On the Fear of Death:

Dying In the Birth Canal

By John A. Speyrer

". . . 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. in The Psychobiology of Consciousness

"Individuals may even commit suicide or virtual suicide
to escape the DREAD of annihilation."

-- Robert Scharf, Ph.D.

Significant studies of the effects of birth trauma began in the fifties, but even now after many decades, the idea that people have lifelong psychological and physical problems due to a traumatic birth is rejected by the overwhelming majority of obstetricians and psychiatrists.

What does the future hold for such acceptance? It will be years and perhaps decades before the realities that birth traumas can cause physical and mental ills are accepted by either professionals or the general public.

But even if these difficult truths are recognized, the solution to the problem -- the re-living of birth traumas in regression therapies -- will probably continue to remain on the fringes of medicine and psychiatry for the foreseeable future.

For me, now, looking back on my childhood after almost 30 years of primaling, it’s so easy to see the glaring evidence of a traumatic birth.

As a young child I remember preferring to walk-up the many flights of stairs rather than endure the panic and fear which would invariably develop while using an elevator. By the time I was 10 years old I had conquered this specific fear, but I retained other forms of claustrophobia.

My father owned a country general store. Every summer blocked ice was sold to area farmers from a very large and secure ice storage room. I can remember a few times when I went into the ice room and was intentionally locked inside by playmates. The darkness and the feeling that I might not be able to get out triggered feelings of panic. Even when I worked there in late childhood and as a young adult the fear remained. I always was scared that someone would close the door and trap me inside.

But even before the fear of elevators and of being trapped in the ice storage room, I can remember being terrified of being in the dark alone. The bathroom was only a room away from the family room, but as a child, I was always scared to enter the darkened bathroom alone. Usually a family member had to accompany me on those frequent trips. For many years I had been unable to sleep in the dark. It had always been necessary that the hall light remain lit.

On page 152 of Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience, Dr Arthur Janov observes that:

"Children who must have the light on in order to sleep are suffering acutely from that dark period that just before they saw their first light of day. In a conditioning paradigm, it seems that dark represents agony and light represents respite -- for it was in the light that the agony stopped, it was in the light that breathing began; and it was in light that the first contact from Mother became evident."

Another childhood symptom that I had a traumatic birth that seems so clear to me now is the recurring neck tic which came and went during periods of stress in my childhood. I also had a compulsion to "crack" my neck at such times.

In numerous primals I was able to discover the source of this tic when I relived the extreme neck torsion involved during my descent, flexion, and internal rotation of my head during the final stages of my birth process.

The source of the many symptoms of claustrophobia that I experienced as a child (and still experience to some extent to this day) was essentially the fact that I was stuck -- and felt trapped in the birth canal -- with the life and death fear that I would never get out.

During my youth no one would have been able to connect the above-mentioned symptoms to trauma which occurred during birth -- that knowledge simply didn’t exist.

But there was another symptom of having almost died in the birth canal which had always been in evidence to some extent, but which after almost 25 years of therapy would surface with an almost unbearable amount of emotional suffering – that symptom was hypochondria.

"The man who dies before he dies,
does not die when he dies."

-- Abraham á Sancta Clara, 17th century German Augustinian monk. [Quoted in Dr. Stanislav Grof's The Cosmic Game - In this sentence its author seemingly understands that if a person re-lives his birth trauma during his lifetime, his death and its contemplation becomes much less anxiety provoking.]

Part One

In my therapy, I had been uncovering some pre and peri-natal traumas since 1975, but it was not until February of 1998 that I really began to really feel the fear and terror of death associated with my birth.

I had some problems with my vision and my opthalmologist suggested a vision field test which revealed bilateral vision defects. He then suggested following up with a neurological exam. He did not say that he believed I had a brain tumor, but when he asked if I had had a stroke in the past, his question made me realize that besides that problem there could exist another - a brain tumor.

That realization of just the possibility of having a brain tumor was all that was needed to trigger, on a massive scale, my fetal fear of death in the birth canal. In just a few days I was in a deep depression -- plagued by a relentless obsession with death and dying.

Being a hypochrondriac, I had read that the three most important diagnosing symptoms for brain tumors were disturbances in balance, in sight, and in smell. I had been having two of the symptoms when the worry of a brain tumor began -- and the third symptom was soon to begin – manufactured by my primal fear of dying!

