PTSD And Traumatic Birth: How To Deal With Birth Trauma
Did you know that childbirth can trigger trauma? If you have recently given birth and are experiencing any of the following, you may be suffering from birth trauma:
- Disturbing flashbacks of the birth
- Nightmares about giving birth
- Intrusive thoughts about giving birth
- Distress and feelings of anxiety when you experience things that remind you of giving birth (including for example talking and/or listening to others talk about giving birth)
It is often not discussed, but Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stemming from birth trauma is more common than you might think – arising from an estimated 4% of births. But what is birth trauma and how can you deal with it? Here we break down PTSD and traumatic birth.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is an anxiety condition that some people develop after an extremely distressing, scary, or stressful event. In PTSD, the distressing event tends to be re-experienced in nightmares and flashbacks that can be incredibly scary and disorientating for the sufferer. Physically, you have escaped the traumatic event, but internally you are reliving it. People with PTSD often experience ‘triggers’ – intense reminders of the traumatic event that might stem from everyday things. For example, a veteran with PTSD may react to the sound of fireworks as if they were gunfire. People with PTSD often try to avoid anything that reminds them of the distressing event – from films to conversation or even a particular route home. Hence PTSD can be very disruptive and, if left untreated, may come to control a person’s life.
The concept of PTSD was originally developed to understand soldiers’ distress after returning from war, but it has since widened to encompass a variety of experiences that can be traumatic – from a car crash to giving birth.
What is considered birth trauma?
Approximately one-third of labouring women experience a ‘traumatic birth’. A traumatic birth may be one which involves a threat to mother or baby’s life, complications, an emergency c-section or the use of instruments such as forceps. However, a traumatic birth in itself often does not always lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, while a third of women will experience a ‘traumatic birth’, only around 4% of women who’ve given birth will develop PTSD.
In addition, birth trauma does not have to involve complications and threat to life. In fact two large quantitative research reviews have reported that negative interactions with healthcare providers are an important PTSD risk factor. Researchers on the topic have asserted that for many women ‘a perceived lack of control and involvement in decision-making can contribute to the experience of trauma’.
In addition, women who have experienced previous traumas or who have had mental health problems in the past are more likely to develop postnatal PTSD.
So there is no single ‘birth trauma’ category and no one kind of person who develops postnatal PTSD. It can affect anyone and it is defined by its symptoms.
What are the symptoms of PTSD from birth trauma?
Possible symptoms of PTSD from birth trauma include:
- ‘Flashbacks’ and repeated images of labour and childbirth
- Fear of birth and avoidance of birth
- Panic attacks
- Finding it difficult to bond with your little one, and experiencing guilt in relation to that
- Low self-esteem and feeling bad about yourself
- Problems with breastfeeding
- Avoidance of and/or recoiling from physical contact and sex
- Staying away from medical appointments such as smear tests
- A sense of isolation
- Problems in your relationships and connecting with others
How birth trauma can impact a mother’s relationship with her child
Untreated birth trauma can really affect a mother’s bond with her child. For example, a woman whose baby was taken into neonatal intensive care may be terrified of the baby dying, and this can in some cases lead to her emotionally distancing from her little one. In other cases, perhaps fear of harm coming to the baby leads to a mother being unable to trust other people around her baby. Untreated postnatal PTSD can affect a mother’s relationship not only with her baby but with other important people in her life.
How to deal with birth trauma: don’t suffer in silence
Dr Agnieszka Klimowicz, Consultant Psychiatrist and perinatal specialist at The London Psychiatry Centre says: “Sadly, there is still some lingering ignorance and stigma attached to postnatal mental health problems like PTSD – in fact many people have been completely unaware of it until recently. A lot of new mums affected by birth trauma are afraid to talk about it. They may fear being judged as a bad mother, lacking sufficient gratitude for their little one, or they may even worry that any admission of a mental health problem may lead to their baby being taken away from them. But this is very, very rare. Support services exist to do just that – support you in your new motherhood, especially when you’ve had a hard time.”
Above all, if you’re struggling with birth trauma, don’t be afraid to reach out. Left untreated, postnatal PTSD can have significant and wide-reaching consequences for the mother, child and wider family. But you don’t have to suffer. There are evidence-based treatments out there that really can help you feel better.
Treatment for birth trauma
If you are experiencing PTSD because of birth trauma, you should tell your GP and seek treatment.
The gold standard in PTSD treatment is generally trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TFCBT), eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), or a combination of both. These treatments are more structured than traditional talking therapies, and they are highly evidence-based and tailor-made to help people suffering with PTSD.
Trauma-focused CBT helps a trauma survivor to process, narrate and integrate their trauma, putting it in its proper place so they can move forward with their lives.
EMDR is a structured talking therapy that utilises rapid eye movements to help a trauma survivor process the memories, negative emotions and sensations associated with traumatic events, to break ‘the loop’ that keeps a person’s mind returning to them.
In addition to this, there are other things you can do to support yourself at home – for example practising mindful breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and exercise. These sorts of techniques can help to ground you in your body at a time when you might feel quite dissociated and detached. The Birth Trauma Association website has many helpful resources including support groups too.
You don’t have to suffer. Here at The London Psychiatry Centre we are highly experienced in treating PTSD and have services specifically focused on perinatal mental health problems. We can offer telephone or video call appointments from anywhere in the UK too. Get in touch with us using the below contact details.