Short on time? Then the key things to know are:
- Birth trauma impacts up to 34% of women and can affect the mother and their support network
- You don’t need to be diagnosed with birth trauma - if the experience was traumatic to you than no one can say otherwise
- Common signs of birth trauma include negative thoughts and mood, re-experiencing the birth, avoidance of triggers and changes to your natural reactions
- There are many ways that can help you to cope with birth trauma including self-help techniques and trauma focused therapy
Birth trauma can be a very difficult experience to navigate. It can affect both the person who gave birth and those supporting the mother. It can be something that many people find very difficult to talk about as trauma often is. It can feel isolating and triggering to try and navigate its effects, but you are not alone.
Birth trauma affects about a third of women with 4% going on to develop a formal diagnosis of Postnatal PTSD. When you think about the number of women giving birth, this is a huge number of people who are impacted.
It is important to validate your experience of trauma and gain support from others who also validate and support you. Birth trauma is completely subjective, and if it was traumatic to you then it was traumatic. This is not for anyone to argue. You don't need to meet any diagnostic criteria to be deserving of help.
What is birth trauma?
Not everyone will experience all symptoms, but this can help you recognise whether you might have been traumatised. If you want to pursue a diagnosis, this can be offered by a psychiatrist who is a medical doctor specialising in mental health conditions.
Common symptoms of birth trauma include:
- Re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, images of traumatic event)
- Avoidance of trauma related triggers
- Changes in physiological arousal, or reactions (either hyperarousal e.g. hypervigilance, feeling on edge, insomnia or Hypoarousal e.g. feeling emotionally numb, dissociated and shut down)
- Negative changes to thoughts and mood e.g. low mood, feelings of shame etc.
What causes birth trauma?
Some of the reasons birth trauma might occur are captured by a number of themes:
- For some it is that the birth was interpersonal in nature. This may include feeling there was a lack of clear communication from staff about the birth process or not being fully informed, lacking compassionate and empathic care from the staff that looked after them during their birth experiences or feeling coerced and invalidated.
- For others it is when unexpected and unpredicted medical emergencies occur that include either mum or baby, whereby a real or perceived threat is experienced by the woman giving birth.
- For others it is about feeling a loss of control, power and autonomy over their birth experience.
These factors of course mean different things to different people and can manifest in a number of ways. Pregnancy can also be the onset of what culminates in a traumatic birth depending on the person's history, for example, having had a previous pregnancy trauma.
It is also important to note that giving birth in a pandemic has added another layer of trauma and complexity for many mums and their families and even though the pandemic is "over '' it is completely natural to still be feeling the traumatic effects it may have had on your birth.
Sometimes, birth trauma can be misdiagnosed as postnatal depression. Up to 75% of mums who experience birth trauma also experience co-occurring depression. It is important to reach out to trained perinatal mental health specialists who can identify and help support you through what you have been through.
Coping with birth trauma
Finding ways to cope with birth trauma will of course differ to the individual. Here are a few things that can start you on your journey towards recovery and healing.
1. Identifying your triggers
It is perfectly normal to want to avoid triggers that remind you of your birth or even want to acknowledge what those might be.
But knowing what these are will help guide how you can begin to cope with them, or how to find the right type of support that will be most beneficial in helping you manage triggers.
2. Focus on creating a sense of safety and stability for yourself
What are some of the coping strategies that you have used in the past that have helped you navigate difficult times? Often these can help us achieve a sense of safety and stability in really difficult times.
This can be about establishing a daily routine, surrounding yourself with supportive and emotionally safe people, engaging in activities that soothe you both emotionally and physiologically.
Trauma is often felt both in the mind and body and you can be left with several physical symptoms of anxiety and discomfort with being in your own body/skin. Engaging in things that give you a sense of achievement, connection to others and enjoyment can also be a good tool in helping you feel you can begin to reclaim your life and sense of self again.
Mindfulness practices, safe place visualisations and restorative body practices such as breathwork or Pilates can also help to calm your nervous system post birth trauma.
3. Reacquaint yourself with your values
What is important to you? What makes life meaningful and enhances your quality of life? Try and connect to these values as this can be a healing balm to your mind, body and soul. This will not necessarily rid you of any trauma symptoms, but it can make it easier to bear.
4. Cultivate self-compassion practices
When we have experienced a trauma is when we need compassion the most, especially if a lack of compassionate care has contributed to you having a traumatic birth.
Sometimes it can be too much to ask to think or even feel compassion towards ourselves, but you can still choose to engage in what is called compassionate action. This is about making compassionate choices which will improve your day or emotional state for the better even if this doesn't yet feel like a position you can mentally fully occupy.
5. Seek trauma focused therapy if you feel ready
Often it can be a while before you may feel ready to talk and open up after experiencing birth trauma. Respect your pace with this but know that help is out there.
Trauma focused CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy) can be really helpful in helping you process traumatic events and move past a place of being ‘stuck’ in the trauma. There is lots of evidence that confirms the effectiveness of such psychological approaches.
You can receive birth trauma therapy through [NHS maternal mental health services] (https://www.england.nhs.uk/mental-health/perinatal/maternal-mental-health-services/) via a referral from your GP, midwife, health visitor or here at Naytal with one of our specialists who provide postnatal support from the comfort of your home.
6. Find your tribe
You can also seek a birth debrief or research birth trauma support groups online or in your local area depending on where you live.
Know that you are not alone, and many people do recover and go on to enjoy the rest of their postnatal journey and family life.
Looking for support with your post-birth experience? Book a consultation with our specialist therapists who provide pregnancy and postnatal counselling online at a time that suits you.
Dr Orinayo, Naytal Lead Psychologist
Dr Orinayo is a psychologist who has worked across the NHS, charities, schools and in private practice. She has a special interest in working with women experiencing emotional difficulties during the perinatal period.