Sunday, May 10, 2009

How to Relive Trauma that Happened during Life in the Womb

I have been writing about the long-term effects of our experience while in the womb. Another question arises immediately on the heels of that question. How on earth can anyone relive those events—a mother’s depression or anxiety, her drug and alcohol use, poor diet and lack of proper physical care by the mother?

We need to go back to our evolutionary roots and note that as the brain develops, each new structure or area incorporates and re-represents events imprinted on lower brain levels. Thus, there are spokes radiating out of our primitive nervous system that travel all the way to the neocortex (new cortex) via limbic structures to inform the higher levels of what happened on the lower brain levels, even while we lived our life in the womb. So when we feel helpless in the present—no one can process our application until we fulfill impossible requirements—we can begin to experience that feeling now, which will then take us back via the vehicle of feeling to the origins of that feeling. Once we are locked into that feeling the brain takes charge and we have to make no deliberate effort to go back into our past. We feel helpless in the present but it is not a “normal” feeling; it carries with it the force of the beginnings of the feeling when it might have been a matter of life and death. We seemingly over-react but we are reacting, as well, to our history, which has embedded itself into the feeling. When we relive that feeling completely we have automatically relived earlier origins of the feeling; and we can be liberated from its deleterious effects without once acknowledging what the feeling was all about.

But we must eschew verbal explanations or understanding because the body is speaking an entirely different language. And when high blood pressure or migraine normalizes itself without any voluntary act after reliving that helpless feeling, we can assume that we dipped into ancient origins of the feeling and have resolved aspects of the imprint itself. Although I have observed this kind of reliving resulting in the resolution of serious symptoms, it is not enough because it is considered anecdotal and unworthy of science. Lately, however, there is a plethora of research to bolster the point. K.J.S. Anand is one of the premier investigators of this research. (“Can Adverse Neonatal Experiences Alter Brain Development and Subsequent Behavior?” Biology of the Neonate, 2000: 77. 69-82).

He and his associates have produced a compendium of many research studies on the subject. He begins: It is “suggested that imprinting at birth may predispose individuals to certain patterns of behavior that remain masked throughout most of adult life but may be triggered during conditions of extreme stress.” (page 70) This seems like a direct quote from some of my writings. The reason they are similar is because we are describing the same event, they from a scientific research point of view, and I from a clinical observational post.

Anand observes: “for suicides committed by violent means (firearms, jumping in front of a train, hanging, strangulation, etc) the significant risk factors were those perinatal (around birth) events that were likely to cause pain in the newborn.” (same page) Harmful factors included forceps delivery and other neonatal complications that were significantly correlated with adult suicide attempts. Lack of care just after birth also was heavily correlated with later suicides, especially adolescent suicide attempts. Sedatives and/or drugs given to the mother during delivery was noted to increase the later problem of drug addiction. Karen Nyberg also found that drugs the mother took during pregnancy or at birth led to a greater tendency to drug addiction as adults. In short, experience in the womb has, as we have noted for decades, enduring effects. If we want to know the whys of certain behaviors such as suicidal tendencies or drug abuse, we need to go way back into our remote history to find the answers. What Anand points out is we need to study in humans the long-term changes in the brain from traumas in-utero. We know, for example, that certain kinds of cells (NMDA receptors) are permanently altered as a result of lowered oxygen the womb and during birth. This is particularly true because the prenatal and neonatal periods are marked by very rapid brain growth.

I have written extensively about critical periods; those times in life when irreversible changes occur that we cannot change no matter how hard we try. I no longer think that the major critical period is in infancy; rather, it seems like irreversible changes are most apt to occur during our life in the womb; and secondarily around birth, when we have peak brain growth. It is here that the neuronal circuitry can be altered forevermore. In any number experiments with animals, those who were delivered pain just after birth or who were deprived of a mother’s care just after birth had a greater tendency to drink alcohol. In other words, very early pain persists as an imprint and leads to all manner of deviate behavior. Clearly, for any therapy to be successful we need to address those early imprints; those origins of the deviation.


