Prenatal And Perinatal Imprints
|updated December 4, 2012|
The Role Of Prenatal And Perinatal Imprints In Origins Of Adult Symptoms Of Chronic Pain & Illness
This presentation explores the roots of health as patterns that begin in the womb and how adverse events during this critical developmental period play a role in the origination of chronic symptoms of pain and illness. This topic will be investigated from the vantage point of prenatal and perinatal psychology with contributions from primal research, neuroscience, epigenetics, and psychoneuroimmunology, whose recent developments further support the understanding of early origins of health and wellness.
Pain is a significant national health problem. Most everyone suffers from acute pain when injured or ill, but acute pain goes away quickly. Chronic pain is pain that has not gone away or recurs frequently even after six months have passed. According to the National Centers for Health Statistics, chronic pain affects 76.2 million people in the United States, which is more than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined1. It is the most common reason individuals seek medical care, with millions of medical visits annually; costing the American public more than $100 billion each year in health care, compensation and litigation14.
It is the author’s belief that our embryological, prenatal and perinatal processes are a life long invitation for self-exploration and self-care that supports one’s potency for optimal health and wellbeing. Furthermore each person has their own unique journey that brought them here alive in a body, which is the structure that holds all of our emotional, physical, and spiritual experiences.
Researcher, Michel Odent M.D., founded The Primal Research Centre in London in 1987, with the objective to study the long-term consequences of early experiences. Primal health research is a new framework of studies exploring correlations between what happens during the primal period and what will happen later on in life 18. Odent’s research originally focused on understanding health from fetal vulnerability to adult adaptability.
Due to the fact that an unborn child has an immature defensive nervous system they are more vulnerable and susceptible to adversity than their adult counterparts. In the current scientific context it is clear that all organs and functions have critical periods of development, which is one aspect of fetal vulnerability representing the phase of life with the highest risks of death as well as anything happening during the phase of intra-uterine formation can have irreversible and life long effects 16. In contrast with fetal vulnerability, adults have an amazing capacity to adapt and recover from early prenatal and perinatal adversity; however maladaptive coping is another form of adult adaptability that results in the expression of a myriad of chronic symptoms of pain and illness that were initiated during the primary period.
Odent 17 reports that at the end of the primal period we are in a basic state of health called primal health that is determined by a combination of genetic and early environmental factors that has a close dependence on the relationship with the mother. He states that unfortunately ones health has become a struggle, a constant effort towards sound adaptation17 p. 9. It is his view that this struggle is greatly influenced by the Western analytical brain, which is more concerned with the names of all the diseased conditions rather than in understanding the way health can be given a firm foundation in the womb.
Research supporting the genesis of health goes hand in hand with discoveries in the origins of consciousness and the shaping of the mind within the growth and development of an unborn and newly born child. Dr. Candace Pert 19 an internationally recognized pharmacologist has provided evidence of the biochemical basis for awareness and consciousness. Her pioneering research has demonstrated how our internal chemicals, the neuropeptides and their receptors, are the actual biological underpinnings of our awareness, manifesting themselves as our emotions, beliefs, and expectations, which profoundly influences how we respond to and experience the world. This evidence supports Verny and Kelly’s 24 discovery that the unborn child is a feeling, remembering, and aware being and what happens to us in the nine months between conception and birth molds and shapes personality, drives and ambitions in profound ways.
Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology
The holistic, leading-edge discipline of prenatal and perinatal (PPN) psychology is an interdisciplinary study of the foundations of health in body, mind, emotion and spirit within relationship. PPN psychology views how stressful and traumatic events during this developmental time period have profound lasting psychological and physiological effects on an individual. Prenatal and perinatal psychologists believe that our earliest experiences have a life-long impact not only on physical and mental and emotional health, but also on neurological development, which is the foundation for emotions, responses to life situations, relationships, personality, mood, learning, and more 10, 21.
