Hurricanes, Suicides, Wars, Plane Crashes
and Birth Trauma

by John A. Speyrer

"There is evidence that personal birth experience is significant and is held as memory material.
When birth trauma is significant, every detail of impingement and reaction is, as it were,
etched on the patients memory, in the way to which we have been accustomed
when patients relive traumatic experiences of later life."
-- D. W. Winnicott, M.D., in Birth Memories, Birth Trauma and Anxiety (1958)

"(W)e have recognized the neuroses in all their manifold forms as reproductions of,
and reactions to, the birth trauma."
-- Otto Rank, Ph.D. The Trauma of Birth, (1924)

"To be born is to suffer."
-- Gautama (Buddah)

Most of those who have had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reactions to natural disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita which devastated parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas comprise a group of 20% of the total number who were initially affected by the hurricanes. It's a normal reaction to be upset with the possible loss of life and property, but those in that 20% group of PTSD sufferers, had symptoms which remained longer than the others and many of their symptoms were exacerbated as time went on.

That is what happened to some hurricane Katrina evacuees, many of whom are feeling much worse six months into their personal catastrophe. The AP quotes the U. S. Substance and Mental Health Services Administration in estimating that 500,000 evacuees may eventually need psychiatric services.

Sue Gerhardt, in Why Love Matters, writes that the roots of persistence of PTSD symptoms go back to babyhood. (p. 134). She writes that the victims have a recognized history of emotional problems. However, such overwhelming reactions would be consistent with those who had suffered an earlier life and death trauma - one that predates even life in the crib.

Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof holds that psychological traumas, no matter how severe, are insufficient to account for the origin of symptoms of such grave psychopathology. He writes that evidence uncovered in two types of regressive psychotherapy which he has practiced over the past five decades ". . . have brought clear evidence that postnatal psychological traumas, in and of themselves, are not sufficient to account for the development of emotional disorders." (Psychology of the Future, p. 127). When it comes to psychosomatic manisfestations of emotional disorders his position is even more emphatic. He believes that in such cases "the memory of birth has not been adequately processed and continues to exist in the unconscious. . ." (Grof, op.cit., p. 128-9).

". . . (b)irth traumas are imprinted as deep subconscious memories that are
reactivated during crisis points in adult life."
-- John E. Nelson, M.D. in Healing the Split

A hurricane, tsunami, avalanche, earthquake, terror attack or other physical or emotional disaster may be experienced or anticipated to be as intense and painful an experience as had our birth. Such a hypothesis seemingly assaults credulity and most decry this possibility. To posit that a nervous breakdown, severe depression and/or suicide after a natural or unnatural-disaster could be related to one's traumatic birth would seem to be a wild assertion, but there is indeed much evidence to show how this relationship can exist and operate on an unconscious level.

The unnatural disaster of being in a war can also unconsciously remind us of our very beginnings. On March 1, 2006 the Baltimore Sun reported that "35% of Iraq veterans sought therapy after the war's first year." Psychohistorian Lloyd deMause, in a review of Gwynne Dyer's, War: The Lethal Custom, mentioned that, throughout history, the feelings of warriors and the symptoms of children's nightmares have definite similarities. He wrote that both endure 'violent pounding of the heart, shaking and trembling all over, vomiting (and) losing control of their bowels.' (Psychohistory News, Newsletter of the Int. Psychohistory Assn, Fall, 2005.) Dr. Arthur Janov, in Imprints, The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience, pps. 108-113, explains how children's night terrors (nightmares) are derived from their birth trauma.

The civilian population of nations can psychologically break both at the beginning and at the end of hostilities. David R. Beisel writes that he was dismayed to learn of the large number of suicides in Germany in 1945 as the war was ending. ". . . (T)he tens of thousands of normal Germans, as well as Nazi leaders (110 generals), who committed suicide is something historians have not mentioned or much focused on. . . (D)uring the Czech Crisis of 1938 . . . many Czechs saw themselves as participants in their own self-destruction and said so. There were plenty of actual suicides in Prague when the Munich Crisis was resolved in Germany's favor and later in March 1939 when Hitler took the rest of Czechoslavakia. Before that, there were thousands of suicides in Vienna prior to and after the Anschluss." Journal of Psychohistory, Winter, 2007, pp. 264-265, A Conversation On Europe's Suicidal Embrace With Hitler.

