Pregnancy & Primal-Oriented Psychotherapy:

Should a Pregnant Woman Primal?


(An e-mail discussion)

by Shona, Paul, Aletha and John


This discussion had its beginnings when Shona of Australia wrote to Paul Vereshack, M.D. (a Canadian Primal Therapist) about whether it was safe to continue or begin regression therapy during pregnancy. Also joining the discussion was California developmental psychologist, Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D. and Pediatrician and primal therapist John C. Spensley of Melbourne, Australia.

Dr. Stanislav Grof, founder of Holotropic Breathwork, does not take pregnant women as patients. According to Elizabeth Noble in Primal Connections, Grof believes that hyperventilation interferes with placental blood circulation. On an occasion, I was almost rejected as a client for a Grof workshop because of high blood pressure. However, I believe that neither pregnancy nor hypertension would be a contraindication for primal work as most such therapists no longer use hyperventilation to faciliate access to repressed material.

-- John A. Speyrer, Webmeister, The Primal Psychotherapy Page





(From Shona)

Dear Paul,

I am currently undertaking primal work in Western Australia. When I commenced the work he suggested I read your book, Help Me - I'm Tired of Feeling Bad - Psychotherapy of the Deepest Self, which I have done a number of times. Since beginning the therapy I have fallen pregnant and am interested in sourcing any information regarding continuing primal work whilst in this condition.

I have read your online communications regarding the attendance of children in therapy rooms and your recommendation that they probably should not be present whilst the adult undergoes deep rage etc., but in most cases, you wrote that children responded well whilst an adult cried assuming that a calm therapist was present. I am wondering if you could direct me to any information regarding undertaking this work whilst pregnant. I wish to protect my child as best as I can and am uncertain what direction to take: to put the work on hold or to continue it. The question I keep asking myself is: Is an emotional outpouring more harmful to the foetus than its suppression as tension and pain within the body? In addition to the difficulty of the decision, as you would be aware, my response is going to be 'tainted' by my own primal feelings one of which is knowing how to make decisions of this nature when the distinction between 'right' and 'wrong' is not clear.

Any information you could provide with regard to this subject would be of assistance.

Regards

Shona



(From Paul)

Hi Back Shona,

The real answer to all this is that I do not know for certain. Let me refer you to four people who may be knowledgeable about this subject.

First, I am sending your question on to the person whom I believe to be the leading world expert in child primal work and that is Aletha Solter whose website contains her more than excellent books (See book review of Trauma ) about allowing children to feel deeply. Aletha, can you help Shona with her concerns?

Second, John Speyrer, the owner/editor of "The Primal Psychotherapy Page" is one of the most well-read people in the area of primal work that I have ever met.

Third, on the net you can search Google for Dr. Tom Verny, who has written a leading book on life in the womb.

Finally, I am including Dr. John Spensley, an Australian Paediatrician/Primal therapist who may also have opinions about this matter.

Having said all that let me venture my own opinion. My intuition tells me that serious deep gut-wrenching primaling during pregnancy may be stressful for the fetus. This could, of course, be only my own unworked through primal material talking. My approach would be to do the work but at a somewhat more restrained and gentler level. I think that blowing off the tension with modified intensity would be the ideal between lessening tension, in general, and not overwhelming the fetus, in particular.

On my website under "Internet Questions" there is an article about modifying primal work. I will send it to you and perhaps this will help (See Dr. Vereshack's article, On Modifying the Depth, Intensity and Length of Primal Therapy ).

The great question about modified work is whether or not it creates primal defences, surrounding the deepest pain with even greater walls of defenses ,making it more difficult, in the future, to reach these depths. I believe that this can happen. In fact I feel it within myself.

I trust you will have enough here to go further in your explorations and I would be happy to hear anything you find that truly addresses this question.

Thanks,

Paul Vereshack



(From John)

Dear Shona,

I would generally agree with Paul. I have primalled a number of pregnant mothers over the years and there have been no adverse effects of which I am aware. However I do think you need to be careful that it is gently done. Graham Farrant used to emphasis that it was helpful and that the mother needs to be aware of how her infant responds. Like he and Maree Burrows (see below) I believe the best results are when both parents are involved. I believe primalling is very important so the parents can be aware of their own births and not reenact them; that they can be aware of their own primal pattern and how to depth before they get into labour, and to find the appropriate supportive people to allow them to handle their deepest fears which may arise during the labour. Toi this end they need a therapist who really has done their own birth work deeply.