Without intervention these early formative events have the potential to become maladaptive and repetitive patterns in adulthood. A primary tenet of the prenatal and perinatal paradigm is that the developing unborn child is capable of sensing, experiencing, and remembering as a conscious, aware being, thus able to experience stressful events while in utero 10. That is, the prenate is conscious of the events experienced and retains primitive imprints of events, especially those that are traumatic. These primitive imprints may have cognitive, emotional, relational, and somatic (body) sequelae that will continue into adulthood. When these early events are experienced as intolerable or overwhelming, by the unborn child, then the memory of them can be forced out of consciousness 10 p. 58-59.
Health is a dynamic system, which is constantly adapting to our internal and external environment to remain free from ailments. Wellness is a state of positive health expressed by our quality of life and a sense of wellbeing. The very beginning of our life is referred to as the primal or primary period, which includes embryo and fetal life, the perinatal period (the period immediately before and after birth), and the year following birth12,17. Eckberg 6 states, “One’s history is structured in one’s body, and all that one has lived through is embodied. How a person meets, deals with and integrates developmental challenges forms the personality or character structure and is structured in the body” p. 18.
This primary period, from conception through to the end of infancy, is the critical period of human development when we lay down our integral structure for relationships with self and others, a coping network to deal with stress, and our basic adaptive systems (nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system) reach their maturity 11,17. Life inside the womb is the time period with the highest adaptability and vulnerability to environmental factors, which profoundly shape our ability to be in life enhancing or life-diminishing directions 12,15. Leading researchers studying prenatal life now believe that the events we are exposed to during the development of our body’s structure and functions in the womb, can improve or worsen our blood pressure, cardiovascular health, eating patterns, tendency to gain weight, emotional resilience, intelligence, susceptibility to cancer, and resistance to infection 13.
Although we spend a very short time in the womb our physical development is almost complete by the time we are born 20. The sensory system of the womb develops early in utero. Unborn infants have pain receptors on their face by 7 weeks of development, and over their entire body by the 20th week of gestation in the same or greater density than adults 2,4. The skeleton is complete and reflexes are present at 42 days; electrical brain wave patterns can be recorded at 43 days; the fetus has complete fingers, toes, and ears at 49 days; all organs are functioning (heart, stomach, liver, kidney, brain) and all systems are intact at 56 days; by 20 weeks, the fetus has hair and working vocal cords, can suck with his/her thumb, grasp with his/her hands, and kick with his/her legs 2,4.
An experience that is associated with great emotional distress or injury can occur at any time in our life. This can have a negative impact throughout life because the emotional and physiological response to the original distress does not disappear 5. Psychophysiological effects (the relationship between physiological processes and thoughts, emotions, and behavior) of events that occur while developing in the womb greatly influence the life span8. This is because experiences in the womb begin to form the blueprint of our core perceptions, belief structures, and ways of being in the world with others and ourselves 12. In addition, prenatal and perinatal negative imprinting can obstruct maternal and infant bonding 5.
Prenatal & Perinatal Imprints
Imprinting is the initial psychoneurobiological encoding of a unique experience into memory that establishes the foundation for the organization of similar experiences. In this context the term, imprint, is used specifically in relation to prenatal and birth experiences which, because they are preverbal, are stored in our body memory and remain there until we change them. Castellino 3 describes imprints as the energetic residue of an event or experience that can be stored by the body or in the energetic/energy system, or in the fluids.
Imprints are stored in the body as implicit, somatic memories that can be influenced by heightened emotional and/or physiological responses. The impact of these formative imprints manifest in individuals’ lives as habitual patterns, core beliefs, and coping strategies, which we may have no conscious awareness. Imprints can express themselves in physical symptoms, emotions, through activation's of the original trauma that make no sense in present time, through movement patterns, postures, tactile sensitivity and in many other ways.
Imprints remain in our system affecting us on all levels. When we experience a discomfort in our hip, we change the way we are moving and walking to compensate for that discomfort, and soon we forget that we are doing this and it simply becomes normal for us to walk that way. Likewise, with imprints we can think that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are just the way we are, and actually it could be an early imprint around which we are unconsciously organizing. Often our lives would be well served in dealing with the imprint directly so that we are not acting out of compensation and unconsciousness, but out of a healthy choice place.
