The nourishment barrier: the shock response to toxic intimacy.
Why would we block, and keep out, the emotional intimacy we say we want? Why would we block the personal and professional success that we yearn for? How do we seem to recreate our deepest needs being thwarted over and over again?
Some people have learned to be cautious about taking in nourishment that is available, whether it be emotional or physical, because their early life experience was that accepting nourishment carried a heavy price. The nourishment that was offered was mixed with toxins, making it impossible for an individual to get one without the other (Eigen, 1999). A child whose mother is suffocatingly overbearing is forced to accept her toxic invasiveness in order to get any emotional support from her at all. A fetus whose mother is polluting her womb with alcohol or nicotine, or with rage or depression, is forced to take in the toxins along with necessary nutrients in order to survive. A child whose father confuses intimacy, love, and sex and thus incests the child is abandoned to a bewildering conflating of intimacy and sex which leaves her vulnerable to unhealthy sexual interactions. And so these individuals may avoid sources of nourishment in order to avoid the toxins: they may avoid intimacy in their relationships or become compulsive about perfumes, smoke, or incense in their environment. They carefully, and unconsciously, arrange their world so that nourishment is never even within reach.
Some of those same people may go to the opposite extreme, seeking the familiarity of toxic nourishment rather than avoiding it. They have become so used to high levels of toxins mixed with their nourishment that they cannot take nourishment that is not embedded in psychic poisons. They may actually avoid less polluted opportunities for nourishment. For some, life may not feel real without large doses of emotional toxins, and so they seek high drama, personal danger, and polluting habits or addictions. Indeed, "emptiness and violence can get so mixed up with nourishment that they can come to substitute for it. In a way, Freud (1937) conveyed this by asserting that every psychic act combines life and death work. If life and death drives fuse, death might seem nourishing because of its fusion with life (as life might be frightening because of its fusion with death)" (Eigen, 1999), p. 154).
Yet either way, these people have been strengthened by the ordeal of tolerating a steady diet of toxins. They have learned to endure, to make the compromises necessary to eke out a subsistence level of nourishment. They have refined the defenses of hyperarousal and hypervigilance on the one hand, and to the parasympathetic mechanisms of shutdown, avoidance and dissociation on the other. Both sets of defense are largely determined by right hemisphere systems in the developing brain (Schore, 2003). The individual's nervous system carries the tension of incompatible defenses, and shock is the result. The person is stranded in the "no man's land" of impasse and ambivalence, resigned to a life not fully lived. We might call them "as if" people.
Helene Deutsch (1942) discussed a type of patient she called as if, "in which the individual's emotional relationship to the outside world and to his own ego appears impoverished or absent" (p. 301). The patient appears to be unaware of this lack or may complain of feelings of emptiness. Deutsch explains her use of the term as if observing "the inescapable impression that the individual's whole response to life has something about it which is lacking in genuineness and yet outwardly runs along 'as if' it were complete." (p. 302) Deutsch emphasizes that such personalities are "intellectually intact, gifted, and bring great understanding to intellectual and emotional problems" (p. 303). However, she states that "although they produce good work it is based on imitation rather than true creativity, just as in their affective relationships there is a lack of true warmth" (p. 303).
Solomon (2004) builds on Deutsch's ideas, stating that "the sense of impoverishment of the self is due to the effects of dissociation from traumatizing experiences with an original longed for and idealized other. Dissociation is a survival strategy, necessary to maintain the sense of intactness of the self by separating the self from its noxious experience, which may include the experience of the absence of the other, but it leaves at the core of the self a void where the dissociated experience ought to be lodged. If and when the experience is eventually retrieved, the self is then left to re-experience the original trauma in an acute and vivid way" (p. 638).
As if individuals are unable to trust others, expecting toxins to accompany any nourishment. And yet they are unable to trust their own real self, having abandoned that long ago in favor of 'practical fictions', resulting in 'an illusion of infinite postponement' (Britton, 1998, p. 63).
So how do people effectively avoid nourishment that is available to them in their life? Alternatively, how do people arrange to receive nourishment only when it is contaminated with something toxic? They erect a barrier around themselves to keep out healthy nourishing experiences, and to magnetically draw to themselves the toxic experiences that feel so familiar. Ron Kurtz, originator of the Hakomi psychotherapy modality, calls them nourishment barriers (Benz & Weiss, 1989, p. 77; Kurtz, 1990). These self-defeating patterns are deeply embedded in the unconscious, and so they are acted out in every aspect of one's everyday life, especially within one's most intimate relationships.
Then, there are people who commit to the lonely path of doing it all themselves. They don't expect any consistent support. They don't expect any real help from the outside. They don't expect nourishment. They have the view of the world as an empty place, where you can't count on anybody. When you offer nourishment, they reject it. They see something wrong with it. They won't take it in. As a result, they are never satisfied. They avoid taking in nourishment or even finding it in the world, because they do not want to deal with the possibility of loss. The state of getting what you want is anxiety producing. Having the thing so wanted leaves one vulnerable to losing it again. They're not good at taking in what's available (Kurtz, 1990, p. 178).
