Phobias As Persistent Remainders and Reminders of the Traumas of Our Births

by John A. Speyrer

See fuller sized image of
Dr. Stan Grof's oil painting in article.

Although phobias are more typical of early childhood, they are also a decided discomfort for adults. Children are closer in time to the traumas of their births and calendrical proximity might be the reason why phobias are sometimes more of a problem for them. Psychologist, Otto Rank (1929), wrote that all anxiety is ultimately birth anxiety, so perhaps all phobic reactions are ultimately intimate links with the darker aspects of our very early history. They show us that something had gone wrong with our births or early womb experiences. Most of us "outgrow" these fears, and some morph these scary feelings into closely related concerns. With old age the specter of death becomes into finer focus and its concern, our ultimate phobia. But even in this, our final journey, may be shorn of its seemingly reasonable dreads, as a medieval cleric declared, "A man who dies before he dies, does not die when he dies."*

*Abraham Sancta Clara, 17th century German Augustinian monk. [Quoted in Dr. Stanislav Grof's The Cosmic Game]. In this sentence its author seems to understand that resolving birth trauma in our lifetime, will remove the terror aspects of the contemplation of our deaths. The fear of death and how it relates to our pre-and peri-natal material has been extensively discussed elsewhere on this website (See index of this material at, Re-Living Birth and Before: Birth Trauma In the Regression Therapies

Regression therapist, Shirley Ward, describes the phase of birth when "...the process of birth itself for most people may be tough, but tolerable. For others it may be devastating in its destructiveness. Cataclysmic muscular convulsions turn, in some cases, what would have been some type of peaceful haven into a crushing hell. The 'no exit' phase, before the cervix begins to open, can last for hours. The sheer horror of not being able to 'get out' instills thoughts of death being the answer to not feeling the pain. Intolerable pressures in later life may reinforce the suicidal thoughts." [From, Suicide and Pre and Perinatal Psychotherapy] .

Panic attack symptoms can also include a large number of other pathological fears or phobias. A previous article mentioned that a common element of anxiety attacks often includes a fear of dying derived from near-death during birth. [See Panic Attacks: Symptoms & Dangers - Their Origins in Early Traumas ] Besides fear of dying, such attacks are often accompanied with other well known phobias. Phobias are ubiquitous because mirror events in the here and now are multitudinal and happen simply by living our lives. The every day minor traumatic events remind our unconscious mind of the thread of common feelings which trigger our phobias.

Agoraphobia, related to our very early traumas, is typically described as a fear of being in open areas, so that even temporarily leaving one's living quarters or driving on the interstate highway system can become almost impossible as one becomes more and more self-confined to their living quarters. Little rumination is needed to understand why the victim associates the pain endured at birth in the process of leaving the only home he had ever known - his mother's body. When repression is incomplete leaving one's apartment equates to leaving one's original home. During our beginnings, the only home we knew was the uterus so it became an easy step for us to easily, but unconsciously, connect the two actions. [See, Return to the Mother Ship. ]

The strength of an objectively unreasonable fear is proportional to the severity of the original trauma upon which it is based. Such a fear which inhibits a person from leaving his apartment and keeps him trapped therein symbolizes an extremely early and severe trauma. The worse effect which can be imagined by such a person is that if he would leave his apartment he would surely die. The unconscious memory of almost dying during one's birth process would qualify as being powerful enough to originate such a fear.

Another phobia, relating to our births can involve driving a vehicle. For some even the contemplation of driving can be a powerfully triggering occasion because the unconscious mind often associates driving with birthing. Waiting it out during a traffic jam can be intolerable for some, undoubtedly related to the original fetal fear of not being able to complete the tortuous situation of birth.

A person attempts to reenact his birth by escaping from a situation when he feels stuck and unable to move. The recapitulation reminds him on an unconscious level of the suffering he endured during his birth process. The feeling of the immobile driver may be that waiting is intolerable. Undue waiting can bring up feelings of waiting for an execution. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines and traffic tickets have been paid each year because of an inability to wait for the green light to appear or to stop at a stop sign? Both the common result of unconscious birth trauma.

During this period while patience is at a low ebb, the driver is psychologically transported back to the period before birth when release from his birthing torment was the only thing of which he was mindful. The traffic law violater is returned to fetal yesteryear when it seemed like release from the confines of the uterus was a matter of life and death in order to avoid being killed. Throughout history getting born was indeed a matter of life and death for the fetus as well as for his mother.