Two weeks into the depression about a possible brain tumor, I began having olfactory hallucinations. About twice each week I began having "attacks" of smelling non-existent odors. I would spontaneously begin smelling acetone, cake, fresh bread, etc. My worry and depression grew. Occasionally, as I lay in bed faint full-body convulsions would occur.

My physician had ordered a cat-scanof my brain. It was negative for brain tumor. But my repressed memories were not to be placated so easily. I consulted a neurologist. He did not believe I had a brain tumor, but said that if I really wanted to be certain he would order an MRI. He did. That scan was also negative.

My vision problem turned out to be advanced glaucoma -- an eye disease. But now my primal-pain genie had escaped its bottled-up defenses - and was not to be returned to its uncorked bottle so easily!

The emotional turmoil of fearing that I had a brain tumor triggered a long depressive episode that included panic attacks, neurasthenic exhaustion, and preoccupation with thoughts of death. I felt a oneness with death and even joined the Hemlock Society.

Thoughts of death and dying continually intruded into my mind. I read many obituaries. Attending wakes and funeral services during that period made me sometimes feel that I wanted to change places with the deceased in the casket. I had become overloaded with anxiety, but unable to feel in primals the real source of my anxiety and depression.

I called a friend in California, and eventually with his telephone help through primal regressions, I was able to link-up the origins of my hypochondria, fear of death and depression to their ultimate sources in the birth canal.

The emotional components of the hundreds of primal death feelings I was to have, included fear, powerlessness, pleadings for help from my mother, and feelings of being annihilated during my process of birth. In time the primals included begging my mother to kill me if she could not or would not help me get out. (How can I explain this unless I acknowledge that yes, I believe that the fetus does have “knowledge” of its mother's existence.)

Months and years later these themes were still being felt as this phase of my birth re-livings continued. While in those primal feelings of being in the birth canal, I also experienced a deep rage at my mother for not helping me get born.

I remember many years earlier, when during a birth primal, a therapist suggested I ask my mother for help. I angrily replied, "How can a fetus talk?" Obviously, at that time, the feeling was not yet ready to be felt!

One of the greatest disappointments I have had with primal-oriented therapy is that the most severe traumas often present themselves for resolution only after many years, during the later stages of the therapy.

Even so, it is possible that I would not have experienced the many regressive episodes of "dying in the birth canal" for many more years in the future, or perhaps never, if the feeling had not been triggered by my brain tumor scare.

Psychiatrist Stan Grof writes in The Cosmic Game, 1998 (pps. 146-147) that re-living one's birth in therapy does not necessarily have a favorable outcome: "If the delivery was very debilitating or confounded by heavy anesthesia, the experience of rebirth does not have the quality of triumphant emergence into light. It is more like awakening and recovering from a hangover with dizziness, nausea, and clouded consciousness. Much additional psychological work might be needed to work through these additional issues and the positive results are much less striking."

Janov also believes, "The treatment for the effects of birth trauma involves months and years of therapy, and even then may not be totally effective.” Arthur Janov, Ph.D., Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience, 1983, p. 248.

During the deepest primals, a feeling of fear of dying in the birth process was sometimes immediately followed by a feeling of wanting to die in order to stop the mental and physical suffering, and occasionally by an unbelievably intense dread that I would not die during the birth process, and continue to feel my birth anguish instead. Is the physical and emotional pain of a traumatic birth the ultimate origin of our concept of the never-ending torments of Hell?

During my birth regressions I experienced many hours of deep wailing and crying, of spitting up mucous, and choking and coughing. Some primals were predominately the movements involved in the birth process, as I pushed with all my might to get "somewhere" or to “get out."

I also did a lot of pressuring my shoulders against the carpet and door jams at home. A small percentage of those death and dying birth feelings were completed and ended with the feeling of having been born. These often were accompanied by new-born baby wailing followed by an overwhelming need for rest. Walking the few steps to get to bed was too much of an effort so I rested/slept on the floor in the spot and position where the primal had ended. Some of these primals were silent, but many included pleas for help, vocal expressions of fear, and deep sobbing.

(I wrote this portion of the article in April of 1998, when the death-linked birth experiences had been continuing on a daily basis for a couple of months and were undoubtedly the most profound and deepest regressions I had ever experienced in my twenty plus years of self-primal therapy.)

"For most of us, delving deep into the dark pits of our
earliest memories means reexperiencing the complete and total
abject terror of death. And wouldn't you know it
that's where the biggest payoff is."

-- A patient, quoted in The Biology of Love by Dr. Arthur Janov

Part Two

The birth feelings described above continued for the next four months, although with gradually diminishing depth and intensity.