What we have discovered through our thirty years of hypnotizing tens of thousands of people is that we draw conclusions about who we are through the experiences that we have. This process begins from the very moment of our conception and continues throughout our lives. For example, if as a young developing fetus we experience that we happen to be the wrong gender for the parents that we are to be born to, we draw certain conclusions about ourselves. We may conclude, "I'm not who they wanted. There is something wrong with me." Or "I'm unlovable. I'm not safe here." That unconscious conclusion then is placed in our personal programming file to be used all throughout our lives, unless it is changed. That conclusion is most always accompanied by decisions that tell us how to behave which would be compatible with the conclusions we've established about ourselves. A common decision in alignment with the conclusion, "I'm unlovable, I'm not safe here" might be "I will be a very good little child--I will be perfect" or "I will be so helpful that I will become indispensable." This of course is a completely unconscious decision in order to try to get the love that every human being needs in order to grow and develop properly. Self-preservation or safety is a vitally important need of every human and animal. So if the fetus or child concludes, "I'm unlovable. It's not safe here," the decision may be "I'll disappear" or "I will run away to the circus and find a protector."
Safety represents preservation of the species and is the most basic need of all human beings and animals. When a safe environment is not created for a very young, vulnerable being, fears, anxiety and shock often develop right from the very beginning of existence. Love is another one of the basic needs, more so for humans, other mammals and most domesticated animals. So when we look at basic needs, the next most important is nourishment in order to grow, develop and thrive.
One very common inner program that we hear is, "there's not enough." If you listen carefully to yourself or to others, you may often hear the words, "I don't have enough ..." There are many unmet needs that can follow this statement, such as, "I don't have enough nourishment, food, time, energy and of course money." Or "We can't afford that, we don't have enough money." Or "No, I can't help you because I'm too tired, I don't have enough energy." Or "I'm so busy, I just don't have enough time to ..." These are common phrases that we hear ourselves and others saying over and over again. This fear of not enough often begins in the womb where there may not be enough safety, love, connection, nourishment or oxygen for the developing fetus, and continues on a profoundly unconscious level for a lifetime.
Some examples of not enough nourishment for the developing fetus could be a mother who is terrified of gaining too much weight and so is starving herself (and the fetus) during the pregnancy. During the 1950's and for the next fifty years, doctors put a large emphasis on the low weight gain of women during pregnancy. Young mothers were weighed every week and given long fear- and shame-producing lectures about the dangers of too much weight gain during pregnancy. Accordingly, many mothers became anorexic and their developing fetuses felt like they were starving. Needs shock, and many eating disorders later on in life, may have begun here for babies since their basic needs for nourishment were not being met. Going back to the underlying conclusions that may have been programmed here is, "My needs won't be met" or "I'm a burden." The resulting decisions may have been, "I won't even ask for what I need" or "I don't have any needs." Some programming can include the opposite also, such as "I'm going to grab whatever I need" or "I'll scream and cry so they can't ignore me."
In order to understand the nourishment barrier, it is vital, then, to understand how human programming is laid down in the unconscious mind. When a person is hypnotized and has access to this unconscious programming, we always ask the person, "What conclusion did you make about yourself here? And what decision did you make about how to behave?" Each one of these hundreds, perhaps thousands of conclusions about ourselves and unconscious decisions that we have made are stored in our unconscious mind and become the building blocks of the nourishment barrier. We will address later on in the article how the nourishment barrier can be de-constructed so that people can make new conclusions and decisions that support healthy choices in their lives. Just as in any computer programming, if it is not changed, the old program will continue to operate forever.
Let's begin with the theory that people are able to create a wall, a barrier around them that gives the message to others, "Stay away! Don't come any closer!" Perhaps you know someone like that. Let's take a look at what the subliminal messages may be that get the message out loud and clear without saying it or bringing it to our own or the other's consciousness.
As Dr. Stephen Porges (2011) suggests in his Polyvagal Theory, facial expressions give loud and clear messages. We can make a baby cry just by looking at her sternly or angrily. Everyone is looking, first of all, to feel safe. We need reciprocity in our connections in order to feel safe, to trust. We need to feel validated, recognized to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with another human being. We look into another's eyes to see if there is love, anger, hatred, fear, or shock and disconnection.
When we first meet another person, our unconscious mind, our emotions, our instincts all know if this is a person who is drawing us closer or pushing us away. We pick up a multitude of cues before the first words are even spoken!
Intonation of voice is another important way we communicate with another. If we hear soft gentle tones of voice, we may begin to feel safe with this person. We may then be drawn closer so that we can listen to the words. However, we may then begin to pick up danger: shrill tones which may convey fear and deeper louder tones which may convey anger.
