For most women, pregnancy is a blissful time. Despite some expected discomforts, such as morning sickness or aches and pains, many women enjoy their growing belly and bask in the glow of a new life they are creating while they plan for a birth experience that feels empowering and in-line with their values and wishes.
Unfortunately, this is not the experience of all women.
Every year hundreds of thousands of women are diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy and many others experience a traumatic birth experience. For many of these women, the uncertainties of what could happen to their baby, experiencing unexpected complications, and/or requiring medical interventions required for their safety and the safety of their baby can be traumatic.
What is a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience?
There are no simple diagnostic criteria to identify what a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience is. Simply put, trauma lies in the eye of the beholder. What is a traumatic experience for one woman may not be traumatic for someone else.
Anything from an unexpected medical diagnosis for mom or baby to unforeseen interventions during pregnancy or labor and delivery to a sudden change in a well though out and researched birth plan can be triggers for a traumatic experience. Delivering prematurely and feeling like you have no control over your pregnancy or birth experience are also common triggers for a traumatic response.
This is why a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience are not identified by certain external criteria, but rather by the symptoms mom presents after the initial event. If these symptoms go unchecked, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in the postpartum period and beyond.
How do I know if I’ve had a traumatic pregnancy or birth trauma?
Common symptoms of having experienced a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience that could lead to the development of PTSD include:
- Fear or anxiety throughout the day
- Feeling jumpy especially when you hear loud sounds
- Heart palpitations
- Aches and pains not attributed to your physical postpartum recovery
- Flashbacks about your pregnancy or delivery
- Avoidance of places that remind you of your pregnancy or delivery
- Shock or disbelief
- Being in denial about what you’ve been through
- Running moments of your pregnancy or delivery through your mind repeatedly
- Mood swings such as crying and then laughing
- Difficulty remembering events from your pregnancy or delivery
- Feeling disconnected from or disinterested in your life
- Feeling numb
- Anger toward your faith or religious beliefs
- Feeling guilty or ashamed for what you and your baby experienced
- Wanting to isolate yourself from others
Does everyone who experiences a traumatic pregnancy or birth trauma have PTSD?
The short answer is no. Not everyone who experiences trauma during their pregnancy or delivery develops PTSD. Trauma responses are normal reactions to abnormal events. By the very nature of a high-risk pregnancy and traumatic delivery, you had to learn to cope with high levels of fear, stress and anxiety. This put you on high alert, made you hyper-vigilant to changes in your body and to your baby and helped you become accustomed to feelings of helplessness.
Your nervous system has been in high gear since your pregnancy and delivery. All of these reactions can continue and are very normal reactions to a trauma such as a high-risk pregnancy or traumatic birth experience. With time and effort, you can reset your nervous system and heal from the trauma.
This normal reaction to trauma becomes PTSD when your nervous system becomes “stuck” in this hyper-aroused state. That means the symptoms are persistent, don’t lessen with time and significantly impair daily functioning. A diagnosis of PTSD should be made by a licensed mental health professional and should be followed with treatment to help alleviate symptoms. True PTSD does not improve with time without intervention and treatment.
Healing from a traumatic pregnancy and delivery experience IS possible.
Here are a few tips to get the healing process started:
- Get moving. If your doctor has cleared you for exercise, go for a walk outside with or without the baby. Moving helps you reconnect with your body so you can feel it in a more relaxed state. This can help trigger a calming response in your nervous system allowing you to feel calmer emotionally.
- Practice mindfulness. Focus your attention on the smallest of details that are happening in the present moment. For example, notice what it feels like to chew and taste your meals or close your eyes and notice how it feels to breathe. Mindfulness is a powerful tool to help slow down your emotional responses that have been on overdrive and in turn restore balance to your nervous system.
- Take care of yourself. Sleeping and eating feel like a luxury for most new parents who are trying to keep up with their newest little family member. However, self-care is a necessity to be a better parent for your child. Ask for help so you can rest during the day and eat healthy meals. Even if you can’t fall asleep, take time throughout the day to close your eyes and relax your body. Limit processed foods and diets in high sugar to lessen your mood swings.
- Tell your story. There is tremendous healing power in telling your story to help you lower your guilt and regain control over your experiences after your complicated pregnancy or traumatic delivery. Journal about your story, talk to trusted loved ones who will listen or work with a professional who is an expert in recovery after a high-risk pregnancy or birth trauma. If you’re comfortable linking to my postpartum program for high-risk moms, please click here.
If you are worried about yourself and/or your baby…
If things are bad and you are having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming your baby, place your baby in the care of a trusted friend or family member and call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. A healthy baby needs a healthy mom. Taking care of yourself is essential.