Traumatic Childbirth

Each childbirth is a unique experience. The experience can range from ecstatic to traumatic, or anything in between. While you can envision in advance how you want it to be, or plan and prepare as much as possible, the actual outcome is always an unknown.

Unfortunately, for about nine percent of women in the Netherlands the outcome is trauma. Recent research from the University of Groningen shows that of these nine percent of women who experience trauma during childbirth, about 2000 women end up developing full-on childbirth related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These figures can be quite surprising, since childbirth related trauma is not commonly known of or talked about.

One of the reasons childbirth trauma is so unknown is that it is often misdiagnosed as postpartum depression. Another reason is that in our society, childbirth is mostly seen as something painful but with a great reward. As long as you have a healthy child, you should have nothing to complain about. You should be grateful and happy. No wonder that many women with a traumatic birth experience feel unable to speak about it. They feel ashamed for feeling the way they do, afraid that something is wrong with them, and guilty towards their child(ren).

Symptoms of childbirth related trauma
Some of the symptoms women experience include intrusive thoughts, such as nightmares and flashbacks. “I often had nightmares about the birth and woke up feeling scared,” says Anna. “And I hardly even remember the first year of my baby’s life. I felt so numb after he was born.” This sense of amnesia is another indication that the experience was traumatic. Moreover, women who have experienced childbirth trauma usually do not want to talk about the birth, knowing that all their feelings will come rushing back to them. Nor do they want to hear anyone else’s birth story. Also, the thought of having another child, giving birth again, is too overwhelming and frightening, so this idea is put off or completely abandoned.

Do you recognize any of these symptoms? Does the thought of your birth bring on the same feelings that you had when it actually happened? Do these feelings have the same intensity as if the birth were actually happening right now? Are you even capable of revisiting the events in your mind? Would you describe the events as traumatic? You are not alone.

What is trauma?
Trauma is a big word which you might want to avoid when describing your birthing process. Intellectually, you might think your birth was fine, or not very eventful. But at the same time, something did happen that hurt you and you can’t seem to get rid of it. The birth could have been really fast, or very slow, or medically uneventful. But in case of trauma, a moment occurred where there was a sense of complete loss of control, fear or helplessness. Often, you can pinpoint the exact moment and pause it as if it were a movie. It could have been that your or your baby’s life seemed to be in danger and you found yourself in an emergency situation, or that one of the care providers said something hurtful, or you experienced a pain that you thought would kill you, or you felt so helplessly alone and uncared for.

Whatever it was, the psychological distress you experienced was so intense at that moment, that your brain was not able to process it. Therefore, the feelings remain raw and vulnerable to being activated by anything that reminds you of the birth.

What is so important to know is that traumatic childbirth can happen to anyone. Experiencing something as a trauma is not a choice. You are not doing this on purpose, nor are you weak for feeling stuck in it. You were wounded and you did not choose the depth of your wound.

What now?
You might have been able to push your painful thoughts and feelings aside, but that has probably left you feeling numb and unable to enjoy life fully. Or perhaps you’re pregnant again and you realize you need to face the trauma. What’s the next step?

The first step is to express yourself. Write down the story of your child’s birth. Read it out loud to yourself. Read it to someone you trust. Try to find out if you know anyone else with a similar experience, so you can share it with each other. This process can bring a huge sense of relief and support.

If you feel incapable of taking that step, or if you did and it doesn’t help, you might benefit from EMDR treatment. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and is a therapy designed to process the raw feelings associated with your trauma, thereby desensitizing them. The memory of the experience is kept, but the fear and other negative feelings and associations that went with the experience go away.

Another possibility is to do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This therapy will focus on the thoughts and beliefs that you had in the moment of the trauma. Did you think you had no control and were powerless? The result will be that you felt (and still feel) very scared and vulnerable. CBT can help by challenging the thoughts and beliefs that allow you to feel those overwhelming negative emotions.

If these therapies don’t appeal to you, talk to your family doctor or midwife, or another birth worker such as a doula or postpartum massage therapist to find out if they can recommend an alternative therapy that does fit your needs.
Even though you may think so, you are far from being alone in this experience. And, there are ways to move beyond the trauma. This requires reaching out and talking, which can be frightening, but it is better than carrying the trauma with you throughout your life.