When danger is present, the voice prosody (that is, our ability to perceive the emotional meaning of words) communicates even if we speak another language. Low tones communicate predatory energy, perhaps anger. It comes naturally to use a higher pitched tone of voice when speaking to a baby or a pet animal. So people do communicate to others whether they are safe or whether they have a wall around them that says, "Stay away!" or perhaps even "I am dangerous to you."
Prenatal development of capacity to respond and remember
We have the capacity to differentiate these intonations in the womb. Prenates as early as 26 weeks learn intonations, rhythms and other speech patterns of the mother's voice, demonstrated in matching spectrographs (Truby, 1975). By the age of 4 days after birth, infants can distinguish language from other sounds, prefer their mother's voice to that of another female, and prefer their mother's language (Mehler & Christophe, 1995). They discern a language by its intonation and rhythm (Mehler & Dupoux, 1994), and have done so with the mother's voice during the third trimester of pregnancy (Childs, 1998). The prenate has already learned neural patterns of language, including the emotional context for phonological rhythms, tones and sequences of mother's speech. That is to say that at birth, French infants already understand that their language is syllable-timed, English infants understand that their language is stress-timed, and Japanese infants understand that their language is mora-timed (Otake et al., 1993). These prenatal experiences are learning experiences, and are recorded in memory.
Such learning and memory requires some form of sentient awareness, and we know that memory for prenatal experiences is present immediately after birth. For example, newborns prefer a lullaby their mothers had sung to them in the womb to an unfamiliar one sung by their mothers (Satt, 1984; Panneton, 1985). After birth, babies prefer to hear stories which were read to them in the womb, rather than unfamiliar stories (DeCasper & Spence, 1982; Woodward, 1992). Hepper (1988, 1991) found that newborns of mothers who had consistently watched a particular television soap opera during pregnancy responded, when played the theme song after birth, by stopping crying, becoming alert, and changing their heart rate and movements. The newborns did not respond to other unfamiliar television tunes.
The unborn human develops the capacity to respond to the environment almost immediately upon conception. The central nervous system's limbic system is partially mature at 4 weeks of gestation and fully formed by the third trimester of prenatal life (Pert, 1999; Pert et al., 1985). The limbic system records the emotions and behaviors necessary for survival, and is critically involved with the storage and retrieval of memory (van der Kolk, 1996). The cerebral cortex, the highest level of brain functioning, has been found operative by 32 weeks of gestation (Purpura, 1975; Vaughn, 1975), although it is far from fully functional.
With the capacity to respond comes the ability to store experiences in memory for future use. Research (Marquez, 2000) supports the capacity of the prenate to store very early traumatic experience in the bodymind (Pert's terminology), expressed permanently in psychosomatic conditions.
The capacity to respond and remember carries with it, by definition, the ability to make decisions and choices (Hull, 1986; Lake, 1982).
Neuroception is our nervous system's attention to what is happening in our environment. We suggest another mechanism through which we attend to the environment: neuroperception, one that is available even to the developing fetus in the womb.
This begins from the moment of conception. The fetus can't think or speak, but can perceive through the nervous system. The fetus can neuro-perceive that this womb is receptive, loving, inviting and thus a safe place in which to grow. It is through the vagal nerves that perhaps the conceptus gets the "go ahead" to implant in the uterine wall. This zygote will then implant and continue its journey through the fallopian tubes. Here is another choice point. It is a huge risk for this tiny being to trust the safety enough to "let go" and fall into the great space of the mother's uterus. If the zygote is safe enough and neuro-perceives that this will bring him/her into union with life itself, the journey that comes with the "embrionic fall" will happen.
However, in another instance, a fertilized egg, zygote, may neuro-perceive an unsafe uterine wall that is rejecting or filled with fearful neuro-receptors. And so all along this journey there are neurologic choice points about whether it is safe to embrace life or whether it is better to go back to Spirit form. This is the beginning of our karmic journey into life itself.
The Vagal Paradox (Porges, 2011) provides the mechanism for the nourishment barrier. The vagal parasympathetic response puts a "brake" on sympathetic activation when fight or flight is attempted and found to be useless; it reverses course in the nervous system and instills death feigning as a last desperate bid for survival. The paradox is that it is virtually the same nervous system "brake" that allows a person to be vulnerable when it is deemed to be safe to do so. Through sensory perception, a fetus may go into hypervigilance and create death feigning or parasympathetic shock, i.e., freezing. Perhaps this could account for what we know as a miscarriage. Often there is no medical explanation for a miscarriage, but the Vagal Paradox/ nourishment barrier may explain it. The brain and nervous system begin primitive development by three weeks after fertilization, and by week seven have formed the telencephalon, i.e., the embryonic structure from which the mature cerebrum develops.
