Military Suicides, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
and Birth Trauma

by John A. Speyrer

"All anxiety goes back originally to the anxiety of birth."
-- Freud

"Evidence suggesting that adult mental and physical health is rooted in the intrauterine experience of the fetus, the nature of the birth experience, and the bonding experience of the infant is, in some circles, culturally taboo."
-- The Trauma Spectrum by Robert Scaer, M.D., p. 124

Whether it happened to a shell-shocked victim of WWI, to a victim of combat fatigue during the Second World War, or to a more recent veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of the Korean, Vietnam or Middle Eastern Conflicts, two symptoms of such disabilities are commonly depression and occasionally, suicide.

This article's original goal was to examine and explain the increase in suicidality in servicemen but I soon gives up the attempt as futile because I could not locate reliable data to support my hypothesis that suicidality would show an increase among servicemen because of western birthing practices were becoming more stressful and painful to the fetus. Another problem was that combat in WWI and its trench warfare makes the psychiatric results somewhat different from other wars. [Dr. Robert Scaer The Trauma Spectrum] The article's main thrust is now on the relationship between suicide and birth trauma, as shown in medical research and by therapists in the regressive-type therapies.

This article emphasizes the premise that even before a post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis is made, the roots of an earlier trauma are present. The traumas of birth and the fetus' uterine life resonate with the later disabling event and will suffice to bring its victim's mind face to face with that initial event, albeit in a disguised form. For many of us the event was our birth, although a near death due to severe very early sickness and near death will also suffice to cause depression which in turn is often closely related to suicide.
--John A. Speyrer

"1,100 servicemen and women committed suicide in 2005 to 2009 --
one suicide every day and a half. The Army's suicide rate doubled in that time."

--Defense Health Board

The continually rising suicide rate of military personnel remains a conundrum among the Army's top brass. So was the theme of a recent article by David Goldstein of the McClatchy Newspaper Group. It revealed that in the first half of this year, sixty-five members of the U. S. National Guard and Army Reserve killed themselves. This compared to forty-two in the previous year, 2009. The mental health promotional efforts had been of no avail to stem this self-destructive tide. The article, by Tim Embree, quoted the rate as becoming epidemic in proportion. Embee is a member of an advocacy group for Afghanistan Veterans of America. In June alone thirty-two committed suicide and its not just those who had multiple combat assignment tours. Often off-duty veterans with many years after service in the Middle East with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will succumb to depression and suicide. Some experts feel the solution to this serious problem is adding more and more mental-health counselors.

The Department of Defense plans to spend 50 million dollars to learn of the causes of its suicide problem. They already know that those who suicide are often those with problems in their relationships. These soldiers also abuse alcohol and addictive drugs and have a general difficulty in adjusting to life's stressors. While deployed they seem normal, but upon returning home their vulnerability sets in as their symptoms become cripplingly severe. "'The most frustrating thing is trying to find a cause' said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff." [Keesler News - Aug 6, 2009 - A Newsletter from Keesler AFB, Mississippi.]

I had hypothesized that the rate of suicides among servicemen might increase as one examined the past data from each of the wars in which we participated, but there are too many variables which made the original goal of the study impossible. The data from one conflict could not be effectively compared with another. There are a number of studies showing the relationship between suicidality and birth and before trauma. One of the first was made by the Karolinski Institute (Stockholm) which found a correlation between birth trauma and suicidality.

In his book, neurologist Scaer defined his concept of the dimensions of a trauma and proposed an encompassment of the term to include severely disabling events, "as war and other extreme forms of violence." He includes in his definition a number of very early preverbal insults which he deems to be controversial such as " utero exposure of the fetus to the stress hormone cortisol from the distressed mother, in utero fetal surgery, medicalized, technologically advanced, and intrinsically traumatic birth procedures, and exposure of premies in neonatal ICUs to isolation and inadequate pain management." [ibid., p. 91.]

Otto Rank, Ph.D., in, The Trauma of Birth, 1929, (the publication of which ultimately caused a permanent rift between himself and Freud) was one of the first to present the hypothesis of the overwhelming significance of the birth trauma as it relates to the secondary trauma of having war combat experience. About birth trauma and its relation to war trauma, he wrote:

"We can trace this becoming neurotic in statu nascendi as a short circuit, so to say, in the real traumatic neurosis, especially as it was observed during the war (war neurosis), there the primal anxiety is directly mobilized through shock, the otherwise unconsciously reproduced birth situation being affectively materialized through the outer danger of death."1
- Otto Rank, The Trauma of Birth, (1929) (p. 47)

In the footnote to this passage he writes,

"1The dreams of patients with 'traumatic' neuroses 'repeat' in typical ways the birth trauma in the form of an actual traumatic experience, but mostly with some betraying detail of birth."
- ibid., (p. 47)

Although not translated from the German original very clearly, Rank, in the passage above, claims there is a link between the symptoms of earlier traumatic neurosis (birth) and traumatic combat experiences. He acknowledges that being in a war is the perfect incubator for psychiatric symptoms as it re-opens up the victim's hidden memory of the earlier time when he felt a fear of death and dying during his birthing experience.

