Interrupting cycles of trauma during pregnancy, birth and postpartum
Reprinted from the Intergenerational Trauma issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (2), pp. 26-28
We are three people, three bodies, three explorers connected across three time zones by a belief in mind-body trauma care. The world of trauma-sensitive yoga is currently small enough that the three of us were e-introduced several years ago. We hope to expand that world as we work together to find ways to interrupt cycles of intergenerational trauma, especially during the key moments of pregnancy, birth and postpartum. Below, we share more about our own journeys on this path and how they intersect and enrich our shared hope of fostering transgenerational resilience.
I never had the opportunity to meet any of my grandparents before they passed away. It seems unfathomable that I coexisted with my maternal grandmother and my mother in one shared space, one womb.2-4 But I did. Epigenetics literature suggests that when my grandmother was about five months’ pregnant with my mother, the precursor cells of the egg from which I developed were already present.
In Vietnam, my grandparents endured the Anti-French Resistance War (1946–1954) and, along with my parents, the American War (1955–1975, known in the US and Canada as the Vietnam War). Their trauma is intrinsically my trauma. And their resilience is also intrinsically mine.
My mother and father did not know each other during the war and each arrived on their own as refugees to (the land that settlers call) the United States, with no family members alongside. The dynamics of the families my parents were forced to leave behind, the nightly ambushes and atrocities my father experienced as a wartime Navy officer and many other details of that dark period were undisclosed to me growing up.
Yet, even without words, those dark experiences were ever-present in my upbringing. I felt them not through typical sight or sound, but through felt sensations that reverberated throughout the household and within my body as captive tensions. I inherited the tensions that my parents tried to hide in their bodies and their minds. And, importantly, I was also the recipient of the tenacity and drive that allowed them to arrive and survive in the US.
That tenacity and drive cultivated a sense of curiosity within me, which motivated me to found the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab. The lab bridges the disconnection between bodies and minds, particularly in the context of trauma-informed mental health care. Transgenerational trauma is stored in the body. Likewise, resilience and all its untapped potential lives in the body. Therefore, to heal trauma and promote resilience, we cannot ignore the body and all bodies that came before us.
In community with Emily Lapolice and Leila Johnson I am honoured to be a part of this work. We envision a world in which transgenerational trauma is intercepted—body first—during pregnancy and childbirth.
Our aim is to increase perinatal mental health and trauma awareness through offering accessible, evidence- and culture-based trauma treatments that are centred in the body. Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) is one such treatment. In this approach to yoga, power and choice are given back to participants, inviting individuals to be agents of their own bodies and healing journeys. Along with our core collaborators,5 we continue to develop research and explore further opportunities for, and approaches to, mind-body transgenerational healing. For more information, feel free to contact me at MindBodyTrauma.Care.
We live within continual cycles of creation, destruction, transformation and rebirth. And there is no other physical experience quite as transformational as creating another body in, with and from our own. At no other point in a womxn’s6 life will so much about them change in such a brief period of time, and with such far-reaching implications for her (and her child’s) physical and psychological health.7
When my son was born in 2015, it was the responsibility I felt for these very implications that propelled an overwhelming sense of fear and self-doubt, resulting in significant postpartum anxiety (PPA) and postpartum depression (PPD). The anxiety felt forceful, and I felt powerless in its wake. In some of the darkest moments, I feared for my own survival—and the fear only increased knowing that my son’s survival depended on my own.
Soon my sense of self started to fracture and erode away, as I began questioning: Who am I? Where dfid I go? Will I ever come back? alongside an increasing fear that I was already “gone.” This experience of internal destruction and loss of self was inherently traumatic, even against the backdrop of this beautiful new creation before me.
Pregnancy, birth and postpartum (known as the “perinatal period”) can be filled with feelings of joy and possibility, but also chaos and disorganization. This period of vulnerability and rapid change offers fertile ground for other experiences of trauma (personal, relational, intergenerational and systemic) to intersect and impact this already disorienting time.
For me, the residue of past traumas (including the “unseen” wounds of intergenerational trauma) were present. Periods in my life when I had lost my sense of agency, when choices were forced upon me or I was overwhelmed and paralyzed by them, were familiar feelings my body had already built hard-wired responses to. As the pressures of my new role brushed up against some of these old wounds, fear and uncertainty pulled me farther and farther from myself.
One day, I was crying on the floor, talking with my sister, as my infant son played nearby. He was old enough to sit up on his own and had discovered a ball for the first time. I remember the exact moment. The room. The specific ball. He picked it up, dropped it and watched it bounce on the floor. Instantly, he started laughing—a new laugh I had not yet heard, one filled with profound joy, wonder and possibility. It was probably one of the first times he realized that he had caused something to happen.
To see him acting in his own environment shifted something for me. I remember actually feeling the shift. It was small, but it felt like I had just a little more space to breathe, and that my body and my experiences were separate from his. The ability to notice and be in my own body in the present moment, with a sense of tenderness, was not something I had been able to do for quite some time.