The developing heart begins to beat in a regular rhythm by week six. By its seventh week the developing zygote converts the yolk sac, which provided primitive self-nourishment and functioned as the developmental circulatory system of the human embryo, into an umbilical cord. Once the embryo becomes a fetus it connects through the umbilical cord to the mother's placenta, allowing the blood circulation, waste disposal, and nervous system of the new fetus to connect with that of the mother. What is coming through that cord to nourish and feed this fresh young life? It may be pure love which produces the same hormones as when the new mother gazes lovingly into the eyes of her newborn. For this reason oxytocin is called the bonding hormone: "Mother and I are one." This is the perfect neurological and hormonal environment to support healthy life.
However, if the visceral attachment is contaminated with fear, anger, jealousy, betrayal and shame, the fetus may go into shut down mode--that is, neurologically frozen, which we call shock. When frozen, it may not be able to take in any nutrients and this may be where for some, the nourishment barrier is formed. This barrier, just as in death feigning of a threatened animal, is neurologically constructed to protect the fragile fetus from being poisoned. However, ironically just as in the Vagal Paradox, this barrier may prevent the young developing fetus from receiving nutrients necessary for life.
Perhaps hypervigilance begins in this very early stage of development: vagal hypervigilance.
Once the embryo drops into the uterus of the mother, her dependency begins. Now the young fragile soul must rely on the physical, emotional and spiritual health of the mother and her environment to support new life. We now know that a surprising percentage of conceptions begin as twins, with many of these conceptuses perishing so early in the pregnancy that it happens before even being discovered. We call this twin loss or the Vanishing Twin.
As time goes on, the fetus develops more sensory awareness. Different sounds and tonal vibrations convey the relative prevalence or lack of safety. If the frequencies of the sound waves are low, such as from anger and fighting, the fetus may be influenced by the primitive reptilian vagal nerve response. And just like a reptile in danger, the digestive system of the fetus may begin shutting down as a protective mechanism. The primitive reptile, such as an alligator, will cut down on metabolic demand so as to preserve energy in the face of a survival threat. In this situation of perceived danger, the primitive reptile will defecate so as to clear out the digestive system and thus preserve all energy in preparation for a possible battle. However, what begins as a primitive way to protect itself from danger, may end up shutting the functions down to a level from which the fetus cannot recover.
This response of defecating in the presence of perceived danger, may explain the curious situation medically defined as a "meconium birth." There are times when the placenta becomes filled with the baby's own feces due to a rupture of the bowel. This primitive neurological response could explain how the nourishment barrier is protecting the baby from a "toxic womb" and then ironically becomes just as toxic as the perceived threat. In certain situations, the fetus will die from ingesting its own feces.
There seem to be many choice points for the developing fetus. One of the most important times is the sensory experience of the developing fetus when the mother/family discovers the pregnancy. Using the now more advanced neuro-perception of this fetus, sensory signals are coming in from sound vibrations within the embryonic sac as well as from outside in the larger environment. These are connected through the cranial nerves which are beginning to develop and send signals through the developing spinal cord.
What are some of the possible reactions of mothers, fathers and other family members to the discovery that a new baby is present in mommy's tummy? From the tens of thousands of therapeutic age regressions that we have witnessed, we have noticed that there are a set of behaviors and experiences activated at this critical time called "discovery shock" (Emerson, 1996).
Perhaps the family is Catholic in the 1950's and does not use birth control. This surprise pregnancy may be preceded by 4 or 5 other children who already are struggling and competing for the limited resources available from an overburdened mother and workaholic father. The reaction of this family to the discovery of another unwanted pregnancy may vary from disappointment to resentment to outright anger and blame. In our Jungian work, we have learned that the early unconscious decisions we make about ourselves and our existence often result in the development of what Jung called shadow parts. They are called shadow parts because they are like the blind spot in our rear view mirror. Because we can't see them and are not consciously aware of them, we certainly have no ability to address the dysfunctional behavior that they produce.
These unconscious shadow parts serve to protect us from the potentially hurtful perceived danger of rejection/abandonment/ annihilation. The assumption may be that if my own mother or father was unhappy to discover my presence in the womb, others certainly don't want to know or see me. The conclusion here is often something like, "I don't deserve to be here. I'm not wanted, I'm a burden." The unconscious decision may be, "I deserve to die."
In fact, when aggressive or violent individuals regress to the prenatal period, they frequently go to the time the pregnancy was discovered, and experience that they were unwanted. The discovery of being unwanted typically leads to the realization that lifelong episodes of depression, self-destructiveness, or aggression are a direct expression of prenatal rejection. Typical responses to being unwanted are to collapse into helplessness and hopelessness, to rage at others and the world's injustice, and/or to refuse to engage in life (Emerson, 1996).