Imprints often feel like they are unchangeable, but they do not have to be permanent, they can be re-patterned. An imprint is like a new outfit, that shows the color and weave of the fabric, and overtime you start to see creases in the outfit caused by living life. The creases are the imprints, they are not what represents the outfit, but have been imprinted upon them and can be changed. Is pain an imprint on the body? Can we heal the pain and experience positive change?
It is the author’s hypothesis that the manifestation of many adult chronic pain syndromes, are an expression of negative early imprints on the body. This theory holds that the foundation of our life experience begins to develop within our intrauterine surroundings along with the influence it has on the development of our brain and nervous system. Prenatal and perinatal imprints create patterns that form the foundation of how we will perceive the world. The foundation of our perception may be viewed as a lens through which we project and experience our reality. It impacts how we move into activities and relationships that cause us to recreate variations of the foundational patterning of early imprints again and again throughout our lives.
Virtually every aspect of the development of the human brain, and the sensory, cognitive, social, and emotional skills that it supports is, dependent on and shaped by input from the environment7. Neuroscience provides insight into how our experience shapes mental processes by altering both the activity and the structure of the connections between neurons and influencing processes such as memory, emotion, and self-awareness22. This confirms that the past continues to shape present experience and influence future beliefs and actions.
Chronic Pain & Illness
Pain has been conceptualized as a biopsychosocial phenomenon 23. This paradigm is based on the concept of illness rather than on disease. “Illness is defined as a subjective experience or self-attribution that a disease is present; it yields physical discomfort, emotional distress, behavioral limitations, and psychosocial disruption” 23 p. 6. Describing chronic pain as an illness rather than a biological or psychosocial or behavioral disease allows for the inclusion of a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors.
Pain is an extremely complex phenomenon. It is one that is accepted as affecting and involving both the mind and the body. Whereas it was once understood as a biological event, there is now more understanding that beliefs, memories and psychological conflicts, conscious and unconscious, can be involved. Modern understanding of the power of the mind to enhance, reduce, or create pain has led to the development of such 20th century concepts as psychosomatic and psychogenic with regard to the chronic pain experience 9. Original wounds can be split off from consciousness, dissociated, and repressed. They are stored in the physical body and when later revealed may feel as real and raw as in the time it happened 20.
The traditional medical model views health and wellness as the mere absence of disease; whereas PPN psychology moves beyond that traditional notion of health and wellness being the mere absence of disease, to an integrated model that looks at the whole person and not just at symptoms of blood pressure level, weight, or how well you manage your stress. It's not one thing; it's all of these things connected.
Many components and factors of health and wellness are intertwined. Wellness is a multidimensional state of being that describes the existence of positive health in an individual as illuminated by their quality of life and a sense of wellbeing. Health and wellness, from a holistic perspective, are active processes of becoming aware of and making choices toward a more successful existence. PPN psychology believes that although we cannot change or rewrite our personal histories, we do have the opportunity, at any age, to transform a less than optimal start in life 21.
The traces of negative imprints from our earliest experiences in the womb are present in our bodies. Our body-consciousness forgets nothing. But it is precisely at this depth, where our earliest injuries and traumas are lodged, that our greatest treasures are hidden, our creativity and intuition. It is the source of our whole emotional life, the center of our ability to love and form relationships. It could also be the source of all our addictions and destructivity.
Early treatment of negative imprinting can get to core issues easily and compassionately. The resolution of negative imprints results in vitality and produces aliveness in the body tissue. It supports cognitive integration of experience and enhances self-compassion, clarity of expression, presence, embodiment, and ease with interaction.
