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What is Post-natal PTSD, and how do you treat it?

If you’ve experienced trauma during your childbirth, please know that you are not alone.

Research shows that birth trauma is far more common than thought, and around 4-5% of mothers go on to develop post-natal PTSD.

The Birth Trauma Association says that around 30,000 women in the UK experience post-natal PTSD every year, and the condition is incredibly debilitating.

However, with the right professional support, you can start your healing journey.

What we’ll be deep diving into:

  • What are the causes of birth trauma?
  • What is post-natal PTSD?
  • The symptoms of post-natal PTSD
  • The impact of birth trauma on others
  • How to treat post-natal PTSD

What are the causes of birth trauma?

There are many reasons why you may feel traumatised by your birth experience.

Many of us have expectations, wishes or plans for how our babies enter the world, but if things change, it can be deeply distressing.

Here are some scenarios that could trigger trauma:

  • An unplanned c-section
  • Emergency medical intervention
  • Labour was long and extremely painful
  • The life of your baby was in danger
  • Your life was in danger
  • The care from your medical team was inadequate
  • Decisions about your body during childbirth taken by others
  • Loss of agency during labour

Each person is unique, and so is their trauma, so validating those feelings and working to process them is vitally important.

But how do you know if what you are going through is actually post-natal PTSD?

What is post-natal PTSD?

The first few weeks after childbirth are challenging and emotional.

If you have suffered a trauma, the brain processes it in a different way than other memories, which usually get filed in the hippocampus.

With birth trauma, instead of the labour and delivery memories being sent to the hippocampus, the body’s fight or flight response kicks in.

Amygdala switches on to deal with the threat, affecting the ability to recall the memories or the memories become vivid and relentlessly replay.

The National Childbirth Trust advises that if you continue to feel traumatised with debilitating symptoms four weeks after giving birth, you should reach out for professional help.

You may be living with post-natal PTSD.

What are the symptoms of post-natal PTSD?

Mental health charity Mind has a comprehensive guide to post-natal PTSD symptoms.

Here’s a brief overview of what they detail:

Re-living aspects of trauma – this can come in flashbacks, nightmares or vivid and intrusive thoughts.

Alertness or feeling on edge – it can manifest in hypervigilance, irritability, lack of concentration, panic and other anxiety symptoms.

Avoiding feelings or memories – you may actively avoid any situation or location that reminds you of the trauma, deliberately keep yourself busy or numb pain with alcohol or drugs.

Difficult beliefs and feelings – isolating thoughts that people don’t understand you, you aren’t safe, guilt over what happened, and other negative feelings.

Living with the symptoms of Post-natal PTSD

When you are dealing with some or all of these symptoms, life can feel incredibly difficult.

Some people don’t develop this form of PTSD until weeks or months after birth, although the most common experience is in those initial first few weeks post-delivery.

The mental impact can be devastating, and some symptoms cause physical discomfort too.

Then there’s the impact on your relationship with your baby, your partner and your loved ones.

Reaching out for help and talking to your support network is vital because nobody should go through post-natal PTSD alone.

Your relationship with your baby

When parents go through post-natal PTSD, it can affect their bond with their child.

The baby themselves could trigger memories of birth trauma, so some parents will either emotionally detach from their child or become overly protective.

Often birth trauma can occur when the child has to be whisked away for lifesaving treatment, leaving the parents terrified for their safety.

The charity PTSD UK notes that unhelpful attitudes from others that having a healthy baby should erase birth trauma invalidates these difficult feelings and leads to guilt and shame.

Birth trauma and relationships

Post-natal PTSD and birth trauma can also be experienced by the partner.

When your loved one gives birth, you may feel powerless to help them, fear for their life and be forced to make decisions about their body unilaterally.

According to The Birth Trauma Association, these scenarios and others can lead to post-natal PTSD diagnosis for partners who need to seek help too.

Post-natal PTSD can have long-term ramifications for the family dynamic and impact the long-term relationships between partners and parents with their children.

What should I do if I think I may have post-natal PTSD?

Please don’t sit with this trauma and suffer debilitating symptoms alone – talk to someone.

The first step might be a conversation with somebody in your support network, but soon after, you need to speak to a trained professional.

You may choose to go to your GP for a referral to a counsellor or pay for sessions with a private therapist straight away.

Remember you can speak to your midwife, health visitor or any other member of your medical team to begin the process of getting help.

Will medication help?

Some of the symptoms of post-natal PTSD – such as anxiety and depression – can be managed with medication.

GPs may prescribe anti-depressants or other medications to help manage symptoms, but they may not address the root of the distress.

It’s vital to seek psychological treatment to help you on the healing journey, even if you take medication to relieve symptoms in the short term.

Talking therapy for post-natal PTSD

When you go into therapy to help treat post-natal PTSD, try to find a professional with experience of working with new parents.

Ideally, you’d want to find a therapist who has helped patients navigate birth trauma, maternal and paternal mental health challenges and who practices person-centred care.

Some more generic talking therapies can offer some help in the short term, but person-centred care treats the individual.

What is person-centred talking therapy?

Psychotherapist Chloe Pollock explains that person-centred therapy offers a more holistic approach than alternatives such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Chloe says: “A person-centred trauma-informed therapist can support you to explore and process your personal experience, providing a space to come to terms with what happened and how it is shaping the here and now.

“You are able to unpack your individual experience and address the trauma that happened inside you as a result of your lived experience, in a holistic and in-depth way.

“In doing so, you can begin the healing process with a therapist to guide you through your birth experience and specifically how you were traumatised.”

Speak to your midwife, health visitor or any other member of your medical team to begin the process of getting help.

Treating post-natal PTSD with EMDR

Another option for treatment is eye movement desensitisation (EMDR).

Mental health experts Mind explains that this technique is used to help you process the traumatic event.

They say: “In this treatment, a therapist guides you to make rhythmic eye movements while recalling the traumatic event.

“The eye movements are designed to stimulate the information-processing system in the brain.

“The aim of the treatment is to help you process the traumatic events and speed up re-adjustment and recovery.”

Other tools for post-natal PTSD recovery

According to the NCT, most NHS trusts offer a birth reflection service.

This is a session where you can go through your birth notes with a midwife or maternity support worker.

During this time, you can ask questions about why certain decisions were made, investigate exactly what happened and why, plus query anything you are unclear about.

By taking this time to reflect, you can better understand your childbirth and begin to process what happened.

Community groups

Take the opportunity to be with other new parents at your local baby groups.

There are likely to be peer support groups offering a safe space for people dealing with birth trauma, post-natal PTSD and post-natal depression.

Talking to other new parents who are facing their own challenges may help you feel less alone and give you a place to discuss what you are going through.

Ask your health visitor, GP or midwife to recommend suitable groups in your local area.

Taking care of your wellbeing

When you are low or struggling with mental health issues, you may neglect your self-care.

However, by following the NHS’s five steps to mental wellbeing, you can make positive and proactive steps forward.

Getting the basics in place can help your physical and mental health so you have a positive foundation from which to rebuild.

Do not underestimate the importance of connection in these difficult days. Allow the people who love and support you to be there for you.

You can recover from post-natal PTSD

It may feel like you are in a nightmare right now with no respite.

This is the time when you expected to be in a lovely baby bubble and enjoying your newborn, but birth trauma has had a devastating impact.

However, with support from your loved ones and professionals, you can come through this time and process what happened to you.

Doing the work might not be easy, but it’ll help you heal and move towards a brighter future.

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