Healing From Birth Trauma

Commonly, trauma is defined as the emotional and physiological response to an actual or perceived threat. The threat can be something a person witnesses or experiences directly or indirectly. Many people who experience a traumatic event have difficulty forgetting the event; others have a vague recollection of the event, but do not readily access the details. Each of these responses is normative and related to the brain’s attempt to protect the person from further psychological harm, otherwise known as fight, flight or freeze.

Pregnancy and birth trauma include any situation that occurs from conception through birth. These traumatic events can include pregnancy loss, terminated pregnancy, complications with epidurals, and unplanned or emergency C-sections to name a few. Birth trauma can also include medical complications including hemorrhaging, severe perineal tears, placental abruption, medical issues impacting the baby that may result in them being in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and other situations that may threaten the life of the birther or baby. In addition to events that occur during pregnancy or birth, some mothers and birthers may also be in relationships in which there is violence or abuse further contributing to the experience of trauma. For Black birthers, traumatic events may be complicated by our experiences with racism and other -isms that impact our communities.

I think most of us can see how the aforementioned events would be traumatic. What is less understood is how trauma shows up in our day-to-day lives and in our bodies. Some people with birth trauma who experience panic symptoms in situations that were previously benign or not upsetting do not understand that the momentary feelings of being out of control, dizzy, lightheaded, short of breath, and/or rapid heart rate is the body’s physiological response to a perceived threat; it passes with time but can be scary and intense in the moment.

Some people have flashbacks, the perception that they are back in the midst of the traumatic event. Flashbacks are confusing and upsetting, and trigger anxiety or panic. They can occur while doing things a person has done multiple times without difficulty, prior to the traumatic event. Many people who have flashbacks do not understand the connection between these experiences and what is happening in the body and brain. They may worry what others might say if they knew they were having these experiences.

There are many other ways that trauma shows up in the daily lives of people who experience birth trauma. Below are additional symptoms and behaviors that could occur:

  • Feeling more uneasy or on-edge in situations that are generally not stressful (but are now due to the trauma). These situations may include being in crowded spaces, being separated from baby, or returning to hospitals or medical buildings.
  • Wanting to avoid situations that remind us of our trauma (e.g., choosing not to be around people who are pregnant after a loss, reluctance to attend an appointment where there may be an invasive exam or labs drawn).
  • Distancing ourselves from people who may ask us if we are “okay.” Many people who have experienced trauma go to great lengths to appear “okay.” We want to give the appearance that we are not broken and want to believe that we are doing all right, even when there is evidence in our behavior that says otherwise. So, for some of us, the energy we expend to “look the part” even if we do not “feel the part” can be how our trauma shows up.
  • Engaging in more impulsive behaviors (e.g., doing things without thinking about the consequences or knowing that negative consequences are likely, but doing them anyway). These behaviors are often used to alleviate stress and intense emotions but may have the opposite effect. They may include things such as checking on baby excessively and to the point that it keeps us from other tasks (e.g., sleeping), researching symptoms on the internet, posting, or scrolling on social media without thinking through the implications of what we post or might see.
  • Being more irritable than normal, including yelling or becoming more easily frustrated with family, friends, partners, and children.
  • Disrupted sleep and/or night terrors.

This aforementioned list is not exhaustive. When trauma symptoms show up (and you recognize them for what they are), here are some things you can do to handle the things that may come up.

  • Do not ignore your feelings and the challenges you are having. Things can get better with the right support.
  • Remember, you do not have to walk through this alone. Talk to someone that you trust about your experience. This could include your spouse, partner, friend, clergy, or medical provider.
  • Access support groups and help lines that are available for pregnancy and infant loss. It can be helpful to connect with people who are going through similar experiences. See our Resources tab for more information.
  • Find a reproductive or perinatal mental health specialist, or a trauma therapist who will meet your specific needs.
  • Try to get adequate sleep.
  • If you are currently taking antidepressants or other mood stabilizing medications, continue to take them as prescribed, and talk with your provider if you believe your regimen needs to be adjusted.
  • Journal your thoughts and consider potential action steps.
  • Monitor your exposure to media, especially if current events are upsetting or increase feelings of anxiety.
  • Don’t forget to breathe. Taking slow, purposeful breaths inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth can help with managing feelings of anxiety in the moment.

Remember, you are not alone. There is support that can help you through this time. Take it one step at a time, one moment at a time.