  1. Hi Dr.Janov ,I can strongly affirm Your account of committing violent suicides (are there any smooth ways?) my 10 years ago departed friend was born "dead" by forceps and after decades of psychotic episodes he committed suicide by way of exposing himself to v e r y high voltage elctric current..!! And another case an aqaintenance whose mother was heavily drugged durung and before birth was (is?) an alcoholic whatever that may mean ..consindering some well functioning heavy drinkers..! Yours emanuel

  2. What's the difference between the use of provigil and clonidine ?

    Can frequent belch or burp be part of womb life reliving or just first line intrusion ? or both ?

  3. Clonidine was one of the original medications for high blood pressure and works basically to suppress. Provigil, and I am not an expert, works to soup up dopamine and alerting, vigilant chemicals. It stimulates the cortex into more effective action. art janov

  4. Dr Janov: quote:

    "The reason they are similar is because we are describing the same event, they from a scientific research point of view, and I from a clinical observational post."

    I just thought I would comment that this is one way to tell if you're looking at a valid truth - that is, different people coming from often significantly different angles start independantly migrating to the same conclusions. Because that's what you should expect if your theory is sound or mostly sound - concrete reality has only one form, and everything must revolve around it in the end.

    I know that neurologists have also been talking about "the come back of Freud" because their research is starting to create distinct suggestions that look a lot like Freud's ideas [and yours for that matter] associated with trauma and repression. Same thing.


  6. Hello guillermo. thanks for writing. My book is coming out in spanish in 5 weeks. The Primal Scream. dr. janov

  7. It is a shame that despite research such as that of Anand and others, psychologists and psychiatrists in general seem completely unaware of the concept of the imprint, or they just ignore it. If a therapy does not address the imprint, how can it be anything but palliative?

    On the other hand, it is not hard to understand why PT is often easily dismissed as "woo-woo", because it involves actually RELIVING your past traumas - and the further back in the past you go, the more "woo-woo" it might seem. When I first read about patients reliving their birth traumas in The Primal Scream, I was skeptical. Dr. Janov has remarked that he was also skeptical about this, because a neurologist had told him that reliving birth is impossible. Just imagine the skepticism one might have about reliving PREBIRTH traumas!

    I have a question, Dr. Janov: how long, on average, does it take for a patient at the Primal Center to be able to start reliving first line traumas? What is usually the minimum amount of time before a patient can gain safe access to to first line traumas?

    Thank you in advance,

    Antti Jalonen

  8. Anttij
    There is no set rule about when if ever patients relive first line.Generally, the most emotionally disturbed relive it too early and we need to medicate the person to bolster his/her defenses until later on when it can be relived and integrated. It is at least many months into therapy when first line can be relived and integrated. It is not enough to relive; it must be absorbed into the system safely. Rebirthing ignores this caveat with the result of serious overload and damage to the person. There are a few who never have to relive first line. Their problems stem from terrible second line. The death of a parent, having to move a lot, divorce, etc. dr. janov

  9. A thought:

    When I was 23 years old I had an interesting experience [I will simplify to what's relevant]:

    I was woken up by one of my flatmates in the middle of the day. I could not immediately recognise him because I was looking at the back of him and he had shaved off all his hair. At that point of just being woken up I believe I was centred on my 1st line, because I couldn't think and I reacted very directly to my flatmates subtle body movements alone, which spelled out to me "dangerous person!" on an extremely instinctual/perceptual level. I started to feel overwhelming terror build up in me until my flatmate turned around so I could finally recognise him...then the terror subsided as I started to understand what had happened and also woke up properly, so I think my 3rd-line was able to tell my brainstem that I was in fact not in danger. But interestingly my 1st line was actually right. This guy was dangerous and had a history of reckless and dangerous behaviour...a "capable of anything" type.

