Our stress set point is often determined by the way we were cared for by our primary caregiver. So what can we do to reset and rewire our nervous systems for more resilience?
You haven’t slept, everyone is sick, you just had an argument with your partner, and now, you’re on the groceries and tissues run with your youngest going into full meltdown.
For all its joys and deep sense of fulfilment, there are times when being a mother is really overwhelming.
Parenting is a full-time and often relentless job without holidays or pay — especially during the first 18 months of a baby’s life. Rachel Cusk, a novelist, describes this as ‘sort of serfdom, a slavery, in that I am not free to go.’ This is fertile ground for mums to experience high levels of stress. It can start a process of losing their ‘sense of self’.
Our own early life sets our emotional thermostat
Our emotional thermostat – the point at which we ‘lose it’ and the length of time it takes to calm down again – is often determined by the way we were cared for by our primary caregiver. For example, if we were mothered by a mum under extreme stress, then it’s highly likely that we’ll repeat those patterns.
Corrosive cortisol – the stress hormone – once triggered, soon overwhelms our nervous system taking us on a downward spiral of over-reaction. By then it’s pretty hard to ‘calm down’ just by thinking about calming down because we are in a state of high stress arousal.
Experiences in infancy leave some people almost constantly in this high stress state. In fact writers such as Sue Gerhardt maintain that our ability to regulate our nervous system well when under stress is set in the first six to 12 months of life. Of course that is when most mums and their partners are facing the biggest adjustments and challenges in caring for their new baby. And this is exactly the point in time when your own birth trauma – what you didn’t get or got too much of as an infant – gets activated. This is how inter-generational stress gets passed down through the generations.
Birth imprints affect how we see the world
Our won birth is our first major imprint from the world and it affects how we perceive relationships at a deep subconscious level. What are all these bright lights? Where is Mum? Can I connect to her eyes? Is the world a dangerous place? Why all this pain? (Believe it or not it wasn’t until 2006 that the Australian Medical Association recognised that babies actually feel pain!)
My own birth story
My own birth story was fairly typical of a Melbourne hospital in 1971: an unsupported mum in a fairly uncaring hospital environment. No Dad or doula on the scene, just a stressed out mid-wife, who Mum recounted many years later, was really rude to her.
So here is what my birth record says;
mid-forceps delivery with episiotomy and tear, sutured. Pain relief used – nitrous oxide and oxygen (the oxygen helps fetal oxygenation) and a pudendal block (to relieve pain associated with the pushing stage of labor). Length of labour not recorded’.
Just a few words captures the physical reality of what happened. But what to make of the emotional imprint of that type of birth upon my own life?
For a start I often had a massive enthusiasm for new projects in life, then lose all interest and often feel totally hopeless, or chuck a hissy fit. Can you guess what that might be about? The pain-killer nitrous oxide plus the local anaesthetic hit my mother’s nervous system and then by extension me! So I’m all enthusiastic, coming down the birth canal, really raring to go and BAM! Everything… slows… right… down.
According to Robyn Fernance, in her great book ‘Being Born’ (2003), forceps delivered babies often feel pressured in life (tick), find that when they really want to go for it, they will feel stuck or held back by situations and /or people, and need someone or something to pull them out, in order to free themselves of the pressures of it all (tick), and may often feel they are under the pressure of someone else’s authority (big tick).
I might also add that as a young teenager I would often get strong headaches that I would ‘cure’ by hitting my head against a plastered wall at home (probably not so great for my brainpower, but it relieved the headache!).This was possibly a way of my body acting out a very old painful imprint to my forehead.
How to heal using the conscious connected breath
So early life and birth can impact how we respond to stress and in fact our subconscious attitudes to life, but what can we do about it? How do we go about healing those early experiences and habitual emotional patterns? In traditional talk therapy it is almost impossible to get back to pre-toddler (pre-verbal) memories.
A more directly embodied alternative to talk therapy is conscious connected breathing or breathwork. Just to be clear, this is not the style of breathwork advocated by Wim Hof, but rather the style of breathwork that came out of California in 1970s and 1980s through pioneers like Stanislav Grof who introduced holotropic breathwork to Australia in 1981.
How does active breathing help us heal? By taking us back to the scene of the ‘event’ in a safe yet powerful way. Our psyche knows that this time it’s okay to feel the pain, the sorrow, the separation anxiety or whatever happened around our birth story. And the body knows how to let go of pent-up emotional energy around the event. This is the premise of breathwork therapy — liberation of stuck emotional energy which then allows for more space to feel pleasure and joy in the body.
Breathwork therapy for me has been the most powerful key to letting go of rage, grief, frustration, anxiety and the major key to my generally contented state of life at this point! If you’ve got some frustrations in your life, feeling overwhelmed or just have a sense that things could be better, breathwork could be something for you to investigate.
Phil Morey is a breathwork teacher and trainer recognised by the Australian Breathwork Association. He has been offering breathwork retreats with his co-facilitator, Suzanne Zankin, for over a decade. Retreats and workshops are offered in the Kangaroo Valley and at Moruya Heads. https://inspiredbreath.com.au/