Those who suffer from symptoms of chronic pain and illness do not often feel resourced in their body because their experience is not likely one of nourishment and inner strength. Therefore disconnecting from the body to manage the pain and/or illness is most often the case. When we are disconnected from the health of our body we are not able to live from an embodied state of awareness. Embodiment is a process through which wisdom and ideas are transformed into ways of being.
The experience of chronic pain places the painful body in focus, resulting in a diminished articulation of both self and world. Persons with illness suffer not only from the physical aspects of pain and discomfort but also from a loss of identity where one feels alienated and detached from things that give meaning to ones life. Treatment must not only address the physical body but also the diminished sense of self as well as the withdrawal from the world outside of the painful body.
When prenatal and perinatal issues get resolved there is often a decrease in the creation of ineffective and unpleasant circumstances in adult life, and an increase in pro-active, interactive, and resourceful behavior. When persons with symptoms of chronic pain and/or illness regain a sense of their fullness of sensation and can cognitively assess what is safe and what isn’t, then choices can be made that are related to present time circumstances; from this they can have a fullness of response to ongoing life circumstances.
There is an abundance of research that supports the early developmental theory, which views the human being behaviorally as a biologically based entity. PPN psychology theory also views the biological human being, but primarily as sentient and conscious. The author proposes that the research in neuroscience is moving toward a model that integrates both the early developmental and PPN theories, because it supports the idea that babies have the capacity to relate.
Although it is the author’s opinion that this needs to be integrated deeper into the PPN view that babies in the womb, at birth, and during the early weeks and months of life are sensitive, conscious, sentient beings who have the capacity to relate and understand their environment. This further supports the link between negative PPN imprints and adult symptoms of chronic pain and illness and perhaps even influence the future development of preventative evidence-based treatment regimens.
So can we heal from symptoms of chronic pain and illness? The author states the answer to be yes; however to heal from the symptoms bathed in our life energy that supports growth rather than chronic protection is essential, not only for persons who have suffered prenatal shock or early negative imprinting, but also for the global collective shock that many of us endure. To grow and thrive rather than protect and survive may be a key factor in healing the suffering of our planet on many levels as well as our existence as a species.
Adult symptoms of chronic pain and illness are mind-body syndromes that can be an expression of our preverbal experiences of chronic stress and trauma. The foundation of our health in body, mind, emotion, and spirit begins in the womb within the subtle interconnections of our first relationship. The prenatal and perinatal imprints that occur during this critical developmental time have a life-long impact. They not only impact our physical, mental, and emotional health, but also our psychoneuroimmunological development. This is also the foundation for cognition, emotional regulation, resiliency to life’s adversity, and ability to be in intimate relationships.
Chronic stress and trauma during the primary period can create the learned nerve pathways that cause chronic and severe physical symptoms later in life. Although these symptoms are very real, they are also physiological processes that can be reversed. We cannot change the past and rewrite our histories; however, we do have the opportunity at any age to achieve mastery and a sense of control over our emotions, reactions to stress, and most importantly, our own body.
Healing unresolved early stress and trauma before becoming parents is ideal for the creation of an optimal internal and external environment that can provide fertile ground for the foundation for long-term health and wellness. From a holistic perspective, an individual’s health and wellbeing is an active relational process that involves honoring the fact that we are all feeling, remembering, communicative, and aware beings throughout our life span. Suboptimal nurturing and protection during the primal period doesn’t change this fact. It unfortunately creates a baseline of health that results in an overly active autonomic nervous system response, which negatively affects the quality of one’s life and sense of wellbeing.
The prevalence of chronic pain and illness or physical and emotional pain syndromes in adults needs to be understood and addressed holistically. This involves more than getting rid of a list of symptoms, but rather recognizing that many physical symptoms are a manifestation of stress, worry, anxiety, fears, anger, and the many other emotions that come with being human. “Finding the true self, one’s true sense of values, may be for few adults. But if society can have a clearer understanding of the health needed to conceive children and nurture them successfully, this could affect many more people for life. A deeper feeling and sense of values, among more and more people, is a powerful source of healing for society as a whole” 20 p. 199.
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