The need to "say the feeling" -- to say "I'm Dying" and "I Want to Die" were usually followed by connected primal birth feelings during which I re-lived the birth traumas of dying and of wanting to die when I was stuck because of shoulder impingement during my birth.

But how does a fetus know what the word “death” means? The fetus does not know. The experience I had was more akin to being close to annihilation and hoping for death or to no longer exist because of the physical and emotional suffering I experienced while being born. As an adult, one's mind easily translates these feelings using the word “death.” As a child I felt resentful that I had a body. I would have rather been pure spirit instead.

The still partially repressed feelings of death and dying found other symptoms on which to symbolize.

In late August of 1998, I noticed pain in my calf muscles while exercising on a treadmill. I soon began worrying that I might have peripheral vascular disease.

Over the next four weeks I had more and more symptoms relating to my legs and thighs. I experienced burning sensations in various parts of my legs as well as occasional numbness and various paresthesias.

Walking over a block or so caused feelings of heaviness in both thighs. The more symptoms I had relating to my legs, the more I was convinced that I had severe arterial blockages affecting my legs and feet.

In spite of the six months of almost continuous primaling I still was obsessed with thoughts of death and dying, rapidly going back and forth from deeply wanting to die to extreme fear of dying. Sometimes I was awakened from sleep with neuropathy-type tingling in my lower extremities. My socks felt bothersome. It was as though they restricted the flow of blood to my feet, as I had pain on the soles of my feet.

I had had a lifetime of high blood pressure, although, I always had experienced large reductions of blood pressure after a primal feeling. Decades of primaling were needed before the ratio between my LDL and HDL cholesterol normalized. But, at that time, I had read that such unhealthy ratios were commonly predisposing risks for those who eventually developed peripheral vascular disease.

I again became depressed as I had during the time I thought I had a brain tumor. I was often preoccupied with thoughts of death and dying and with the meaninglessness of existence. I had obsessive fantasies of death by gunshot while being robbed, by drowning, by hanging, by being in an auto accident, and by falling off or jumping off of a tall building. At times, I did not care whether I lived or died - only that my death be swift and painless.

With much trepidation and anxiety in September of 1998, I made an appointment with a cardiologist to confirm my self diagnosis! The cardiologist expressed doubts that I had peripheral vascular disease, but when his nurse had difficulty in finding pulses in both feet, I became even more concerned. I was scheduled to return two weeks later to undergo coronary medical tests, since ischemic heart disease often co-exists with PVD, but my anxiety and worry rose to such a level that the next day I requested that the tests be done as soon as possible.

Unlike the period earlier in the year, when I feared that I had a brain tumor, I did not have the same anxiety and panic attacks. This was perhaps due to the fact that since February of 1998, I had had, since my "brain tumor" scare, many dozens of regressive primals relating to near death feelings during my birth. Undoubtedly, those many primals had reduced my death phobia to some extent. Some of those primal re-livings lasted only a few minutes, while a few were up to an hour in duration.

The results of the three medical tests showed that I had no (or minimal) coronary artery ischema. I was very happy with those results, but since my leg symptoms were progressing in severity, my fears were not allayed. Besides the mild pain, portions of my legs were cool instead of warm and often felt numb.

When I experienced a regression to a "dying in the birth canal" feeling, my anxiety and depressive symptoms were temporarily quieted, even though anxiety and depression always eventually returned. I even had one or two primal regressions during which feelings in my legs played a major part. It was at this time that I suspected and fervently hoped that my symptoms might have had an origin in early birth trauma rather than from arterial blockages.

Needing even more reassurance, although embarrassed about my obsession, I made still another appointment with the cardiologist. He was patient with me, answered my many questions, and I felt hopeful as he reiterated his belief that my leg and feet symptoms were not caused by arterial blockages.

During a subsequent visit, when I had additional concerns, he told me that he felt that the only test which would allay my anxieties would be an angiogram of both my coronary and peripheral arteries. Of course, I immediately agreed to the angiograms, and the next day entered the hospital to undergo the tests which I again feared might confirm my worse fears, but which also might calm my anxieties and depression.

Angiograms of both my coronary and leg arteries were taken and after the tests and x-rays the cardiologist assured me that I had no blockages. I then became convinced that the symptoms were indeed "birth memories" and that the two primal regressions in which my legs were involved were no fluke -- that I would continue to re-live the birth traumas involving my legs -- and that they would eventually eliminate my leg symptoms. I immediately felt better and in just a few days began having daily primal birth regressions in which leg trauma played a predominant part.