In the footnote, Rank, describes how the residuals of the original (actual) traumatic neurosis may be repeated, e.g., the death-wish around birth may be triggered or if the later trauma is insufficient to lay bear the original trauma (a reliving of the birth trauma), a "betraying detail of birth" may be presented.

Both psychological and body symptoms may accompany the awakening from sleep of such victims because it is at this time, before the re-establishment of one's defenses, that the symptoms of birth trauma and war experience residuals can be particularly bothersome. These trauma symptoms are many and varied. Rank, as we read in the quotation above called them, "betrayal details of birth." They may consist of, for example, claustrophobia, various fears, a pounding heart, sweating, rage, anxiety, nausea, depression, dreams of being attacked or chased and on occasion accompanied with an intense feeling of impending doom with a fear of death and dying. Add to these, autonomic nervous system malfunctionings, and other nervous disturbances to which flesh and mind become heir as a result of those very early pre- and peri-natal events.

The war or battle nightmare in which one feels that he is being attacked or being killed is often used as a metaphor of the birth trauma. In Arthur Janov's, Imprints, The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience, p. 111, a patient describes a recurrent nightmare of being in a battle and fighting for his life. The drugs his mother were being given stopped his birthing process. During his birth, he had felt he was dying and even wanted to die, but could not. In the dream "he is being pushed to fight against great odds. And in his birth, there were great odds preventing his escape."

The First World War soldiers' conditions in the trenches, as mentioned above, had dramatically increased their propensity to claustrophobia and nightmares involving suffocation. Hungarian born psychologist, Nandor Fodor wrote, The Search for the Beloved: A Clinical Investigation of the Trauma of Birth and Pre-Natal Conditioning , (1944), and in this book claimed that birth trauma lay at the base of many mental illnesses. His study was based on interpretative dream studies of his patients.

He wrote "...we may say that the fear of death begins at birth." [p. 4.] Dr. Fodor believed that the source of the veterans' fear dated from when they were born. . . Nightmares revealed their birth trauma. More specifically, Fodor speculated that the real source might be at the time of birth, when one's umbilical cord was cut, leaving the future soldier to struggle for its first breath of life. (loosely quoted) [Fear: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke - 2006, p. 119.]

In Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, (1952), British psychoanalyst W.R.D. Fairbairn also accepted that possible later scenario of the triggering effects of birth trauma. He wrote that a war combat situation "...not only functions in the same manner as the birth trauma, but actually precipitates a revival of the birth trauma at the deep mental level at which it lies buried." [p. 276.]

The discovery of LSD during the Second World War by Sandoz Laboratories of Switzerland opened a way to demonstrate the psychedelic's remarkable repressed memory uncovering ability in the fifties. The drug was used by psychiatrists Frank Lake and Stanislav Grof, and Gary Fisher among others, for that purpose. They were able to verify in their patients that the theories of Otto Rank had been correct. As a result, the roots of many instances of suicide were able to be laid at the feet of a traumatic birth, because during one's birth reliving the "death-wish" arose quite often especially in those who had suffered very traumatic births. Many years were to pass before a critical scientific analysis of the experimental data would be made.

Dr. Frank Lake wrote in Clinical Theology (1966):

"In more than half of all persons who are given LSD in an ontologically satisfactory milieu, the experience of passing through the birth passages is vividly, and to the patient convincingly and conclusively re-lived. If this was particularly traumatic or prolonged, the pain re-experienced is considerable. Facts about the birth, previous unknown to the patient, such as a forceps delivery, a dry labor, persistent occipito-posterior position, face, arm and foot presentations, even being popped out into the lavatory pan, have been be later confirmed by the family. A helpless rage, along with mortal anxiety, can be recalled as the mixed emotion experienced within the birth passages, when, being pressed violently up against unyielding tissues and bony structures, the first great claustrophobia was encountered. [pps. 167-8]

However, any early severe trauma as a young child, which entails coming close to death can trigger the post traumatic syndrome disorder (PTSD) which is typified during early childhood diseases such as, whooping cough and diphtheria. [Stan Grof, M.D. in The Future of Psychiatry: Conceptual Challenges to Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychotherapy]

Yet all of the above does not explain or examine the question of the current greater prevalence during the present time of war-induced suicides and PTSD compared to previous wartime periods. Were the soldiers of earlier wars less liable to commit suicide than those of more modern times and if so, why?