In early 2009, when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River, even though no lives were lost, the psychological and physical effects of the crash continue to linger. Many of the survivors are bothered with difficulty sleeping and with persistent looping images of the emergency river landing. No doubt, some may be changed forever as were those on 9/11. The cat had been let out of the bag - their defenses have been lowered and their earlier traumas have been released and are now closer to active memory. On occasion the sleeping dog can no longer simply lie about.

Mitch Weiss an AP writer, recently wrote a short but perceptive news release about the survivor's symptoms. Thoughts of dying and death just won't go away for some of the victims. Coming close of death has tapped into the birth memories of some of the 155 passengers. As their psychological defenses rise, most will return to neurotic normal, but for some, those with severe birth traumas and less solid defenses, the memories of near-death will not necessarily fade with time.

"Body states and feelings are remembered, re-created, or simulated . . . as a result of the brain's endless search for information that matches or relates to images, sounds, feelings, tastes, smells, thoughts, and ideas being sensed, recalled, or evaluated."
-- Doyle P. Henderson in Panacea! - The Ultimate Alternative?

"It would take an army of therapists to keep up with the endless
production line of trauma at birth! "
-- David Chamberlain, Ph.D., in Birth Trauma Is Real

In England, there was a psychiatrist who traced back the urge to suicide to the traumas of our births. Frank Lake, was also a dedicated theologian, and did much research in drug and non-drug regressive psychotherapies. Based on severity, he divided birth traumas into four categories. The most severe was when elements of inutero desire for death as well as the fear of death are developed. He believed that for some birthing fetuses, a point is reached in the birth process where it wishes for annihilation. It chooses death instead of life. This commonly happens because

"(t)here is a limit to the pain and panic any living organism can bear. When that limit has been reached there is a sudden, dramatic and drastic reorientation of the whole will. Instead of struggling to live, the organism is struggling to die. Life under such conditions is intolerable. Death is preferable."

"(T)he loathing of the pain of being born may be so great that the wish to die almost entirely replaces the former longing to live. In fact, the intensity of the earlier longing is transformed, mechanically and without any act of the will to the latter, at the point where sheer intolerance of pain takes over. As with Job, the infinite desire is to be carried from the womb to the tomb. Indeed, the passage from the womb has become the tomb of the baby's natural hope of a secure and friendly universe. In so far as a sense of personal identity takes its roots in this experience, it is the identity of one whose spirit lives within the schizoid position, whatever defences have been used against it. In one or another it is the identity of someone who is always feeling that death is preferable to life." [Frank Lake, Personal Identity - Its Origins, p. 7]

Stanislav Grof agrees with Lake's position. Dr. Grof explains:

The role of the birth trauma as a source of violence and self-destructive tendencies has been confirmed by many clinical studies. . . . aggression directed inward, in particular, suicide, seems to be psychogenetically linked to difficult birth. According to a recent article published in Lancet, resuscitation at birth is conducive to higher risk of committing suicide after puberty. The Scandinavian researcher Bertil Jacobsen found a close correlation between the form of self-destructive behavior and the nature of birth (Jacobsen et al., 1987). Suicides involving asphyxiation were associated with suffocation at birth; violent suicides, with mechanical birth trauma; and drug addiction leading to suicide, with opiate and/or barbiturate administration during labor. . . . The circumstances of birth thus play an important role in creating a disposition to violence and self-destructive tendencies or to loving behavior and healthy interpersonal relationships. [Grof, Primal Renaissance, Psychological Roots of Human Violence and Greed, p. 8]

"Patterns of behavior that are permanently repeated throughout life are very
often the blind repetition of experiences made at birth."
-- Dr. Ludwig Janus in The Enduring Effects of Prenatal Experience
(Earlier published as, Wie die Seele entsteht. Unser psychisches
Leben vor und nach der Geburt

Psychologist Arthur Janov, ibid., devotes Chapter 10 to Suicide as a Solution to Birth. The chapter opens:

"Despair. Hopelessness. Helplessness. Doom. A bottomless feeling of 'What's the use?' , 'What's the Point?' , 'No Way Out.' These are the central feelings in the urge to kill oneself. They are also the key feelings surrounding a traumatic birth. Possibly the closest most of us will come to death is when we first come to life. The experience of having come very close to death at birth may leave one with death feelings against which one fights for a lifetime." p. 213.

