Birth trauma is real. Learn how you can find healing after a traumatic birth.
If you’d describe your childbirth as “traumatic,” you’re not alone. One study reported 50% of new mothers claimed they have birth trauma. And many women deal with intrusive thoughts, nightmares, depression, and irritability in the weeks and months after giving birth.
Birth trauma can be isolating. You may find it difficult to process your experience. It’s possible that you are guilty or ashamed to feel fear or sadness following the birth your baby when you expected to feel joy and excitement. You may feel detached from others and struggle to bond with your new baby. Remembering or talking about childbirth can also bring up distressing memories that make you feel like you’re reliving your trauma again.
It’s important to understand that birth trauma is real, and your feelings are completely valid. Most of all, we want you to know that you’re not alone in your struggle. We’re here to walk along with you in this journey and provide you with the resources you need to understand what you’re going through and how postpartum therapy can help.
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What Is Birth Trauma?
Birth trauma is the physical or emotional distress a woman experiences during and following childbirth. It is a general term used for women who have some symptoms of postpartum PTSD. New mothers can begin to experience birth trauma immediately during the birthing process or may not to start symptoms until days or weeks after.
How Do You Know If You’ve Had a Traumatic Birth?
You may think that you need to have experienced a potentially life-threatening event or experienced a great deal of pain to “qualify” as having had a traumatic birth. However, there are no criteria for what happened during the birth that make it traumatic. Any experience that causes you to feel extremely stressed, isolated, threatened, or afraid can be considered trauma.
It doesn’t matter if you were never in danger, had an epidural, or delivered a perfectly healthy baby. If your birth experience was very stressful or frightening, you may struggle with symptoms of PTSD and have difficulty process what happened to you.
Are Birth Trauma and Postpartum PTSD the same thing?
While birth trauma is a more general term therapists use to describe women who are experiencing some symptoms of PTSD, it is not an official diagnosis. Postpartum PTSD is a psychiatric disorder triggered by trauma that is experienced after birth. Approximately 9% of women are diagnosed with this disorder.
Some people use “birth trauma” interchangeably with “postpartum PTSD”. However, some mental health professionals may only use the phrase birth trauma when a client has experienced a traumatic birth but does not exhibit all the symptoms of PTSD.
What Are the Risk Factors for Birth Trauma?
There are several reasons your birth might have been traumatic including:
- You experienced a health issue such as hemorrhage, preeclampsia, or perineal trauma
- Your baby experienced fetal distress, birth defects, or other health issues
- Your baby needed life-saving treatment or needed to go to the NICU
- Your baby was born a stillbirth or died shortly after birth
- You had an unplanned C-section or hysterectomy
- You experienced high levels of pain, even if you opted for a natural birth
- Your pain medicine or epidural was ineffective or unavailable
- Your labor began early or before you reached the hospital
- The hospital staff was inattentive or controlling
- You lacked support from loved ones
- You experienced feeling of powerlessness or a lack of privacy
Of course, this is not inclusive and there are many factors that could have contributed to a traumatic experience. It is also possible for someone who witnessed your childbirth, such as your partner, to feel be traumatized.
Is It More Than Just the Baby Blues?
Between sleepless nights and fluxing hormonal changes, it can be hard for new mothers to catch a break. Most new moms don’t feel themselves in the first days or couple of weeks after giving birth and may experience feelings of sadness and mood swings. This brief period of depression-like symptoms is called the baby blues, and it is very common. About 70 to 80% of all new mothers experience it.
If you’re feeling on edge, irritable, or depressed after having recently given birth, you may wonder if it’s just the baby blues or something more. Generally, mental health concerns like postpartum depression, postnatal anxiety, postpartum psychosis, and postpartum PTSD last much longer than the baby blues and cause much more severe symptoms. If you are still struggling after two weeks postpartum, feel your mental health is suffering, or have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, these are often signs that you should speak with a mental health professional.