The reader may be wondering, "How can a tiny fetus make a decision like that? When does consciousness begin? Can we have this consciousness or awareness before we have language and conscious thoughts?" Through the thousands of age regressions that we and many other pre- and perinatal psychotherapists have witnessed, we know that humans definitely have consciousness before they have language. Now with all the revolutionary research being done, our answer can be found in the laboratory research of the neurobiologists. These studies show that a baby becomes frantic when he/she experiences the fear hormones released by the mother. When this mother reflects her anxiety about how she will care for another baby, she then may go into sympathetic shock, which then can result in frantic activity from the fetus. As the fetus flails around in this embryonic shock pool, it is quite likely that this is a very plausible explanation of how the cord becomes wrapped around the neck or body of the newly forming baby. The more often these fear hormones are released by the mother or the angry tonal vibrations felt by the fetus, the more frantic activity ensues in the womb, or alternatively the more shut down the fetus becomes.
There is no sense of self, identity or autonomy for the prenate. Rather, it lives in an undifferentiated state, identified with its environment, absorbing the mother's emotions and belief system as its own (Givens, 1987). There is no defense against "negative" experience, i.e., the fetus is receptive and reactive to all experience, incorporating it into its growing blueprint of core beliefs.
The fetus does, however, eventually develop primitive defenses, or learned responses, in reaction to its experience, and in the process develops the beginnings of a self separate from the mother. The prenates in Piontelli's study (1992) developed characteristic ways of being, e.g., contentious or passive or loving, in response to their environment. As early as 13 weeks gestational age, the fetus is showing individual behavior and personality traits that continue on after birth. Piontelli observed four sets of twins by ultrasound periodically over the course of the pregnancies. Each set Of twins seemed to manifest a unique relationship together: one set was loving, another contentious, and another was passive. One pair consisted of a brother who was active, attentive, and affectionate, and his sister who would passively follow his lead. The boy in this pair kicked and wrestled with the placenta, actively pushing for space and looking disgruntled. However, at times he would reach out to his sister through the membrane separating them, caressing her face or rubbing her feet with his. His sister would reciprocate when he initiated contact.
Piontelli conducted follow-up observation of the four sets of twins through age four. She found that behavior after birth for each child, and in the relationship between each set of twins, continued remarkably unchanged. The twins just mentioned continued to be affectionate with each other. At one year of age they would play together, touch, hug and kiss. The boy was self-starting and independent, and the girl passively followed his lead. The other twin pairs exhibited the same contentious behaviors and the same passive, non interested relationship at one year of age as they had in the womb.
Another example of prenates' responsiveness is a study (Lieberman, 1963) in which pregnant habituated smokers were forbidden cigarettes for several days. When the women were allowed to resume smoking, prenatal monitors detected immediate stress reactions before the mothers had actually lit the cigarettes. Although the mothers' thoughts and physiological anticipation were positive and pleasant, their fetus' reactions were distressed and negative. The prenates had an experience separate from the mother's, the fledgling beginnings of a separate self. Not only were the prenates reacting with a personal point of view (distressed) rather than simply absorbing the mother's experience (pleasant), they did so reacting to their mothers' anticipated experience rather than an already accomplished one.
When the fetus becomes exhausted, it may shut down and move into freeze mode: parasympathetic shock, paralyzed with fear, triggered through the vagal brake. The defenses shut down and can't seem to be retrieved. The fetus may become trapped/ strangled by its very own source of nourishment. The nourishment barrier may begin as the toxic umbilical cord, which carries the nutrition for life but also the hormones of danger, fear, and threat.
When the baby has matured to the point of being ready to move out of the womb, there may be several signs of this vagal brake happening even before birth: the cord wrapped around the baby's neck, meconium poisoning, or difficulty breathing (i.e., a blue baby).
On top of all these building blocks that may already be placed in the nourishment barrier of this tiny fetus, there are so many hospital interventions that may just add to the difficulty the fetus is encountering; for example, utilizing drugs such as Pitocin and anesthetics. These obstetrical interventions can of course be necessary and even life-saving. However, they are sometimes used due to impatience or for scheduling convenience. Currently in America about one third of births are performed as Cesarean, most of which are not medically necessary (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009).
The nourishment barrier is complicated by the chemical Pitocin, a synthetic form of the bonding hormone oxytocin, which stimulates unnaturally powerful contractions. The baby's experience of contractions is to welcome them as the means of moving through the birth canal and out into the world. However, the Pitocin-enhanced contractions can be experienced as violent by the baby (and the mother, too). So the natural process of laying the new baby on the mother's tummy so that it can crawl up to find its own source of nourishment (her breast), has been blocked first by the drug Pitocin and then the practice of having both mother and baby being "drugged" at birth. The anesthesia produces a mother who is too sleepy to breastfeed and a baby who is too drugged to nurse. Combined with the lack of oxytocin, the mother-infant bonding does not happen at the most critical time for bonding and creating a basic sense of safety, which is in the first 36 hours of life.