"We, in primal therapy, have found that all suicidal feelings arise from the
individual's first confrontation with severe pain and near death
from morbid conditions in the womb. It is not just the pain
that plunges one into suicidal gestures, but these infantile
feelings that go with it; that is, the sense of timelessness,
that the pain will never end."

-- Bonnie Randolph, R. N., Birth and Its Effect on Human Behavior

After a natural disaster, or any overwhelming incident, such as the death of a loved one, a tremendous financial loss, or during a severe health crisis, our brain scans its stored database of memories searching to determine if we had experienced a similar earlier event so we will know how we reacted and use it as a guide of how to react at the present time.

All experiences are examined, repressed or otherwise. The events of our lives, including those of our birth and uterine memories are rapidly scanned. If the catastrophe has similar feeling elements to those early repressed traumas we will inevitably have a tendency to feel the feeling originally attached to that trauma and therefore to respond the way we did the first time.

But does the lure towards suicide always have its origins in birth trauma? Although the most common critical trauma is birth, illnesses during early childhood and infancy, such as whooping cough and other serious diseases which had life and death implications, can also predispose us to later suicidality. Birth trauma, however, is by far, the most common lure to suicide

"Yes, hell exists. It is not a fairy tale. One indeed burns there.
This hell is not at the end of life. It is here. At the beginning.
Hell is what the infant must experience before he gets to us."
-- French physician F. Leboyer, Birth Without Violence

For these learning experiences to be acted upon requires an event or an environment which resonates with elements of the repressed traumatic birth. Such elements often include feelings of hopelessness and deep resignation which were first encountered in the fetus' struggle to be born. Children will be prominent among those who suffer from hurricane Katrina's effect because they were the most helpless during the hurricane trauma and because they are, in time, closer to their birth trauma.

Having originally escaped the ravages of the natural disaster of birth reminds the hurricane survivor of his survivor status as a fetus fighting for his life during his birth process. If we felt like giving up in the birth canal, we will feel like giving up when confronted with overwhelming triggers later in life. If we felt confident as we successfully transitioned to life outside the womb we will feel confident that we can be successful in overcoming our present trials. Those who felt that they were dying during their birth may be revisited with the old feeling of wishing to die as a result of a catastrophic natural disaster.

". . . I would guess that almost 100 percent of our patients are confronted with
suicidal feelings at one time or another during [primal] therapy. . ."
-- Dr. Arthur Janov in Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience

Many of us, however, were not successful in meeting the challenges of our birth and were left with deep continuing residuals of our brush with death which are just lying in wait for the appropriate trigger. In the appropriate circumstance we will react with the feeling of "wanting to die." Such an interpretation of the origins of wishing to suicide is not generally accepted by mainline mental health experts. They claim that the relationship of natural disasters, especially to suicide, is unclear.

The wish for annihilation is explained as it is a reminder of the original trauma. Those who have suicidal urges are the ones who earlier had suicidal urges during their birth process.


  • "Statistics suggest that the suicide rate in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is now double or more the national and local averages." NYTimes - 12/27/05

  • In New Orleans, two police officers, using their own revolvers, took their own lives.

  • ". . . (I)n an Atlanta-area rental home hundreds of miles from (New Orleans), Spears shot his fiancee to death, severely wounded his 4-year-old son with a bullet to the back of the head, and then killed himself. The couple's 5-month-old daughter, born amid the Katrina chaos, was unharmed. . . . Just what might have pushed Spears over the edge is unclear."

  • "Dr. Frank Minyard . . . attributes seven suicides in his flood-stricken city alone to Katrina-related stress."