Postpartum PTSD Symptoms
If you have birth trauma or postpartum PTSD, you may experience the following symptoms:
Involuntarily re-living your traumatic birth by thinking through the events over and over again
Having frequent nightmares about events from or relating to the childbirth
Avoiding things, places, or people that remind you of the traumatic event
Feeling indifferent or emotionless, disconnected from reality, or withdrawn from your baby and others
Being in a persistent state of increased arousal, causing insomnia, irritability, and edginess
Experiencing anxiety episodes, racing thoughts, fear for your baby’s life, or panic attacks
Can a Traumatic Birth Cause Mental Health Problems?
If your birth was traumatic to you, the negative emotions from that event can affect you even after the delivery of your baby. Here are a few ways birth trauma can affect your mental health.
Birth Trauma and Postpartum Depression
Many women with postpartum PTSD are misdiagnosed as having postpartum depression. While it is standard for most hospitals and obstetricians to screen for postpartum depression, most do not look for symptoms of birth trauma. Additionally, there are several overlapping symptoms.
One of the key differences between both conditions is that PPD is often (not always) caused by dropping levels of estrogen and progesterone after delivery, whereas birth trauma is a traumatic response to a stressful birth. There are also several symptoms unique to PPD, including intense hopelessness, major appetite changes, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of self-harm or harming the baby.
While postpartum depression and birth trauma are two unique issues, they do not always occur separately. Women who have experienced a traumatic birth may struggle with symptoms of PTSD while also showing signs of postpartum depression. Additionally, if birth trauma is not treated it can progress into postpartum depression.
Birth Trauma and Postpartum Anxiety
Every new parent feels some level of newfound anxiety after having a baby. From listening to your little one’s breathing while they sleep to trying to wipe every surface your baby touches clear of germs, your nerves can go into overdrive being responsible for a tiny human.
However, sometimes anxiety can get out of control. Research suggests that up to one-fourth of women have an anxiety disorder after birth (which is much more than the rest of the population).
Generalized postpartum anxiety includes symptoms like constant worry or dread, insomnia, racing thoughts, anxiety attacks, and physical symptoms like sweating, nausea, or heart palpitations.
Postpartum PTSD is a more specific type of postpartum anxiety that is caused by a traumatic birth experience, which can lead to frightening flashbacks and intrusive thoughts. Other lesser-known postnatal conditions include postpartum OCD, postpartum psychosis, and postpartum bipolar disorder.
Long-term Effects of Birth Trauma
Without treatments, postpartum PTSD can continue for a very long time. You may think that your symptoms will go away with time, but this is not always the case. Certain triggers can bring up traumatic memories in the future. An essential part of healing is being able to identify your triggers and learn effective coping methods to decrease their effect.
Birth trauma can potentially contribute to other mental health disorders down the road, like alcohol or substance abuse and depression. Long periods of stress and anxiety also have harmful effects that are physical, such as chronic pain, inflammation, high blood pressure, digestive problems, and more.
Dealing with PTSD can also affect your relationships, including with your child. Your symptoms can make it difficult for you to bond with your baby in the months after delivery beyond. You may be more irritable and detached in your parenting. However, there are resources available to help you recover from birth trauma and help break the cycle for your children too.
Maternal PTSD: Miscarriage, Infertility, and Pregnancy
Birth trauma can be connected and intensified by other traumatic experiences related to pregnancy.
Experiencing a miscarriage is a major cause of PTSD, with one European study finding that symptoms persist for at least 9 months in about 20% of women. Miscarriage is defined by pregnancy loss before the 20th week and occurs in about 1 in 8 known pregnancies. Many women struggle to talk about their experience with child loss, and it can contribute to postnatal anxiety, birth trauma, and postnatal depression.
Dealing with infertility can also be a very painful, emotional experience for women. Women who have difficulties conceiving may also be more likely to develop certain pregnancy complications. Difficulties during pregnancy and childbirth can be difficult for mothers who got pregnant after previously struggling with infertility.