Even if it were possible to explain a hypothesized increase in present-day suicides in veterans as occurring in those who had traumatic births, could such suicides be the result of having suffered more physical and emotional suffering during childbirth presently than veterans in other wars? Hadn't they already suffered an earlier hidden severe trauma? Were the rate of suicides in WWI and WWII veterans much lower than those of the Korean War which were less than the more recent conflicts in the Middle East?

Unfortunately, as mentioned, I was not able to locate any data showing that the rate of suicides of active duty and veteran servicemen, in different wars, had increased, decreased or remained the same. Therefore, the question of relating the number of war-induced suicidal deaths, based on changing birthing practices to the traumatic nature of contemporary birthing practices are not discussed.

Although some of the instances quoted above dealt with trauma occurring during wartime, it is not a prerequisite that one have had a combat experience to resuscitate the early birth memories of near death in the birth canal. Even away from the front-line of a battle, in some cases, the expectation of military action in 'susceptible ones' (those who had suffered severe birth and inuterine trauma) would suffice to unconsciously remind the serviceman that he might soon be in mortal danger and thereby awaken the repressed material surrounding his birth.

The content of the feeling is what is important. In those who had severe birth trauma, experiencing the possibility that they could die in combat during military service could resonate or tap into the early mortal pain of their birth. But even those who are traumatized in dangerous work environments or those who become traumatized in natural disasters, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, could trigger as well their unconscious memories of coming close to death during birth.

Sometimes a severe injury in an automobile accident can make the earlier unconscious memories more conscious and allow them to rise to a level of extreme symptomology derived from their traumatic birth. Giving birth itself, in the relatively common cases of post-partum depression can be traumatic enough in the predisposed to sometimes trigger their own birth experiences. [See, Maternal Birth Trauma & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ]

The civilian population of nations themselves can sucumb to suicide both during the beginnings and endings of wars which are particularly devastating and destructive to the nation. David Biesel was interviewed by his fellow psychohistorian, Paul H. Elovitz, Ph.D. Dr. Biesel is quoted has having said, "I've uncovered some very disturbing statistics about the numbers of suicides in Germany in 1945 as the Second World War was coming to an end.... (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.]

Psychiatrist, Stan Grof, writes,

The role of the birth trauma as a source of violence and self-destructive tendencies has been confirmed by many clinical studies...(I)n 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. [Planetary Survival and Consciousness Evolution: Psychological Roots of Human Violence and Greed in Primal Renaissance: The Journal of Primal Psychology Vol. 2, Nr. 1, Spring, 1996 p. 18.]

In, The Janov Solution: Lifting Depression Through Primal Therapy (2007), Dr. Arthur Janov, discoverer of primal therapy, details this cause and effect. Part of the problem, he suspects, might be our western delivery techniques. One particular weakness of birthing practices which is emphasized is the level of anesthesia which is used in today's birthing centers and hospitals.

Janov believes that anesthesia given to the birthing mother is the most common trauma which a birthing baby endures. Since the anesthesia is administered to the mother in relation to her weight, the dose is more than the fetus can safely handle and can cause massive shutdowns of a multiplicity of the birthing baby's body systems. The anesthesia can traumatize the birthing fetus by slowing down its birth and thus can even interfere with the primal reliving of its birthing experiences. Anesthesia administered for the sake of the mother's physical pain can, therefore, deal a triple whammy to the birthing baby!

Later in life, adversity provokes hopelessness and despair, a desire to give up, the direct run-off of the birth sequence. "Run-off" is a key concept here, because once something in the present resonates with an old memory, we are forced to act out the entire sequence until its logical conclusion. That is why, once into the feeling, there can be obsessive rumination about death or suicide. The difference is that the newborn can only sense death in a vague way because it has no behavioral options, whereas the suicide uses death as the behavioral option to end the agony....namely, "There's nothing I can do, I see no alternatives. It's no use fighting. Death is the only way out." [ibid., pps. 125-6]

Hurts in the here and now, in and of themselves when not being assisted by much earlier trauma, are not of sufficient severity to prompt one to suicide. Janov believes that only when inutero near-death was a pre-birth reality will its effects be added to one's present day hurt so that suicide becomes a possibility. They function during the present-day trauma as a triggering device to the repressed much earlier trauma.

