Understanding Birth Trauma
The following information has been brought together to offer support and comfort to women and partners who have been traumatised during childbirth. The information given on this website will bring about relief as you learn that there is an explanation for the horrific symptoms that you are suffering from. The information is designed to help those suffering from birth trauma to realise that you are not going mad (even if no-one seems to understand how you are feeling) and that what you are experiencing is the body’s normal reaction to a traumatic event. People may ask you to pull yourself together, get over it, get on with life. But the symptoms of severe anxiety, panic, flashbacks and nightmares are outside your conscious control. Nobody chooses to feel this way.
The following guidance has been offered with the understanding that fast and effective treatment is available to get rid of the debilitating trauma symptoms and return you to a feeling of strength and empowerment so that you can move forward with your life and enjoy motherhood and close family relationships. Please click here to learn more about treatment available.
For most women, the lead up to the birth is a time of mixed feelings. Most feel a sense of excitement coupled with apprehension and even fear. Many will have attended antenatal classes, NCT, yoga and hypnobirthing to feel fully prepared for this life changing event. Many go on to have a wonderful experience that stays with them forever. This is what we want for every woman as she takes her journey to motherhood.
However, for some women what they are about to endure will mark their lives in the most catastrophic and devastating way. Some women report never really recovering from the ordeal. These women are about to be plunged into what might only be described as a living a private hell, terrorised by an invisible mental wound.
Do you have birth trauma?
Click here to answer the questionnaire and find out if you have Birth trauma.
Around 6% of women are diagnosed with traumatic stress after childbirth. However, it is believed that a further 20 – 25% of women have symptoms that go undiagnosed, particularly if they don’t meet the full criteria for PTSD and women are mistakenly diagnosed as having Post-natal depression PND.
These women may go to their doctor, and because women who suffer from birth trauma, often also feel depressed, may be prescribed anti-depressants.
But unlike someone who is depressed, these women do not wake up in the morning feeling terrible lethargy, unable to motivate themselves and face the day. These women feel constantly on ’red alert’. They experience high levels of anxiety, panic attacks, have flashbacks (reliving the traumatic birth as if it were happening now) and wake up in the night terrorised by their own nightmares.
These women can be described as:
‘A traumatised creature living in a private hell, terrorised by an invisible mental wound, helplessly in thrall to a powerful emotional memory of childbirth’
Adapted from ‘A New Approach to Emotional Health and Clear thinking – Human Givens.
Many women are too scared to own up to how they really feel, for fear that their baby will be taken away from them. Women suffering from PTSD may reject their baby, they may have feelings of wanting to harm the baby or end their own lives. Owning up to such feelings then becomes a hugely guarded secret, increasing feelings of isolation, that so often accompany symptoms of PTSD.
They may feel pressure to keep quiet about it as partners urge them to stop going on about it, triggered by their own feelings of being unable to help.
They might be told ‘Can’t you put it behind you and be thankful that you have a healthy baby’
‘You were far too unrealistic about giving birth, you expected too much ‘
‘It’s over now, you have such a beautiful baby, you need to forget about it and get on with your life and enjoy being a mother.’
Many will report still going through the motions of motherhood, but with a feeling of disconnect from the baby and a lack of the normal feelings of love. They may become overly anxious about their baby’s safety – hypervigilant. Feeling intense feelings of anxiety that something terrible is going to happen to their baby, constantly on the lookout for danger.
But isn’t it soldiers who suffer from PTSD?
Although It has long been believed that only the military returning from war zones suffered from symptoms of PTSD it is now widely understood that any member of the population can develop PTSD following a traumatic event. Experiences ranging from surviving natural disasters such as earthquakes, forest fires and avalanches or survival of road, rail, air and boat accidents, heart attacks, mugging, burning, rape or sexual assault can all result in the overwhelming and terrifying symptoms of PTSD. However commonly overlooked causes include surgery, the sudden death of someone close, the breakup up of significant relationships or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience.
What is often very much overlooked is PTSD following childbirth and very little research exists in support of it.
What are the common causes of birth trauma/PTSD?
The common causes of PTSD are:
· A situation leading to fear of maternal death.
· Fear of the baby dying.
· A long and difficult labour.
· A short intense labour.
· Loss of volition – an act of making a choice or decision.
· Feeling of having lost control of their birth.
· Feeling humiliated.
· Lack of privacy or dignity.
· Pain is dismissed.
· Lack of information and feelings of not knowing what is happening to you.
· Inadequate labour and delivery care.
· Staff incompetence.
· Staff indifference.
· Inappropriate staff comments.
· Neglect – being left on their own.
· Lack of continuity of care.
· When a woman feels invisible/unheard.
· When an emergency situation arises suddenly.
· High levels of medical intervention.
· Non-consensual intervention.
· If you feel trapped and unable to escape from the situation.
· Birth of a sick or damaged baby.
· Previous trauma (miscarriage, multiple failed IVF treatments, previous sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, previous bad birth experience, previous bad experience in a hospital). NB a woman is also at risk if she has witnessed the listed traumas happening to family members/friends, television etc.
· Poor postnatal care.
Who gets birth trauma?
Does everyone who suffers the same or similar traumatic birth experience, go on to suffer from Birth Trauma/PTSD.
The answer is no.
If 100 hundred people went through the same traumatic birth 80% of them would recover and process the trauma naturally.
Roughly 20% would need psychological intervention/treatment to recover from the traumatic event and help with the debilitating symptoms.
What influences our potential to be traumatised
We know that certain birth experiences are so horrific that any normal person would be traumatised. E.g. a stillbirth.
Generally speaking, If you have no means of escaping the terrifying experience, it is especially likely to be imprinted in your mind as a traumatic event.
PTSD can be cumulative. Therefore, the more previously traumatic situations that someone has found themselves in, the more likely they will at some point succumb to PTSD.
For example, a woman who suffered years of sexual abuse as a child is more likely to be traumatised by a traumatic birth experience. Even a normal birth experience could trigger a traumatic birth if the abuse has not been worked through to some sort of resolution.
How imaginative we are also playing a part. It is very normal after a traumatic birth to talk it through with your family and friends to make sense of the situation.
However, if a mother has a particularly creative mind and a very powerful imagination whereby she is able to visualise events clearly and easily, then she may relive and engage heavily in the details of the traumatic experience as she tells it to other people. She is, in effect, traumatising herself all over again.
This also means that being asked to relive a traumatic experience as part of a de-briefing session with the hospital, can inadvertently make highly imaginative women relive the event, adding and an extra layer of trauma.
Is it only horrific birth experiences that cause trauma?
It might be assumed that only the really horrific births cause birth trauma. This is not the case. Sometimes during an undramatic birth event, women can leave the situation feeling traumatised because of many factors including a lack of volition, loss of control, loss of dignity, feelings of being invisible and not listened to and the absence of consent for medical intervention. All these situations can lead to trauma.
I remember treating a woman for birth trauma, whose birth was documented as a normal birth with no complications. However, following our meeting and discussion, I learned that because it was a straight forward birth, every time she asked for assistance, and for a midwife to come and see her, she was told they would come soon but were tied up with another woman who was having a difficult time. This kept happening. Whilst the mother was left by herself to get on with the labour, she imagined that she and the baby would die if she didn’t receive support. She spent several hours imagining that she would die in childbirth if a midwife did not come and see her before she gave birth to her baby. Because of the intense fear of her own and baby’s death, due to the lack of care and attention, she left the experience traumatised.
The experience of birth trauma is, therefore, unique to the individual woman and her experience or perception of her birth experience, and not merely the objective view such as the style of delivery.