The "delivery self-attachment" (Righard & Alade, 1990; Righard & Franz, 1995) is every (mammal) newborn baby's instinctive and innate ability to find its mother's breast, latch on and suck. The human newborn, if placed on the mother's naked belly immediately after birth, begins the self-initiated journey to the breast within about twenty minutes, and completes it within about fifty minutes. "Delivery self-attachment is an integral part of the bonding and attachment process," and "the completion of the delivery self-attachment sequence at birth will have long lasting positive effects on the baby's neurological, somatic, and psychological development" (Castellino, 1997, p. 19).
Immediately upon birth, the baby enters a prolonged quiet but alert state of consciousness, averaging forty minutes duration. In this quiet alert state, babies look directly at their mother's or father's eyes and face, and can respond to voices (Emde, et al., 1975). During this special time, in the state most conducive to eliciting the mother's bonding, motor activity is suppressed, and all the baby's energy seems to be channeled into seeing, hearing, and responding (Klaus, et al., 1995). This period is a "sensitive period" for the installation of a personal relationship with the baby's mother. This is the most crucial time in the development of a healthy mother-child connection.
The curtailment of this sensitive period immediately after birth, by early separation such as mother going to the recovery room after anesthesia, baby being whisked off by hospital staff for procedures, or by lack of mother-infant connection, seriously diminishes the bonding that would otherwise grow over time. For example, compare mothers who deliver by emergency cesarean with mothers who have spontaneous vaginal delivery (Trowell, 1982). The cesarean mothers have longer labors and more medication before, during and after delivery. They are unconscious during the delivery, and suffer a period of amnesia after the birth as they recover from major abdominal surgery. At one month, cesarean mothers show significantly less eye-to-eye contact, are more critical in their attitudes to the pregnancy and birth, more depressed (post-partum depression), more resentful of the father, and more anxious with somatic symptoms. Clearly, curtailment of this sensitive period immediately after birth retards the onset of overt proximity-seeking behavior, and the setting up of an affectional-cognitive bond.
So, if the baby for whatever reason has been in a toxic womb and began to construct this nourishment barrier, it certainly may continue to be maintained and reinforced once the baby begins living in the family that at best may have been ambivalent about the pregnancy in the first place. We have many clients who have experienced horrendous sibling abuse in families where there were just not enough resources (time, money, food, energy, love) to go around. Just as when a bite of food is dropped in the middle of a starving pack of animals, the attack begins.
How can this nourishment barrier be de-constructed?
The young baby who is being held by the mother while being fed, face to face, has many more tools to receive the cues for safety than a baby who is just left in the crib with a bottle propped up by a pillow. The sensory experiences of receiving nourishment while at the same time seeing mother's eyes, feeling the love, smelling her familiar smells and feeling her loving touch can remove any barriers to nourishment that may have been previously constructed. Other important sensory experiences according to Stephen Porges (2011) are mother's sounds and the intonation of her voice. He refers to these tones as prosody. The baby picks up her tone of voice. If she is speaking sweetly, lovingly and perhaps even singing a lullaby, this tone facilitates safety. The baby does not have to understand the words at all to clearly get the message.
Porges teaches that the social engagement system of the baby with face-to-face interaction can dampen down the defensive states, such as the nourishment barrier we have been discussing, to create enough safety to promote a loving connection. So even though the baby may have had a difficult beginning, this can be repaired and, of course, the sooner following trauma the better.
Erecting a barrier against receiving nourishment is an innate instinctual response to trauma. Studies show that animals subject to a state of over excitation and danger (the human equivalent of which is a state of stress) will ignore their need for food for abnormal lengths of time (Vanderlinden & Vadereycken, 1997). After the threat is lifted, the animals will engage in bulimic episodes of overeating. The researchers suggest that stressful feeding episodes in the infant's first year of life create sympathetic circuits of anxiety embedded in the amygdala, becoming a long-lasting association between feeding and stress. Because the association develops at a pre-verbal developmental stage, however, it remains an "emotional memory", dissociated from any capacity to cognitively understand or control.
Following trauma or prolonged stress, these "emotional memories" or "sense memories" may remain 'encapsulated'--unprocessed and unmediated by contextualizing involvement of the hippocampus and frontal cortex, which would lead them to a potentially explicit meaning, and allow access to them for a conscious decision to change (Sella, 2003). These "memories" constitute the internalization of habitual inadequate patterns of mother-infant autonomic nervous system regulation patterns. Dissociated from conscious awareness, arrested at a primitive developmental stage, they persist throughout life (Roz, 2002). "Owing to the sub-cortical nature of this memory encoding, these memories are apparently extremely unresponsive to verbal communication and may often prove persistently resistant to orthodox verbal psychotherapy" (Sella, 2003).
