obstetrical interventions, have three most common long term outcomes on the psyche of the baby: bonding deficiencies, chronic shock and invasion control complex.


His clinical research for over more than thirty years

The bonding deficiencies in caesarean born babies have two major sources: the unacknowledged trauma and the tactile defensiveness.


If neither the parents nor the doctors/midwives acknowledge the traumatic experience the baby has had during his caesarean delivery, than the baby remains alone with his emotional pain. His symptoms are not recognized or interpreted correctly. This lack of empathy with his suffering can lead to withdrawal.


During caesarean surgery touch is often cold, objective, hurried and painful, with no respect for the boundaries.


The first touch outside the womb can become associated with anxiety, leading to a defensiveness to touch.


As touching and hugging are major aspects of the newborn baby’s bonding to his mother, attachment relations can be disturbed permanently.


Some babies withdraw from touching and hugging, get stiff when picked up, overstretch their body, or avoid eye contact.


In our practise we often see caesarean born babies having insecure attachment patterns. They have difficulties in finding safety with their mothers, can’t accept comfort from their mother and at the same time panic when their mother leaves the room or just put them on the ground.


The caesarean shock results from the sudden, unexpected, rough and frightening changes that occur within the two minutes of the surgery. Shock is the result of an overwhelming frightening experience in which the complete body is functioning in an extreme anxiety state. Rien Verdult Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine, 2009, 21,1/2, pg 29-41


The body is in a survival mode. Not only the speed of the surgery, but also the invasion of the babies intra uterine world by forceful hands is a severe crossing of boundaries.


C-section goes against the biological programmed vaginal birth, against the timing and cause of this process. Shock results in startle and fear responses.

Hyper alertness and sleeping difficulties can be associated with the caesarean shock.

During caesarean birth babies tend to experience all the features of an invasion/control complex. Their world is being invaded suddenly and roughly and they experience a lack of control on what is happening.

C-section babies have to be dislodged, rotated, lifted, suctioned, examined and tested, and this in a very short time and without any coping possible.


The tactile defensiveness is directly linked to the c-section.

Shirley Ward (1999), an Irish prenatal psychotherapists describes c-section babies as followed: ‘

they may sit back and wait for everything to be done for them; they lack the empowerment and self worth – being ‘taken out’ they did not have the vaginal struggle and feel they haven’t done anything to deserve what they have; they have difficulties in doing things for themselves and in setting boundaries; for them help is a put down or a disempowerment’.


If older babies (from about one year old) come for therapy, this pattern can be seen clearly, especially in caesarean babies with a parasympathetic shock.


A distinction can be made between non-labour and labour caesarean births (English, 1985; Leverant, 2000).

Labour caesareans experience a strong state of separation, because the biologically programmed process of labour is curtailed by intervention and surgery.


Instead of coming down and out of the birth canal the labour caesarean is pulled backward and removed from the uterus by an abdominal incision. The task of being born is interrupted, also energetically.


After the c-section the baby’s muscles, connective tissues and nervous system remain contracted by shock and the deep relaxation that can happen after vaginal birth is not happening.

The timing of the non-labour c-section is not biologically programmed by the mother and the foetus, but it is determined in accordance with the needs of the medical staff.

C-section babies can have difficulties with being interrupted while performing a task or while playing.

Sudden changes can activate them. Anesthesia deprives the foetus of using his legs to push and kick down the birth canal in tandem with the mother’s contractions and movements.


Thus the foetus is prevented from completing the self-initiated task of being an active participant.

On a psychological level the loss of the use of legs can be translated in the inhibition of walking to personal goals and in an inability for self-support. Labour caesarean babies tend to rely on external support, expecting external rescue when they are in stressful situations.