  • He told of a suicide of a doctor who had seen his practice destroyed by the floodwaters, and the suicide of a father while trying to clean out his damaged home. "He just snapped," Jerry said. "They found him hanging from the rafters."

  • The Baton Rouge Advocate on 8/12/06 reports that 11 months after the hurricane, suicide rates had nearly tripled.

  • The same newspaper on 2/03/07 reported that 17 months after Katrina, its children are still in pain. Indeed they are feeling worse. One-third of those who were displaced are still suffering from severe mental health problems, according to an AP news release. Their parents are depressed as well. This was the conclusion of two new studies supervised by Dr. Irvin Redlener.

"Individuals may even commit suicide or virtual suicide
to escape the DREAD of annihilation."
-- Robert Scharf, Ph.D.

But as traumatic as Katrina was, Dr. Holly A. Parker says it would be wrong to blame all of these suicides on the storm.

"I can tell you that a very common myth that people have is that there was one thing, one event that pushed someone over the edge," says Parker, a psychopathologist who is part of a Harvard Medical School project assessing the mental health needs of Katrina survivors. "The reality is that people who die by suicide have what is called a suicidal career, meaning that it's not just one thing that happened."

Dr. Parker is correct. It was not just the hurricane - "not just one thing that happened" on the gulf coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi that August day that caused the suicides. Rather, its ultimate cause happened many years earlier. It was the triggering of the hurricane's suicide victims repressed memory of their almost failed struggle to get born. The eventual ramifications to their coming close to their death agonies in the birth canal was the real origin of the future hurricane victim's psychopathology. For every one who committed suicide there were hundreds, nay thousands, who suffered less severe triggering effects whose trauma also originated from their own birth.

". . . it is likely that fear plays an important role in the genesis
of what is called depression by psychiatric clinicians."
-- Arnold J. Mandell, M.D.,
The Psychobiology of Consciousness

All physical disasters have the potential to trigger such untoward effects. The terror attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 caused many to seek psychiatric help. Because of television, the immediacy of those watching the terror attack was not confined to those in New York. Many tv viewers nationwide were affected by the wrenching images of disaster with resultant psychological havoc to their equanimity. Some were already depressed and contemplating suicide, and found in such images of devastation, the needed final push to complete their plans. Others were affected in much milder ways, as described below, but affected, they were, nonetheless.

Such facile unconscious reopenings of the early wounds of their birth are especially potent in triggering episodes of insomnia, nervous anxiety and feelings of hopelessness. Those who actually lost property because of the ravages of the hurricanes faced the task of rebuilding and putting back together their shattered lives. To some of the severely birth traumatized ones, the work which lay ahead seemed too overwhelming to even contemplate.

There were those who felt that giving in to the tranquility of death and dying seemed easier than facing the work which lay ahead, but did not succumb to the feelings of hopelessness and release which death would offer. A much smaller percentage seriously entertained thoughts of suicide. These feelings, however, had the same origin and were the same feelings which the future suicide victims had felt in the birth canal before they were finally delivered from their agony. The only difference was the degree of inutero suffering involved and the extent of their personal defenses. All things being equal, a less traumatic birth equated to less severe symptoms after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"'A Rand survey by 10 psychiatric professionals on how the nation was feeling following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax mailings was published in the Nov. 15 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine. The survey concluded that the Sept. 11 attacks resulted in "substantial" symptoms of stress for many Americans, and recommended that clinicians be prepared to help people with 'trauma-related symptoms of stress.'"

(W)e can say that for the most part, the self is not divided by some line between a conscious and a nonconscious self. Rather, the self is created by nonconscious
processes, as well as by the selection associations of these
processes into something we call "consciousness."
-- Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.,
The Developing Mind

We do not realize that our actions and behaviors are not the result of free will. We do not understand that every day motivational thoughts are being controlled by unconscious associations which had their origins during our very earliest beginnings.

The most powerful of these shapers of behaviors is an unconscious trauma which resides perpetually at the core of our personalities. Because of its overwhelming reach, the characteristics of the kind of birth we experienced affects us either for good or for bad. For some, their births were a blessing, for others -- an enduring curse.

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