    I wouldn't be surprised if psychotics tend to percieve like this, that is, if they're stuck in their 1st-line. They recieve some information that in itself may actually be right, but can't properly mediate it with more 'higher level' information. So they further over-react on top of their over-reaction from yesterdays trauma being triggered.

    Maybe this is why psychotics can be very perceptive. Able to see more through a baby's eye's?...which may mean not being incessantly distracted by 'secondary' information, as I think us repressed people are. (I wouldn't be surprised if psychopaths are less 'charming' to psychotics).

  10. Andy: In my olden days before any of my readers was born (remember good english......any means any one was) I treated a number of psychotics at the psychiatric clinic where I worked. I was also staff at L.A Children's Hospital, psychiatric dept. ) I never knew why they were so perceptive. Now I do and your letter helps explain it. There is no filter to alter perceptions. What they see is what is. Their defense system is practically non existent. dr. janov


Review of "Beyond Belief"

This thought-provoking and important book shows how people are drawn toward dangerous beliefs.
“Belief can manifest itself in world-changing ways—and did, in some of history’s ugliest moments, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979. Arthur Janov, a renowned psychologist who penned The Primal Scream, fearlessly tackles the subject of why and how strong believers willingly embrace even the most deranged leaders.
Beyond Belief begins with a lucid explanation of belief systems that, writes Janov, “are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively.” While belief systems are not presented as inherently bad, the author concentrates not just on why people adopt belief systems, but why “alienated individuals” in particular seek out “belief systems on the fringes.” The result is a book that is both illuminating and sobering. It explores, for example, how a strongly-held belief can lead radical Islamist jihadists to murder others in suicide acts. Janov writes, “I believe if people had more love in this life, they would not be so anxious to end it in favor of some imaginary existence.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Beyond Belief is the author’s liberal use of case studies, most of which are related in the first person by individuals whose lives were dramatically affected by their involvement in cults. These stories offer an exceptional perspective on the manner in which belief systems can take hold and shape one’s experiences. Joan’s tale, for instance, both engaging and disturbing, describes what it was like to join the Hare Krishnas. Even though she left the sect, observing that participants “are stunted in spiritual awareness,” Joan considers returning someday because “there’s a certain protection there.”
Janov’s great insight into cultish leaders is particularly interesting; he believes such people have had childhoods in which they were “rejected and unloved,” because “only unloved people want to become the wise man or woman (although it is usually male) imparting words of wisdom to others.” This is just one reason why Beyond Belief is such a thought-provoking, important book.”
Barry Silverstein, Freelance Writer

Quotes for "Life Before Birth"

“Life Before Birth is a thrilling journey of discovery, a real joy to read. Janov writes like no one else on the human mind—engaging, brilliant, passionate, and honest.
He is the best writer today on what makes us human—he shows us how the mind works, how it goes wrong, and how to put it right . . . He presents a brand-new approach to dealing with depression, emotional pain, anxiety, and addiction.”
Paul Thompson, PhD, Professor of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine

Art Janov, one of the pioneers of fetal and early infant experiences and future mental health issues, offers a robust vision of how the earliest traumas of life can percolate through the brains, minds and lives of individuals. He focuses on both the shifting tides of brain emotional systems and the life-long consequences that can result, as well as the novel interventions, and clinical understanding, that need to be implemented in order to bring about the brain-mind changes that can restore affective equanimity. The transitions from feelings of persistent affective turmoil to psychological wholeness, requires both an understanding of the brain changes and a therapist that can work with the affective mind at primary-process levels. Life Before Birth, is a manifesto that provides a robust argument for increasing attention to the neuro-mental lives of fetuses and infants, and the widespread ramifications on mental health if we do not. Without an accurate developmental history of troubled minds, coordinated with a recognition of the primal emotional powers of the lowest ancestral regions of the human brain, therapists will be lost in their attempt to restore psychological balance.
Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.
Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