An experience of stress or threat while eating, as opposed to a sense of security, may be a major determinant of eating disorders. Like the animals subjected to danger or threat mentioned above, food intake is reduced in the presence of others, perceived by many eating disordered patients as a threat, and bingeing or bulimic episodes occur when alone, often at night, which is perceived to provide safety.
Case example: Adult Reactive Attachment Disorder and toxic nourishment
An example of this pattern is a woman we have worked with named Samantha (not her real name). She is a middle aged woman who goes by the name of Sam. She has been playing out the Victim Drama triangle in her life of addictions, anorexia, sexual confusion and extreme rage.
She has been married to another woman, named Veronica (Ronnie) for the last 10 years. Ronnie and Sam are currently in a long drawn out process of getting divorced. Sam is a successful psychotherapist, despite all the dysfunction in her own life. She lives her life in constant fear of being abandoned, which is typical of people who have Adult Reactive Attachment Disorder (our reframing of the diagnosis Borderline Personality Disorder). The recent drama she has created revolves around rescuing a young (21 year old) woman named Sophie for the last 5 years. Sophie was a client of hers; Sam knows she has violated ethical boundaries by allowing Sophie into her private life. Sam took Sophie to an AA meeting and introduced her to her partner, Ronnie. Ronnie and Sophie were soon having sex and fell in love. Sophie moved in with Sam and Ronnie, which served to escalate this victim/drama. They each move around the drama triangle from playing the roles of "poor me", to the rescuer, and then they all persecute each other.
We began Sam's psychodrama right there, with her deep feelings about being abandoned both by Sophie and Ronnie, who were having this passionate affair right under her nose, in her own home! Her deep underlying emotions of rage raced to the forefront as she screamed, yelled and cried with fury. Her partner Ronnie told her that if she would have had sex with her, she wouldn't have had to have sex with this young woman. It appears that Sam is what we call "sexually anorexic". Just as in food addictions, anorexia means depriving nourishment or starving oneself. Sam may also be food anorexic as she is very tall and extremely thin.
In both food and sexual anorexia, the person is totally obsessed with what they deprive themselves of. This is the nourishment barrier in action. Sam's basic needs for nourishment from food and intimacy feel contaminated to her. And yet the irony is that she continues to poison herself with tobacco and other toxic substances.
As we regress her in her psychodrama to the source of this nourishment barrier, she finds herself back in a childhood scene where her mother is drinking heavily and is leaving the family. Sam's father is trying to pull the five-year-old Sam back into the house as she desperately clings to her mother who is getting into the taxi saying, "I'll never leave you. I love you, I love you. I'll be back, Sammy, I'll be back!"
Sam's father is dragging her and the other children back into the house as they are all screaming and crying for their mother to come back. The scene is firmly imprinted in Sam's unconscious mind, connecting the words "I love you. I'll be back" with abandonment in relationships. Her mother never did come back, which of course became an enduring blueprint for relationships in Sam's life.
She then regressed back even further to being in her mother's toxic womb. She began frantically moving around, making faces and coughing, reliving the noxious experience as her mother smoked and drank alcohol. As this fetus frantically tried to avoid the toxins, she went into sympathetic shock (the frantic movements of panic) in the womb. As she was being born the cord was wrapped around her body and throat. Moving back meant going back into the toxic shock pool of her mother's womb. However each time she pushed to try to move out, her breath was cut off and she went into parasympathetic shock (passively giving up). She couldn't move at all and felt she was going to die. At this point, the conclusion she drew about herself was, "My mother is killing me. Something is terribly wrong with me. I'm a burden, I don't deserve to live." Her first existential decision here is "I'll stop trying." Then as many souls do, she began rebelling, resisting, fighting back. Her next decision, was, "I'll fight to the death."
The next experience as she was being pulled out of the womb by forceps was rage at "the authority" of the doctors pulling her out by her head with cold metal prongs. She felt violated, resistance to coming out, to having to come into this unwelcoming world of cold metal objects, bright lights and no warm welcoming mother to hold her. And yet she knew on a soul level, she did not want to remain in the toxic shock pool of her mother's womb. So the lifelong dilemma was firmly established: craving intimacy and nourishing relationships, and yet avoiding intimacy, expecting the experience to be poisonous and ultimately to be abandoning. She also expected authority to be abusive and uncaring. She sought out toxic experiences for her body and her relationships, because she had been conditioned to associate the toxic environment of the womb with life-giving nourishment. To have the one was part and parcel of having the other.
By the end of the psychodrama, Sam realized in a moment of clarity that in the womb and through her childhood she had been unable to filter out toxins from the necessary nourishment, but that now as an adult she is able to do just that. She also saw with gratitude that the doctor who had pulled her out of the womb had actually saved her life, rescuing her from the suffocation of that cord wrapped around her neck in the birth canal.