That leads me to say there is someone I believe has an even greater experience than mine as she is both a primal therapist and a child birth educator. She has spent her working life helping and guiding parents through preparation for having a baby. Her name is Maree Burrows and you could contact her initially by phone in Sydney at 02 9387 3615.

Hope this helps,

John Spensley



(From Aletha)

Dear Shona (and Paul and John),

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thinking about this important issue.

In an ideal world, all parents would complete their own deep feeling therapy before becoming pregnant. (Actually, in an ideal world, people would complete their primal work while they are still babies!) But we donít live in an ideal world, and many people, become pregnant with the awareness that they are not free of the effects of past stress or trauma.

We know that new trauma for the mother during pregnancy (such as the death of a family member) can have an adverse effect on the baby. The evidence for this is that babies whose mothers experienced trauma during pregnancy cry more than those whose mothers experienced no trauma during pregnancy. However, we donít know the mechanism by which maternal trauma during pregnancy traumatizes the baby. Is it through stress hormones that cross the placenta? Because the mother becomes tense? Because her daily routine is upset? Because of diminished blood flow to the baby? Because she makes a lot of noise and abdominal movements while crying? Because her attention is drawn away from the baby? Because she eats or sleeps less? Or all of the above?

During primal work, past trauma is triggered and relived, along with the physiological arousal (stress hormones). The difference between primal work and new trauma is that during primal work the person is aware that the trauma was in the past. So thereís a certain perspective for an adult engaged in this kind of therapy work. However, the fetus does not have that perspective, and it might feel very much as if new trauma were happening to the mother.

So I recommend proceeding with caution. You can welcome whatever feelings arise during pregnancy and allow yourself to cry if you need to, but without making a deliberate effort to relive past trauma. I think it is best for a pregnant woman to focus her attention on her baby and to seek beauty and calm through nature, music, nourishing relationships with others, etc. If fear, grief, or anger arise during pregnancy, thatís fine, but I recommend saving intense therapy work for later.

Having said this, I do agree that some amount of primal work during pregnancy may be necessary if a woman is feeling terrified about giving birth. If it seems like her own past trauma could adversely affect the progress of her labor, then it would obviously benefit both mother and baby if she could work through those feelings before giving birth. John, your experience of having seen no adverse effects with this is reassuring to me. So I think that each mother must make her best decision during pregnancy, and balance her needs with those of her baby.

If you decide to proceed with some primal work during pregnancy, the following guidelines might be useful.

  1. Keep the sessions short.

  2. During the sessions (as well as between them) focus on your baby periodically, tell her that you love her, and reassure her that you are okay.

  3. Be aware of how your baby is responding. If she becomes agitated, it would be best to stop the session.

  4. Alternate therapy sessions with relaxing times in beautiful settings.

Sincerely,

Aletha Solter

(Webmeister's Note: Dr. Solter has written three excellent books on child rearing. My favorite is Tears and Tantrums, a review of which may be read on this website. Links to reviews of her other two great books are accessible from the bottom of the review mentioned above.)


(From Paul)

Thank you for your caring reply, Aletha.

I think the idea of watching to see if the baby becomse agitated is an excellent guideline for pregnant women. I have never thought of that idea . . . perhaps because I am a man <smile>.

I understand the idea of seeking calm and yet if we calm the surface and depths remain upset then we need to do some lessening of tension. All in all gentleness in the primal work is suggested by us all and feels right to me.

Again I refer you all to the modification of Primal Therapy that I suggest on my website under,"Internet Questions." Modifying Primal Therapy To Make It Less Disintegrative . I have used this technique for years and it serves me well. It has also created some deep defences and so be it.

Paul



(From Shona)

Dear Paul, John, John and Aletha,

First of all, I would just like to thank everyone for the views on this matter. It has given me much to think about.

Secondly, with regard to the whether the question can be used for discussion groups - by all means; I personally would encourage as much discussion as possible on this topic. I did some Internet searching before contacting both Paul and John and was not very successful in my search. Thus, I'm sure there are other women and possibly men with partners doing primal work, whom are interested in hearing opinions on this topic, even if indirectly.

If a discussion is going to take place, I thought it might also be worth mentioning another point and that - which I'm sure you are all aware - is the fact that pregnancy can trigger past trauma.

This has been my experience - and I'm only 13 weeks pregnant! In fact since falling pregnant,

  • pain has increased, particularly around the pelvis where it has been excruciating and constant for no 'obvious' reason other than I'm generally a very tense person despite how hard I try to relax. This raises concerns as to whether my body will capably follow the natural birth rhythms of labour. This will be another potential positive outcome if primal work is continued and a potential trauma for the baby, if it is not); and

  • in the sessions I wail like a baby and it is as if the cry will never stop.