Being in a moving elevator can even more powerfully remind us of the trauma of our births, as it brings elements of claustrophobia into the phobia equation. [For a humorous recounting of such phobias, see, Perinatal Performance At the Museum of Art, by Chris Boyd, Ph.D.]. The interior of a vehicle with its limited space and movement has the added ability of furnishing additional triggers which are induced by the action involved. When our "going forward" is impaired by breakdown or traffic congestation, for some it becomes a time of impatient, anxious violence as it is a reminder of birth which also might have had a number of similar emotional feelings to endure.

Fear of being in an "open area" can be experienced while driving on an interstate highway system as open areas are quite common. Incidents of road rage often have their origin in the impatience and anger of the inutero fetus. A person can be fearful of leaving his home, because the original cause of this problem is the pain involved around leaving his mother's uterus. The agoraphobia is a residual of the birth trauma. The trauma endured while the person left the only residence he had ever known - the amniotic sac and his mother's body. For some fetuses, the time before birth was enjoyable and pleasant. But when the fetal birth pangs begin its loss becomes a time, which in the future will be associated with death and the process of beginning the dying process.

Psychoanalyst, Nandor Fodor wrote that, "In its shattering effects, birth can only be paralled by death, and birth and death (become) interchangeable symbols for the unconscious mind [ The Search For the Beloved, p. 3]. Fodor's theories were based solely on dream interpretation of his clients. He believed that the ordeal of birth could be "as severe as dying."

Another common symptom, which can arise during anxiety attacks and which also has its origin in birth trauma is claustrophobia, of which analogies are apparent [See psychiatrist Dr. Frank Lake's perceptive article, Birth Trauma, Claustrophobia and LSD Therapy ].

Still another fear which is ultimately derived or paired with the amniotic fluid of our intrauterine experiences is discomfort in and sometimes fear of bodies of water.

Large bodies of water can unconsciously jog the sufferer's unconscious mind into incidents which occurred during his development in water - in amniotic fluid. Coughing and chocking immediately after birth are the reliving of hurts caused by this watery environment. Lifelong asthma often has its origins in this trauma. Because the fetus was in a watery environment soon after conception, water becomes fixed upon its mind and associated with the birth process as it was experienced with our flirtation with death.

Dr. Arthur Janov writes in The Feeling Child, (1973), pps. 168-9, how he had always wondered why, in children, a fear of the dark was such a universal phenonema. That is, he wondered until he received his own personal answer to this question and thereby explained the origins of two childhood phobias -- of darkness and of water.

"I had been swimming during the day in a very warm swimming pool. I swam under water a lot, seeing how far I could go without coming up for air. After I finally came up for air I began having an anxiety attack with the odd feeling that I was going crazy. There seemed to be a pressure in my head that was too much to withstand . . . and I could not seem to catch my breath. I rested for a few minutes, tried to talk myself out of it, and then forgot about it. That night, alone in bed, I began to have that feeling of going crazy again. I was afraid of something undefinable. I ran into the bathroom, turned on the light, and tried to get hold of myself. Having the light on calmed me down, but I didn't know why; nor was I aware at the time that turning on the light was tranquilizing.

I went back to bed and had more anxiety. I sank into the feeling, letting it sweep me away. I began having a birth Primal, choking and losing my breath until I must have been purple in the face. Once I was into the Primal, all fear left; I was simply reliving a forty-hour labor and trying to get out. As I came out of the Primal, I understood my childhood terrors of the dark. I understood why I always had to have a light on when going to sleep. There was a feeling during the Primal of being all alone in a life and death struggle with no one to help or comfort me. When I finally got out of the canal and into the light, someone did hold me and make me feel safe finally.

Being in the light was a conditioned response; that is, light became associated with safety and comfort. Fighting for breath and life in that canal was associated with darkness. Later, fears of the dark came up because being all alone in bed at night reawakened my unconscious birth terror. Last night in bed, when I had my anxiety, I reflexively ran into the bathroom and turned on the light without the slightest idea of why I was doing it. It turned out to be symbolic of the calm and safety I felt when I finally made it into the light at birth.