An overly drugged delivery is remembered unconsciously and changes the brain's neurological receptors. It is often the source of the appeal of both legal and illegal drugs to help tranquilize one's physical and emotional pain. Dr. Grof writes that a heavily drugged delivery promotes the attraction to pain-killing drugs in later life, extending even to the suicidal person's choice of death by overdose. [S. Grof, Beyond the Brain, p. 266]

One would expect that the symptoms of soldiers suffering from wartime combat or before, or its contemplation during their full blown PTSD symptomology would be a recapitulation of the symptoms which they suffered during their birth. Many of the symptoms of birth trauma are present in armed forces members who were in combat and even, as mentioned, in some who were in the back lines mortally fearing the possibility of their being in a possible forthcoming combat situation.

Birth trauma can be even more severe than other very early abuses, as fetuses come closer to the possibility of dying during the birth process. In earlier times actual death at birth was a commonly expected risk to both the mother and infant. There are few deaths of infants in birthing but the feeling that they are within an inch of their lives is commonplace in those who have had regressive experiences and may recount how they felt during their birth regressions, especially with the help of the psychedelic drug, LSD. The drug itself, because it readily opens up a person quickly to his very early traumas may bypass other less severe hurts. In non-psychedelic birth regressive experiences the near-death experience in birth may not be felt until many years after other more minor traumas have been resolved.

Ultimately and importantly, what severe birth and intrauterine trauma provide is susceptibility to later trauma. The disabled veterans dealing with the death and dying aspects of PTSD are those who had a severely traumatic birth or uterine trauma. They were the ones who came close to dying at birth.

"Most of the skills that the trauma victim continues to apply to subsequent life threats or stress are directly related to the actual physical responses elicited by the old trauma.
...He responds to new events, relations, and challenges as if he were
responding to the old threat."

[ Robert Scaer M.D., in The Trauma Spectrum (2005), p. 68]

The veterans of war-induced PTSD have to possess a number of symptoms before the Veterans Administration will recognize the existence of the PTSD diagnosis. The symptoms are similar to fetuses in the throes of severe birth trauma as well as patients suffering from the physiological effects of their neuroses. Coincidence? I don't think so. The veterans who suffered with PTSD, already had an earlier trauma whose residuals had been lying in wait for the triggering effects of war.

The symptoms of PTSD retain many of the elements of the physical and emotional suffering of the inutero fetus, such as depression, pain relieving drug use, the "death-wish" and a dysfunctional autonomic nervous system. Both the fetus in question and the PTSD victim are in a hypervigilant state with additional symptoms of hyperarousal and anhedonia. Another symptom which only seemingly appears to be contradictory is emotional deadness. It is also common in autistic youngsters. This perhaps alludes to a possible connection of birth trauma to autism. An important and common symptom is nightmares or night terrors. The PTSD veteran shares the symptom of unsettling violent dreams with those who have suffered from birth traumas, although the latter are mostly confined to children, but which also appear in fibromyalgic patients.

The night terrors of children, due to birth trauma, often contain the same scary "feeling" elements. They may soon "outgrow" (repress) these nightmares, but a trauma can re-awaken them. One victim of PTSD shared: "The feeling of helplessness, like my inability to run was the gut-wrenching emotion I felt in nightmares when I came back from Iraq." Feeling being chased, experiencing geological catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes also can resurrect one's primary trauma to be felt as severe symptoms. Experiencing "loss of control" in night terrors can disrupt our sleep. It is no coincidence that fearful nightmares, phobias and feelings of claustrophobia can be typical symptoms in those who have had suffered severe birth trauma and later were in combat situations.

In his final work, Mutual Caring, (1982) psychiatrist Frank Lake wrote how pre- and peri-natal crises in one's early life can be uncovered and often break out from repression, seemingly for no reason, during some childhood, adolescent or adult emotional crisis. Those who had these symptoms and were not in a war or similar traumatic situation are nonetheless feeling the effects of their birth-and-before traumas uprooted by other present-day traumas, such as a severe economic crises or disappointing love experiences, etc.