Becoming a mother can be a stressful time, especially for women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy or scary pregnancy complications. Women who deal with emotional trauma during pregnancy, may develop symptoms of PTSD before or after childbirth.
Birth Trauma Treatment: Postpartum Therapy and Self-Care Tips
While birth trauma may not be talked about as much as postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety, it is still a serious issue that can bring down your quality of life and affect your relationship with your baby and other important people in your life. Dealing with PTSD isn’t easy, but healing is available.
Research on postpartum PTSD is relatively new, but information on the topic is growing steadily. More experts in mental health are recognizing the symptoms of birth trauma and exploring the best treatments for helping women feel themselves again.
If you’re having difficulties sleeping at night, getting vivid, scary flashbacks, feeling detached, or struggling with panic attacks, it can be difficult to take care of yourself while also meeting the needs of your baby. You might think you don’t have enough time in a day to set aside time for your healing, but your mental health is a priority. It’s time to take the first steps toward healing today.
The Benefits of Therapy for Postpartum PTSD
If you’ve never visited with a therapist before, it can be intimidating to make the call. However, with options like online counseling for women, therapy can be on your terms. Having the option to visit with a therapist from the comfort of your own home removes the stress of needing to find a babysitter, driving to a new office, or sitting in a waiting room.
Most mental health professionals who enter the field of industry do so because they are passionate about using their skills and knowledge to help other people. They recognize that everyone struggles with their mental health at time, and there are tangible methods and treatments available to allow people to find healing.
Also, the conception that therapists only rely on medication to alleviate your symptoms is not true. Many counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists use several methods to help you find true healing. At the core of your treatment with psychotherapy, or talk therapy, where you are given a safe, judgment-free space to talk about what you’re going through.
Depending on your situation, your therapist may recommend specific treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (therapy that focuses on changing negative though patterns), EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), prolonged exposure therapy (therapy that involves gradually exposing someone to stressful stimuli to help them reprocess it).
If your symptoms are severe, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication to help stabilize your mood in addition to psychotherapy. Many therapists also recognize the important bond between physical and mental health and explore how making healthy lifestyle changes can help during the healing process.
Self-Care After Having a Baby
Adjusting to having a new baby at home is difficult on its own, but struggling with birth trauma can make the postpartum even more stressful. Remember that your mental health matters. You are not weak or selfish for taking the time to care for your needs — in fact, you’ll only be more mentally, physically, and emotionally available for your loved ones by taking time to prioritize your health and healing.
Here are a few self-care tips on how you can thrive in the days and months after having a baby:
- Eat Nutritious Foods: When some people think of self-care, they image treating themselves to a big bowl of ice cream after a particularly stressful day. While indulging in something you love is fine every now and then, eating healthy foods full of the vitamins and minerals you need to stay on your feet is one of the best ways you can care for yourself.
- Practice Mindfulness: Learn to be aware of your emotions and how your environment affects you. Take time to look within and reflect, and practice gratitude every day. Slow down and incorporate practices like meditation, deep breathing and yoga.
- Exercise Daily: Find time to get moving and get your blood pumping, even if that just means a quick walk outside with your baby by your side. Exercise helps reduce stress, improve sleep, and boost endorphin levels.
- Spend Time With Loved Ones: Take time to catch up with loved ones and talk with other adults. Plan a date night with your partner or set aside a night to eat dinner with your parents. While your baby can be good company, being a new parent can feel isolating.
Start Healing With Online Counseling for Women
Thriving Lane specializes in women’s mental health and provide online therapy and counseling for women experiencing birth trauma, postpartum depression, miscarriage, infertility, anxiety or depression, relationship concerns and more. As an integrative practice, we use a variety of holistic approaches to help you find healing and improve your wellbeing including:
We take a trauma-informed approach in our therapy to promote safety and healing and use evidence-based practices to structure our treatments. By offering women’s teletherapy services, we aim to break down barriers to mental healthcare and help every woman discover her best self.
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