Losing air in the warm swimming pool reawakened the very early terror. Because I had no idea what was happening to me, I only felt afraid and that I was going crazy; my mind could not stand the upcoming pressure. Had I not had years of Primals it is doubtful that being in the swimming pool would have done anything. The early terror would have remained." (The Feeling Child, pps. 168-9)

In, Imprints, (1983) Janov affirms his earlier theory of the origins of the common childhood fear of the dark. Simply stated, "...dark represents agony and light represents respite -- for it was in the light that the agony stopped." (p 152)

Czech-American psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof, before completing medical school in his native Prague, in 1954, had worked as a volunteer "sitter" for those taking experimental doses of LSD. In a utube video he explained that after graduation he volunteered for a session for himself. Grof remarked that it was to be "...something that changed my life professionally - personally." The insights of the therapeutic LSD experience, which induces one's unconscious to spill its contents, was to become his lifelong passion. After LSD became illegal in the late sixties, he and his wife, Christina, developed holotropic breathwork which produces similar therapeutic effects as LSD.

In his 1990 book, The Holotropic Mind, Dr. Grof writes how after observing many thousands of people experiencing these non-ordinary states of consciousness, he "...can no longer deny the evidence that we have the capacity to relive the emotions and physical sensations we had during our passage through the birth canal and that we can re-experience episodes that took place when we were fetuses in our mothers' wombs." (p. 18)

It was the experiencing of his own birth regression while he was in medical school in his native Prague which changed the course of his life and was the reason he decided to enter the field of psychiatry. (See the video link above). Earlier his life goal had been becoming a cartoonist. See the copy of one of his paintings below which shows his decided talents.

The fear of animals, both large and small, can be related to birth trauma. In his article, Birth and Its Relation to Mental Illness, Suicide and Ecstasy Dr, Grof writes how the pathologic fear of a wide range of living creatures can be unconsciously related to birth trauma. He writes that Freud's collegue, psychologist Otto Rank, in The Trauma of Birth (1920), had clearly shown this connection. Grof continues,

"In the case of large animals the element of swallowing and incorporation seems to be of importance (wolf), as well as the relation to pregnancy (cow). In the case of small animals the possibility to enter narrow holes in the earth and leave them again is probably a significant factor. Some small animals seem to be besides associated with some special problems. So for instance spiders, with their ability to wrap the victim into the web and kill it, appeared in a giant form quite frequently as symbols for bad mother in the sessions dealing with birth, thus suggesting the importance of this area for the development of future arachnophobia (fear of spiders)."

British psychiatrist, Frank Lake, concurs. In his massive, Clinical Theology (1966) he wrote, "to avert identification with nothingness the mind seems to supply a 'traditional' object to represent the absent mother. The spider is perhaps the commonest object of dread." p. 709.

In the realm of the Devouring Mother (BPM II)

Dr. Grof's LSD Painting - Enjoy the large collection of Stan and Christina Grof's photos of luminaries of the transpersonal field on the Association for Transpersonal Psychology web site. [Reproduction above - © - used with permission.]

"Similarly, snakes besides having on a more superficial level an evidently phallic significance, are on a deeper level typical symbols for the birth agony and thus for evil female element.

The real substantiation for this seems to be the observations of large constrictors, which can strangle and crush their victim (birth agony) and then swallow it in its totality (pregnancy). There seem to be, however, very deep archetypal roots for this symbolism. As far as small insects are concerned, bees seem to be specifically related to the problem of reproduction and pregnancy (carrying of pollen, swelling induced by the sting). The flies because of their ability to contaminate and to spread infection are associated usually with sperm on one side and postpartum dirt on the other."

Many of the phobias are directly or indirectly related to death and the dying process, often closely related to a near-death experience in the birth canal, or severe and very early childhood illness. Included in this category would be a fear of the end of the world, of armageddon type disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes, world conflagration, hell fire and infernos, atomic explosions, fear of pain, particularly fear of death and of situations which symbolize death or dying, particularly dread of physicians, of hospitals, of inclement weather, of having serious illness, germs, cancer, of female genitalia, being touched, atomic explosions, flying, microbes and bacteria, going to bed, childbirth, being bound or tied up, religious symbols and on, only limited to what one's unconscious mind may unconsciously associate with one's traumatic birth experience.

The natural and unnatural disaster phobias are a fertile storyline for the projection of the feeling content from a multitude of scenarios involving severe physical and emotional sufferings. These apocalyptic plots have been reported by clients in their experiences during various regression therapies, including primal therapy, holotropic breathwork, re-birthing, ingesting LSD (or other psychedelics) and other deep feeling regressive type psychotherapies.

For an analysis of recent motion pictures which include some of those themes, see, America's Apocalyptic Rebirth Fantasies in Contemporary Films, by Victor Meladze.

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