Birth Trauma

Following a traumatic birth, mothers may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath. Sometimes partners who witnessed the birth may also experience symptoms on PTSD. Common reaction following a traumatic birth include are listed below and may include some or all of the following:

  • Re-living aspects of the birth through intrusive memories, vivid flashbacks and nightmares.

  • Experiencing intense distress, anxiety and/or panic when reminded of the birth.  Body sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling.

  • Extreme alertness or feeling on edge.

  • Feelings of anger and irritability.

  • Strong feelings of guilt or shame.

  • Feeling low in mood.

  • Avoiding situations that remind you of the birth such as attending a hospital appointment.

  • Making efforts not to think about or talk about the birth.

  • Being unable to express loving feelings.

  • Feeling detached, cut-off and emotionally numb.

  • Fear of giving birth in the future.

Why do I feel this way after giving birth?

Instead of being a joyful experience, the experience of birth was frightening for you. Perhaps you had an emergency caesarean or you and your baby suffered injuries as a result of the birth. It could be that you felt you weren’t listened to or told what would happen or taken care of. You may have felt scared that you or the baby were going to die. Sometimes partners may also experience PTSD symptoms after witnessing a traumatic birth.

Most of the time our brains routinely manage new information without us being aware of it. Normal memories are stored by a part of the brain called the hippocampus. You can think of the hippocampus as similar to a librarian who processes events and stores them in the right place. 

When something traumatic or threatening happens, the threat system in the brain and body is automatically triggered to help you survive. When this happens, the hippocampus is temporarily offline so it does not do its job properly. As a result, memories are stored in their raw form and remain unprocessed in the mind. Trauma memories tend to be fragmented, vivid, sensory and have a nowness to them.

 

Because they are unprocessed, trauma memories are easily triggered by reminders of the trauma leading them to replay and cause distress over and again. Sometimes the actual memory is long forgotten, but painful feelings of anxiety, panic, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present which can feel frightening and confusing. 

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