Dr. Janov’s essential insight—that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well being—is no longer in doubt. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, immunology, and epigenetics, we can now see some of the mechanisms of action at the heart of these developmental processes. His long-held belief that the brain, human development, and psychological well being need to studied in the context of evolution—from the brainstem up—now lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy.
Grounded in these two principles, Dr. Janov continues to explore the lifelong impact of prenatal, birth, and early experiences on our brains and minds. Simultaneously “old school” and revolutionary, he synthesizes traditional psychodynamic theories with cutting-edge science while consistently highlighting the limitations of a strict, “top-down” talking cure. Whether or not you agree with his philosophical assumptions, therapeutic practices, or theoretical conclusions, I promise you an interesting and thought-provoking journey.
Lou Cozolino, PsyD, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University

In Life Before Birth Dr. Arthur Janov illuminates the sources of much that happens during life after birth. Lucidly, the pioneer of primal therapy provides the scientific rationale for treatments that take us through our original, non-verbal memories—to essential depths of experience that the superficial cognitive-behavioral modalities currently in fashion cannot possibly touch, let alone transform.
Gabor Maté MD, author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction

An expansive analysis! This book attempts to explain the impact of critical developmental windows in the past, implores us to improve the lives of pregnant women in the present, and has implications for understanding our children, ourselves, and our collective future. I’m not sure whether primal therapy works or not, but it certainly deserves systematic testing in well-designed, assessor-blinded, randomized controlled clinical trials.
K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil, FAACP, FCCM, FRCPCH, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Senior Scholar, Center for Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System

A baby's brain grows more while in the womb than at any time in a child's life. Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives is a valuable guide to creating healthier babies and offers insight into healing our early primal wounds. Dr. Janov integrates the most recent scientific research about prenatal development with the psychobiological reality that these early experiences do cast a long shadow over our entire lifespan. With a wealth of experience and a history of successful psychotherapeutic treatment, Dr. Janov is well positioned to speak with clarity and precision on a topic that remains critically important.
Paula Thomson, PsyD, Associate Professor, California State University, Northridge & Professor Emeritus, York University

"I am enthralled.
Dr. Janov has crafted a compelling and prophetic opus that could rightly dictate
PhD thesis topics for decades to come. Devoid of any "New Age" pseudoscience,
this work never strays from scientific orthodoxy and yet is perfectly accessible and
downright fascinating to any lay person interested in the mysteries of the human psyche."
Dr. Bernard Park, MD, MPH

His new book “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” shows that primal therapy, the lower-brain therapeutic method popularized in the 1970’s international bestseller “Primal Scream” and his early work with John Lennon, may help alleviate depression and anxiety disorders, normalize blood pressure and serotonin levels, and improve the functioning of the immune system.
One of the book’s most intriguing theories is that fetal imprinting, an evolutionary strategy to prepare children to cope with life, establishes a permanent set-point in a child's physiology. Baby's born to mothers highly anxious during pregnancy, whether from war, natural disasters, failed marriages, or other stressful life conditions, may thus be prone to mental illness and brain dysfunction later in life. Early traumatic events such as low oxygen at birth, painkillers and antidepressants administered to the mother during pregnancy, poor maternal nutrition, and a lack of parental affection in the first years of life may compound the effect.
In making the case for a brand-new, unified field theory of psychotherapy, Dr. Janov weaves together the evolutionary theories of Jean Baptiste Larmarck, the fetal development studies of Vivette Glover and K.J.S. Anand, and fascinating new research by the psychiatrist Elissa Epel suggesting that telomeres—a region of repetitive DNA critical in predicting life expectancy—may be significantly altered during pregnancy.
After explaining how hormonal and neurologic processes in the womb provide a blueprint for later mental illness and disease, Dr. Janov charts a revolutionary new course for psychotherapy. He provides a sharp critique of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and other popular “talk therapy” models for treating addiction and mental illness, which he argues do not reach the limbic system and brainstem, where the effects of early trauma are registered in the nervous system.
“Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” is scheduled to be published by NTI Upstream in October 2011, and has tremendous implications for the future of modern psychology, pediatrics, pregnancy, and women’s health.