  • outside of the sessions I hear both the wail of despair and the scream of pain in my head when: the pain is severe, I take the time to think about my pelvis and even whenever I lie down to do relaxation work.

Primal literature seems to suggest that the foetus is aware of deep feeling - from the parent's 'want' of the child, to their preference on sex, etc. - if this is so, then it presses me to continue therapy during pregnancy because so far all my baby has known is pain and that cry and scream in my head. My only hope is that perhaps there is some relief for my baby based on my body's chemical changes which occur as a consequence of expressing that emotion vocally. But, only the baby will know the truth of that.

One other point associated with pregnancy triggering past trauma is that it may be the only opportunity to work it through, which unfortunately sounds all about my needs and not my baby's. Janov suggested that birth and early trauma affects the hypothalamus which is involved in hormone regulation and is the 'feeling centre' of the body.

If this is the case then it is possible that the only time in my life when I can access my deep trauma is when pregnant, when my hormones (I think) are not entirely dependent on my hypothalamus. So, I have the option

  • not to undergo primal work whilst pregnant and thus forever subject my child to the consequential neurotic behaviour which is the result of my redundant defences (for it seems that even though I recognise behavioural patterns, I can't break them unless I relive and express them); or

  • continue and, whilst doing so, shield my child as much as possible and to be that aware parent when they enter the world (hopefully with guidance from books such as those offered on the Aware Parenting site) allowing them to express whatever trauma they have been subjected to in any way they choose.

Another thought I had when reading Aletha's e-mail was that, although I am not terrified about giving birth, I suspect I will have physical difficulties, as mentioned before with the tense muscles (I was very stressed physically just during the ultrasound!). I can understand how primal work can be quite directed when a specific feeling is there, but generally, I work in reverse from physical manifestation to emotional outpouring, the nature and intensity of which is generally an unknown.

How in this case can I direct the therapy in a 'gentle' way? - for if I don't deal with these issues then the likelihood of birth trauma is increased. And then the question is - what is worse: birth trauma or trauma (but potential beneficial chemical changes in my body from emotional release) from participating in primal work indirectly.

In any way I look at the situation, it is still a very difficult choice to make. I do thank you all for your suggestions received to date. It is my feeling that I will continue the work, however, trying to tread softly and to be aware of and protect and reassure my baby as much as I can. It is reassuring to know that much of what I have been doing to date, you have suggested Aletha, though I didn't think of shorter sessions which may be worth pursuing and I am inclined to undertake only individual rather than group sessions which I have been an ongoing part of.

In case your discussions come around to means of protection should primal work continue: then I have also been Reiki-ing my baby for protection, for I am a practitioner and it was this practice which made me aware of my deep emotion pain and need for primal work in the first place.

Once again, thank you all for your time, effort and kind support in informing me in order to help make this important decision.

Shona


(From Paul)

Two things come to mind as I read this letter, Shona.

First, as a medical student, we had a saying that went like this. "The tombstone of the neurotic reads, "I told you I was sick". This means that any psychological symptoms may have an underlying actual physical illness with or without the presenting symptoms. In other words, ask your doctor to make very sure that, these pains do not have any physical basis.

One psychological test, and even it is not completely reliable, is to see if these seeming physical pains disappear after your primal work.

The second comment is that where we don't know an answer for certain, and there are many things here we don't know, then as you say tread lightly with the accent on breathing out the pain with the necessary congruent sounds at an intensity which is the least shattering for the baby that you can legitimately (within the primal framework) make.

I feel that not knowing so many things and not being a woman who has borne children, I do not have the wisdom to do any more than suggest an optimum process between deep primal work and some shading off of that intensity for the child's sake.

I agree with your idea not to be in a primal group and thereby surrounding the baby with huge amounts of pain. I do remember, though, watching the very young child of a friend being around other's primal work. The child seemed empathic and undisturbed by it all. He had, however, a history of being around it with his parents reassuringly there at all times.

Paul Vereshack



(From Shona)

Dear Paul (et. als.)

I like your quote! As for its purpose - yes, I don't discount a physical origin for the pain. Unfortunately, in this day, generic chronic pain is wrapped up in terms like fibromyalgia etc. I have done and will continue to discuss it with my doctor; and yes, I've noticed in the primal room that whenever I 'shutdown' on a feeling before its reached its peak, my head (for instance) wants to explode, however, if I give the pain its voice, it abates. My experience has led me to believe that pain and emotional repression are intricately linked.