This is when the balance slowly began to tip, and I remembered one of the biggest tools I had at my fingertips: yoga.
I had been studying and facilitating Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) for many years. TCTSY is a specific approach to yoga that invites a present-moment experience with one's own body and centres on choice-making, agency and empowerment. I had never quite experienced the personal healing it could offer me until this moment. Witnessing my son’s emerging agency let me reconnect with and witness my own. It was a small step in starting to take back my power and reconnect with my “Emily-ness.” As I did so, I found I had much more to give.
It was during those moments of being with my son—together, but separate (a term I’ve started to call “paralleled agency”)—each of us an agent of our own experience, that my healing process truly began.
The journey of pregnancy, birth and postpartum is a multilayered tapestry that holds many intermingling stories and lived experiences. The threads of this tapestry are varied for each of us, with a myriad of conditions and forces influencing its texture. But at its core, a becoming is taking place, even as a new parent’s sense of self may become uprooted or lost. In this tender time we are invited to witness life not as it was, or could be, but as it is becoming. Although some threads may be tattered, new ones are constantly surfacing; something is transforming, even in the darkness. Embodiment practices like TCTSY provide space for this tapestry to unfold and for deep healing to take root.
I have uprooted, re-rooted and re-birthed myself many times since this tender period of my life. The ripples from this healing experience continue to unfold for myself, for my sons and hopefully for generations to come.
Leila looks ahead
If trauma influences the uterine environment and creates a genetic imprint in the offspring during the third trimester,8 how can transgenerational resilience also start in utero?
An increase of research points to the body as an essential tool for recovery. The hope is that through a body-based, body-first approach during pregnancy, birth and the period after birth we can reduce traces of trauma for the next generations.
Befriending the body helps people to, “hear my body more,” as one prenatal-TCTSY participant in Palestine put it. Research shows us that when we are free to make choices based on how we feel in the present moment, we can help heal the disconnected brain-body experience.9
When we learn to notice the signals from within, we are free to move based on that noticing. We can create new narratives and new imprints. Participants have described TCTSY as a “liberation practice.” In the absence of directive language and specific instruction on how to move and be in one’s own body, space opens up along with an invitation—an invitation to move, to choose, to notice, to change, and to be.
Therefore, two of the most powerful questions we can ask ourselves in a trauma-informed, body-based practice are:
- What am I noticing in my body?
- And what do I want to do with that?
The choice is yours.
About the authors
Viann (vee-anne win-fang; she/her) is a counselling psychologist, registered yoga teacher and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She serves as core faculty in the clinical counselling master’s program and directs the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab
Emily (she/her) is a clinical social worker, a Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) facilitator, author, educator and mother. She is faculty at the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts and has practised psychotherapy for nearly two decades, specializing in complex trauma, perinatal mental health and embodiment practices
Leila (she/her) is an entrepreneur, editorial board member of the journal Voices Against Torture1 and co-founder of We the Mindful, a Vancouver-based non-profit (twocedars.com) that operates in partnership with community leaders, teachers and artists to support income projects for women and trauma-informed initiatives
Voices Against Torture is an international journal on human rights published by VAST, BC’s largest centre for refugee and newcomer mental health. See: vat.vast-vancouver.ca/call-for-contributions
Finch, C. E., & Loehlin, J. C. (1998). Environmental influences that may precede fertilization: A first examination of the prezygotic hypothesis from maternal age influences on twins. Behavioral Genetics, 28(2), 101–106. doi.org/10.1023/a:1021415823234
Sadler, T. W. (2009). Langman’s Medical Embryology (9th ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Yehuda, R., Daskalakis, N. P., Lehrner, A., Desarnaud, F., Bader, H. N., Makotkine, I., Flory, J. D., Bierer, L. M., & Meaney, M. J. (2014). Influences of maternal and paternal PTSD on epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene in Holocaust survivor offspring. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(8), 872–880. doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13121571
We share this vision with collaborators at the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at the Justice Resource Institute, Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Boston Medical Center.
We would like to recognize and honour that not all people who experience pregnancy and birthing identify as “woman” or “mother” and may hold gender diverse identities.
Slade, A., Cohen, L. J., Sadler, L. S., & Miller, M. (2009). The psychology and psychopathology of pregnancy: Reorganization and transformation. In C. H. Zeanah, Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of infant mental health (pp. 22–39). The Guilford Press.
Yehuda, R., (July 2022). Trauma in the Family Tree. Scientific American, 327(1), 50–55. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0722-50
Van der Kolk, B.A., Stone, L., West, J., Rhodes, A., Emerson, D., Suvak, M. & Spinazzola, J. (2014) Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled trial. J Clin Psychiatry, 75(6), e559-65. doi: 10.4088/JCP.13m08561