Case example: Toxic womb and umbilical shock
Another example of the long-lasting impact of toxic nourishment and the individual's defense of erecting a nourishment barrier is a young woman we have worked with named Emma (not her real name). Emma is an obese 35 year old who has been trying desperately to get pregnant for the last 5 years. She has had a series of miscarriages which continue to cause her a great deal of physical, psychological and emotional pain. She also has an increasing amount of shame unconsciously that something must be wrong with her, even though the doctors say she is healthy enough to have a baby. After the miscarriages, she and her husband decided to adopt. When all the papers were signed and the baby was born, at the very last minute, the birth mother changed her mind. This was another huge disappointment for Emma who saw it as one more time God must be punishing her.
In the hypnotherapy session, she returns to the time of her conception where her mother already has five nearly grown children. Her most recent pregnancy resulted in a baby being born and only living a few weeks. This caused Emma's mother a great deal of grief, guilt and shame. After her infant's death, Emma's mother went into shock where she had difficulty connecting with any of the children or her husband. She was told by the doctors that she could not have any more children. She was extremely depressed, withdrawn and isolated. She did, however, become pregnant with Emma, a so-called change of life baby. This was another shock to her and she was so distraught that she considered having an abortion.
This is the beginning of the nourishment barrier for Emma as a tiny developing fetus in this mother's womb. On every level, the mother does not want this baby and so her womb becomes toxic rather than nurturing. The emotions and thoughts of wanting an abortion, i.e., wanting this baby dead, sends shock waves to the fetus. Hormones are released which become toxic to the baby as well as the chemicals that the mother was ingesting in order to numb her own pain. She was drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, taking pain killers and antidepressants. It has really been only since the 1980's that women were educated to the fact that whatever they put into their bodies could affect the developing fetus. And some women still prefer to numb their pain rather than tolerate unpleasant emotions during pregnancy, regardless of how it may affect the fetus.
During her time in the womb, Emma continued to feel the stress that was going on in the family, carried to her through the umbilical cord. One of the siblings was being sexually molested by a brother-in-law causing more distress to the family relationships and certainly less ability to focus on the growing fetus in the womb. Each day as the stress continued to grow, tiny little Emma was tossing and turning in the womb, causing her to get tangled up in her own umbilical cord, the cord that was supposed to keep her alive and fed. Because of the tangled cord, Emma had difficulty receiving any nourishment which in turn caused more frantic flailing by the fetus. The cord that was supposed to be feeding her now was killing her. When Emma was born, she had the cord wrapped around her throat, causing her to be a "blue baby" who nearly died of asphyxia. This is a clear example of how the nourishment barrier is erected in the womb as a defense against toxic nourishment.
Emma, as a very small child knew she had to be very good, perfect in fact, in order to reside in this already troubled family. She became aware in the hypnotherapy that she had to take care of her mother's needs and to try to make her happy. This became an impossible task since the mother, in shock, was totally disconnected from the baby. There was no holding, no eye contact, no breastfeeding and certainly no feeling of being loved and wanted. Emma was cared for by an older sister who propped the bottle up in the crib and often left her there for hours in dirty diapers, hungry, cold, wet and screaming. After a while, the screaming stopped as Emma went from sympathetic shock (active/screaming) into parasympathetic shock (numb/frozen). Families often then label this as the good little child. "See how good she is, she never cries!"
This is how the nourishment barrier produces "need shock". The earliest and most basic of needs are not met, beginning in the womb. When the cord becomes wrapped around the flailing baby and the fetus is deprived of nourishment, sympathetic shock is the initial response. Powerless to influence the dire predicament, the fetus then goes into parasympathetic shock. And then when it is time for the birth, the fetus cannot get through the birth canal on its own volition and the delivery requires Pitocin to initiate contractions. This pattern continues with the baby in the crib and may become SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which doctors have no medical explanation for. Interestingly enough, Emma's older sister had a baby that died of SIDS when Emma was only 3: another lost baby in a broken family, all suffering from toxic nourishment and severe need shock.
Need shock and the nourishment barrier go hand in hand. An example is a young child who screams frantically at the smallest frustration of not having what she wants. In the DSM this child is often diagnosed as Reactive Attachment Disorder. In adults, it is diagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder. Whatever it is called the patterns are very similar. The individual has a real or perceived need, expects that the need will not be met and then goes into panic (sympathetic shock) when it isn't. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as described in the book title about borderline personality disordered people: "I Hate You, Don't Leave Me." The words, "I hate you" imply that I already expect that you will not meet my needs, followed by the pleading of the needy infant, "Please don't leave me."
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David Hartman and Diane Zimberoff *
* The Wellness Institute, 3716-274th Ave SE, Issaquah, WA 98029 ** 800-326-4418
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|Author:||Hartman, David; Zimberoff, Diane|
|Publication:||Journal of Heart Centered Therapies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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