I am fascinated by the notion that we all, as infants, are "born into trauma." If it is true that as infants we are indeed "born into trauma," is it possible that as adults we have the experience of trauma at the very foundations of our psyches and emotional lives? If so, does the degree of trauma vary from individual to individual? What factors might cause such variation from one person to the next?
Otto Rank (1924) wrote that all human beings suffer trauma by virtue of being born and of the inevitable, violent, physical and psychic separation we suffer at birth from our mother. Rank believed that the physical event of birth, where the infant moves from a state of perfect harmony and union with the mother into a painful state of separation resulting from the traumatic and violent circumstances of birth, constitutes the earliest anxiety that a human being experiences. That anxiety, according to Rank, constitutes the blueprint for all anxieties experienced later in life. In his theory of birth trauma, Rank harkened back to Freud's early theory circa 1900 in which Freud called birth the "first experience of anxiety and thus the source and prototype of ... anxiety" for the rest of the individual's life. Rank echoed Freud's idea when he wrote that we are born into trauma and that trauma forms the "nucleus of the unconscious" and the essence of who we deeply are. The way the infant experiences this early separation from the mother, Rank wrote, becomes the foundation for all anxieties experienced later in the individual's life.
The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion suggested a theory of trauma that seems remarkably similar to what Freud and especially Rank were proposing, yet it is significantly more complex and credible. Bion, too, believes that the infant is "born into trauma." Bion wrote that children are born into an inner state of chaos and confusion because their earliest ‘feelings' are not feelings at all, but rather undifferentiated feeling ‘states.' Bion called these undifferentiated feeling states "un-thought thoughts" or "sense impressions" that are given to the mind before actual thinking comes into being. These "feeling states" or early sensations ‘hit' the infant's mind in lightning bursts of sheer, inescapable experience–unmitigated events experienced in the fullness of their strength and reality. As such, these sensations are unbearable to the infant. I picture myself as an infant at the very moment of birth, with an immature, sensitive brain, suddenly bombarded by the myriad and complex sensations of internal and external life. Coping would be impossible and the instinctual need to fight, escape or shut down would be overwhelming lest chaos or death become the ultimate outcome.
Bion believed that the infant is born into trauma—experience that is too big for the infant's mind to process, and as such, completely overpowering to the mind. This trauma carries with it the sense of impending death unless some relief from early, unbearable experience can be found. Without relief, the infant grows to hate the emotional states that are within him; he will learn to rid himself of emotional states instead of welcoming such states into his sense of identity, and he will learn to make a goal of his life to rid himself of such states and avoid feelings altogether.
If trauma is, by virtue of being born, unavoidable and an inescapable aspect of the earliest stages of life, then what variables determine a person's individual level of trauma?
Bion believed that the infant is born into an experience that either remains traumatic or becomes sensible depending on the quality of the infant's attachment to the mother. According to Bion, nature has mandated that the infant needs the mother to "contain" its earliest emotional states. The infant requires the mother to protect it not just physically, but also emotionally, and to make the infant's inner emotional states "safe" so that the infant's trauma can become a survivable experience through a process in which the infant's feelings are "named" and thus are provided limits and solutions. This process of "safe containment" of the infant's "problems" ends with the emergence of thought and the formation of knowledge. Attachment leading to a sense of security and safety is a specific process; the mother takes unarticulated and traumatizing bursts of emotional states into herself and defines them. Taken into the mother and now within the mother, the baby's thoughts now have a historical context or basis, given to them by the mother's ability to calmly contain, think about, and "digest" them within herself before giving them back to the infant, pre-digested, understood, named and therefore safe. In this form, the infant can have his own experiences while still believing that loving help and satisfaction in the face of pain will ease its earliest and most unbearable feeling states. The more the parent satisfies the panic of sensations that hit the newborn child, the less the "birth trauma" will haunt the infant in later life.
Are we born into trauma? Yes, we are. But the level of trauma is determined by the nurturing we receive that helps us define, understand, and exist well with, and not be haunted by, our early or "birth" trauma. I maintain that as adults, many of us continue to cope and co-exist with trauma. And sometimes it feels too big, too sensational, too mind-numbing to overcome. A good therapist can bring calmness, definition, and containment to our early trauma that promotes an ability to co-exist with the trauma. This adult/therapist relationship that occurs later in life is therefore noticeably similar to the critical infant/mother relationship that contributes to and defines the degree of trauma that presents itself later in life.
Written in collaboration with Robert Bradberry.
Frederick Woolverton, Ph.D., is director of The Village Institute for Psychotherapy in Manhattan and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and is the co-author of the forthcoming book Unhooked.