And now the pre-primal symptoms began changing and were different from the leg symptoms which had caused me so much concern. Instead of having pain in my legs, the pre-primal symptoms were often feelings of wanting to die -- and during the primal I experienced a need to forcefully thumb pressure various parts of my legs, especially my thighs and calf muscles.

I also noticed at that time that walking short distances of a couple of blocks triggered the birth primal feelings relating to my legs. Invariably, an hour or so after the walk, leg symptoms arose which I was able to eliminate or greatly reduce by "going with the feeling." Sometimes it felt as though my legs needed to be hit. Pummeling my legs helped recreate the original trauma and aided connection to the original birth trauma. This pummeling often resulted in deep sobbing accompanied by feelings that I was dying during the process of being born.

Early in the week following the angiograms, I developed a bilateral heaviness in my lower limbs which were totally unlike any of my symptoms of the weeks before, and I instantly realized that a primal feeling was approaching consciousness and ready to be felt. In just a few seconds, I was reliving massive pressure to both legs as they were being painfully twisted and pressured during birth. After one long primal, I had total relief from all leg symptoms for many hours.

I’m realizing, with greater and greater conviction, that the origin of those leg symptoms was the battering my weak and thin legs received while being forced into a folded and twisted position while I was internally rotated in the birth process.

And the origin of my hypochondria and fear of death feelings? There is no doubt in my mind that they are the unconscious memory of the closeness to death I experienced while being born.

Part Three

". . . 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

T he experiences I had with the "brain tumor" and "peripheral vascular disease" anxieties and depressions were so painful that I knew it was something that I did not ever want to have to go through again. The following year, at a William Emerson birth trauma workshop, I met a primally-oriented therapist and began attending her monthly weekend workshops in the New Orleans area for a period of about three years.

At one of the workshops, I very explicitly told her and the group of eight patients that my specific goal in attending the workshops was to be able to resist the lure of suicide due to depression if, in the future, I should ever receive a medical diagnosis of a possibly terminal disease such as cancer.

In the workshops, and on my own, at home, between workshops, I felt the feeling of death and dying in the birth canal again and again. I was stuck -- could not get out -- and had the feeling of being close to death during the birth regressions. I don’t think I could have felt the birth material as deeply, on my own, if I had not attended the workshops.

As I write this, I have recorded in my journal a total of 365 (not a typo) birth primals solely relating to death and dying in the birth canal since my brain tumor scare in 1998. The primal re-livings of dying while being born have been successful.

In late 2003, I saw my family physician for my annual PSA exam which detects the possibility of prostate cancer -- and my PSA reading, although not very high, had doubled from the previous year! A biopsy was performed and a diagnosis of prostate cancer was made! Further, it was found that I had the most aggressive form of prostate cancer, a reading of 10 on the Gleason scale. Numerous tests showed that there was no sign that the cancer had spread, but the oncologist, who was planning my treatment, informed me that because of my cancer’s aggressive nature, I only had a fifty percent chance of cure.

During each stage of the diagnosis by my family physician, urologist, and oncologist I was dreading and almost expecting the return of the horrendous neurotic symptoms I had experienced during my health scares in 1998. But even with the poor prognosis I have received, my extreme symptoms of deep depression and anxiety have not returned!

I’m currently about halfway through my radiation therapy and, although I do have some minor anxiety and apprehension, thanks to primal therapy, my feelings about my prognosis are not unbearable. The obsessive dread and depression, I had experienced earlier, have not returned, although I continue to remain attracted to classical music dealing with death and dying and continue to pay undue attention to newspaper obituaries ! The obsession with death and dying contines although without depression.

I am awaiting the release of Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ" on DVD. I have always unconsciously symbolized the crucifixion with my fetal feelings of dying while in the birth process. Undoubtedly, the movie and its music will contain many triggers which will enable me to more completely resolve this early traumatic brush with death.

The real test will be if the radiation and female hormone therapies fail, and I’m confronted with the certainty of a terminal illness. Hopefully, I will continue to be spared from those old feelings from my birth which had so tortured me five years ago.

"Once the great pain of the prototype -- the near-death
experience around birth --- has been relived many, many
times, the preoccupation with death as solution is . . . gone."

-- Dr. Arthur Janov in Why You Get Sick - How You Get Well

My writings on the subject during
the period of time encompassed by this article
-- John A. Speyrer, Webmeister