Shona



(From John)

Dear Shona,

A dilemma maybe but I think you give your own answer. The fact you ask that question means you are aware of it and is a big big step to resolution. Perhaps I needed to expand more on my previous note.

Let me say about the dilemma you outline, that in my experience the effect of chronic maternal feeling imposes on the infant deeply and pervasively ("good" & "bad") such that subsequently, as an adult, the person does not know whose feeling state it is and takes it on as their own. This is particularly true of depression but also fear, anxiety and anger and a deep deep grieving. The enmeshment makes it hard to deal with.

As such it is a chronic stress to the infant who may attempt to make good, try to help the mother ( the first true fetal therapists), and is often left with a feelings of fear, sadnes, anger & emptiness. Sometimes they shut down in a protective way.

I find it hard to envisage that primalling is worse than that.

But there is an out.

To be wanted gives the fetus a sense of self that makes them so much more resiliant. So if you were to do any work, I would put your feelings of the pregnancy and feelings towards your baby as number one- and you have indicated that the pregnancy is in fact bringing things up for you. You will do your own birth work if you stay with it but the best way of primalling is without specific agenda. This may sound contradictory and it is to some extent, but again in my experience people will come to what they need to, the more open the session ( Paul emphasises this as he does the focus on body memories and feelings).

Secondly, I would emphasize the other things that have been said, particularly spending time connected and focussed on your child and you will then know how much is enough. I liked Althea's response. In particular she amplified nicely and practically about being aware of your baby's responses.

Elizabeth Noble's book is excellent though difficult to read from cover to cover. I once asked Graham Farrant about writing his own book (he started some with Terri Larimore ) and he said he felt Elizabeth had covered it.

(Webmeister's notes: At a workshop in Cellular Consciousness, in Detroit, in the Summer of 1987, Graham mentioned the book, the title of the book, From Soul To Cell. which he had hoped to write.

Dr. Spensley has written a feelingful obituary to his colleague and friend - Read An Obituary of Graham Farrant: Healing Life of Many Hurts )

His afterword in the book John Speyrer has quoted also is worth reading. (If you have difficulty obtaining the book ( try Elizabeth Noble's website ) I have a couple of copies you can purchase from me on her behalf.). Graham became less concerned with time about primalling but his approach was always gentle in my experience.

Personally, I would be less concerned about how much you do as long as you reflect, communicate and listen to your baby. Certainly it should be gentle but that does not mean any issues should not be confronted or that you should limit the time or where you go in your feelings. To me there is a rhythm and a wisdom in primalling for each person which needs to be acknowledged and accepted. So no time limits can be defined. Spending hours on the floor primalling however is inappropirate but regular sessions are not. And the reason it is inappropriate is that you need time to do all the other things you need to do in a pregnancy - primal is only part - (but an important part of it in my view) including living and having some joy, attending to your physical body, time for you etc. It would be a mistake to spend your whole time just liviing in the past primally or otherwise.

I also emphasize the importance of having a therapist who really has experienced their own birth, pregnancy and conception. I have seen enough transference of birth anxiety in the delivery room to last me. Stan Grof, I understand, avoids the hyperventilation of holotropic breathing during pregnancy as it affects blood circulation. It is not necessary in primal so i would avoid this as he suggests.

But, I come back to the fact that you are aware. That means you will listen to your infant - you cannot do anything else if you are aware. Look for the things and feelings that get in the way of wanting your child, of the reasons why it was not intentional (have I made an assumption here?), of your relationship to his/her father. Nine months is only just enough time so it is good you are working on it now.

You will not get thru everything that is important between you and your child (you fortunately cannot be perfect). That is part of the journey of life and the joy of the future time with your child.

Initially, I emphasized about making sure you have safe people around that you can be you with and particularly in the labour if you experienced any difficulties with your own birth. It is great that you are hearing your body speak. Stick with it. Your body will not lie.

Support yourself;. give yourself some nurturing. That is where your partner or a close friend can help as can such things as massage, reflection, meditation etc.

Finally, thank you for the oppportunity to express some of my thoughts about this topic. I realize that I have more energy on it than I thought.

You are right that only a little is written.

Regards,

John C. Spensley
_________________________



"Most (regression) therapists facilitate gentle regression in pregnant women, preferably in the middle trimester, when the baby's embryonic development is complete but the baby is not so large as to make floorwork uncomfortable for the mother. Hypnosis and visualization can be done at any time and have been shown to reduce potential problems with labor and birth, and even reverse complications that may develop such as preterm labor or high blood pressure."
-- Elizabeth Noble, Primal Connections: How our experiences from conception to birth influence our emotions, behavior and health, p. 92.




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