Pregnancy and childbirth are often hailed as one of the most special times in a woman’s life. However, giving birth can be an incredibly traumatic and terrifying experience for some women. Many can even develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after difficult deliveries and pregnancies, which can affect them years into the future.
With the physical and hormonal changes that it brings, pregnancy can be a challenging time for all women. It can also affect a woman’s mental health, making them incredibly anxious or depressed. However, for some women who already have PTSD, pregnancy can be an even more difficult time.
New research shows that for approximately one in four pregnant women who have PTSD, symptoms will worsen during their pregnancy. Some women become more anxious as their pregnancy advances, whilst some have more problems post-birth. Research additionally suggests that women with PTSD are more likely to develop postnatal depression and have difficulty bonding with their babies.
In contrast, three in four women find that their symptoms decrease and become easier to manage during pregnancy. This could be because women surrounded by strong social circles are more protected from the risk of their PTSD getting worse.
Postnatal PTSD, also known as birth trauma, is not uncommon. Traumatic births and pregnancies can happen for several reasons. Some women experience traumatic events that would traumatise any other person, whereas others are explicitly traumatised by childbirth events. Specific causes of birth trauma and PTSD can include:
- Hostile attitudes of people around them during the birth
- Fear for the safety of the mother or baby
- Bad postnatal care
- A long or excruciating labour
- Ineffective pain relief
- A lack of information
- A lack of privacy and dignity
- An unplanned caesarean section or other unexpected medical intervention
Some people may think that having a new baby makes up for any difficulties experienced during labour, but this is not true. Traumatic births can have long-reaching consequences in the future and can impact the relationship between mother and baby and the people around them.
Common symptoms of postnatal PTSD include:
- Vivid flashbacks of the trauma
- Intrusive thoughts
- Hypervigilance – constantly feeling on edge
- Finding it hard to sleep or concentrate on daily tasks
- Avoiding difficult feelings or memories
- Feelings of anger, guilt, or shame
Birth trauma can be especially challenging to deal with as there are limited places for women to access support. Many people will not understand what they have been through, and other mothers who have not had traumatic births may struggle to relate to their experiences.
This lack of support can strain relations with loved ones and lead to a lack of interest in sex, as some women are determined to avoid another pregnancy. Women may also avoid seeking medical help for their problems as they may remind them of their birth experience, leading to long-term health complications.
Birth Trauma v. Postnatal Depression
Birth trauma and postnatal depression (PND) can have similar symptoms but are drastically different conditions. Some symptoms of PND include:
- Frequent negative thoughts
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Feeling unable to cope with daily life
- Feelings of guilt and inadequacy
Many women struggling with PTSD from a traumatic birth may be incorrectly diagnosed with PND. Contact your doctor today if you feel that you may have been misdiagnosed with PND. It is vital that you receive the right treatment for your condition.
Some women can struggle with both PTSD and PND simultaneously, but both conditions must be treated separately to be effective. Antidepressants and therapy may be a good course of treatment to target both PND and PTSD, but sometimes more intensive treatment is required.
Struggling with either PTSD or PND can feel extremely isolating for new mothers, and they may feel like bad mothers for dealing with these feelings. This is not the case – struggling with mental health does not make anyone a bad mother, and you are deserving of help.
Dealing With Postnatal PTSD
There are several different ways to help manage postnatal PTSD at home:
- Talk to someone – it may be challenging to open up to people if you are struggling with PTSD, but talking about how you feel with other people can help. This could be a friend, family member, or a professional.
- Identify your triggers – certain people, places, or things may bring up unpleasant memories of your traumatic experience. Take note of what triggers you and learn what reactions you have. Once you identify this, you can begin to plan ways to manage your emotions and the triggers.
- Allow yourself time to heal – taking steps to address and recover from your birth trauma is great progress, but it is important to remember that healing does not happen overnight. Be patient with yourself and allow yourself as much time as you need to recover from your experiences.
- Look after your physical health – physical health and mental health are intrinsically linked. Take care of your physical health by eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. This can be difficult if you are a new mum, so start small and build on minor changes – do not pressure yourself to be perfect.
If you or someone you know is struggling with postnatal PTSD, do not hesitate to reach out for help. Therapies such as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) can help people work through traumatic memories and speed up the recovery process.
In some cases, medication may be appropriate, especially for those struggling with postnatal depression or anxiety. Doctors may also prescribe anti-anxiety medication to target anxiety and help women to begin to recover from their experiences.
Birth trauma and postnatal PTSD can occur during pregnancy and is especially prevalent during childbirth. The causes of birth trauma are varied. Irrespective of the reason, it can be challenging for women to deal with alone. It can be an incredibly isolating experience for women to manage, but there is hope. Reach out for professional help today – you deserve to heal and thrive.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with PTSD following pregnancy, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Uofmhealth.org. 2016. Pregnancy and PTSD: Surprising findings could help moms-to-be at risk | Michigan Medicine. [online] Available at: <https://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201602/pregnancy-and-ptsd-surprising-findings-could-help-moms-be> [Accessed 21 April 2022].