Severe trauma can result in loss of feelings of self, e.g., feeling other-worldly or apart from one's own body. It is an ultimate effort of the ego to separate oneself from the trauma being suffered. At times, the sufferer feels unreal as does his world. Deadness pervades his being. He can feel like a puppet or automaton, hiding from reality in an attempt to escape the truth and the pain. Psychiatrist Frank Lake describes it under the rubicon of a dissociative reaction. As mentioned above, he believed that "(a)ny circumstance which weakens repression in later life may lead to a failure of dissociation of the infantile depersonalisation experiences so that they re-emerge into consciousness." (emphasis in the original) [Clinical Theology. p. 481] Thus the wartime experience may overwhelm "...the repressive barrier by exposure to the uprush of intolerable memories of a traumatic kind from earlier days...." [ibid., p. 482]

In that way, feelings of incapacitating fear of being killed in combat can become associated with the earlier feeling of death while being born or inutero. Dr. Lake wrote that Otto Rank related "...the catastrophic fear attendant upon birth with the subsequent 'tendency of the child to equate any hurt with total annihilation." [ibid., p. 937]

Nandor Fodor wrote about the origins of the fear of death and dying: "(T)he fear of death originates in the fear of birth; that the panicky journey through the uterine passage is an experience in dying; and that we are haunted more by the projected memory of this trial of body and soul than by the dread of future extinction." [Fodor, ibid. p. 308]

Psychohistorian, Lloyd deMause in, The Emotional Life of Nations (p. 64), quotes. Dr. David Winnicott: "It is rare to find doctors who believe that the experience of birth is important to the baby, that it would have any significance in the emotional development of the individual, and that memory traces of the experience could persist and give rise to trouble even in the adult." ["Birth Memories, Birth Trauma, and Anxiety" (1940s) ] Such rare therapists continue to exist but, despite the research which has been made, continue to be uncommon.

That was then. Such therapists are seemingly less rare than heretofore:

"When I first wrote about how the birth trauma and prenatal experience affect adult behavior it was considered 'New Agey.' Now, there are literally hundreds of studies verifying this proposition."
[ -- from Dr. Arthur Janov's blog.]

In the same blog article, towards its end, Janov, writes about suicide in general:

"...(W)hen provoked by a certain hopelessness in the present, which is not overwhelming in itself, it can trigger offŚresonateŚwith earlier imprinted hopelessness during birth and sets off an attempted suicide; because it not only triggers the original traumatic feeling but all of the circumstances around it. Thus, suicide, to try to put an end to the agony. And when drugs were given to the mother to ease her pain it also at the same time eased the suffering of the baby. Thus, later on, one turns to drugs to ease pain; a replication of the earlier event. It worked when it was a matter of...(sentence abruptly terminated in original blog article) The reason that current psychotherapy has been such a failure is the factors that produce current behavior are far, far earlier than we might have imagined. To ignore all of this research is dangerous for the patient because it means she stands little chance of resolving suicidal feelings (and perhaps suicide) without this understanding. So, it can again mean life-and-death for the patient." Life Before Birth (revised): How Experience in the Womb Can Affect Our Lives Forever [ Dr. Arthur Janov's blog article of Nov. 22, 2008 ]


[Note: Those tettering towards a nervous breakdown can even be pushed towards the precipice by a predisposing illness which makes them more susceptible to past traumas as illnesses and will often lower one's defenses. This had happened to me: A strep throat infection lowered my emotional defenses allowing a disappointing love experience to cause a series of panic attacks. I never felt the same thereafter since I was unable to re-repress the uncovered material which were very generalized. The ultimate source of my symptoms was the traumas of my birth, but it was not until eighteen years later that I began the self-process of feeling and knowing the underlying sources of my neurosis. In the meantime, there were more interactions with desirable women and continual exacerbations due to the power of my very early maternal rejective despair. At age 42 I was able to begin a self-primaling process. The next year, in 1975, the traumas of my birth demanded release. The pre- and peri-natal experiences continue, although at a much lower rate than when I was younger. [The author]

"When faced with a problem the human organism always returns to previous experience in the search for applicable solutions. Similarly when faced with one set of stimuli the dim recesses of our mind are searched for any resonating patterns of experience and response. So when we find ourselves under pressure, with inadequate room to move, with attenuating resources and mounting pollution, experiencing waves of constriction and compression, forcing us out of the safety of our known environment into an unknown future through some process of transition, perceived as possibly threatening to life itself, then it is at this point that we respond as if facing birth.

That universal transition from intrauterine dependency through the experience of crushing alienation marks the fall into the world of work. In defence against the irruption of the repressed trauma from this period every institution becomes a little womb, every boundary a potential cervix to be barricaded and avoided. Any disturbance of the unconscious foetal regression of the species meets with psychotic and irrational discharge of terror, rage, grief, anarchic or suicidal behaviour, death-dealing armour, aggression and counter-aggression. The hope is that after the convulsion we can reconstruct some future womb within which we can remain secure, though psychically unborn." [-- David Wasdell -- (from: Dynamics/Bruntland/page7.htm)]

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