Birth trauma can happen to up to 30,000 women in the UK a year. That is a lot of birthing people who have experienced their birth in a way anything other than the joyful, exciting event they may have imagined.
During labour and birth, if a birthing person feels emotionally or physically unsafe, they are more like to go on and experience birth trauma. An example of feeling emotionally unsafe is not feeling listened to or having their needs and preferences taken into consideration. For others, it may be the words that healthcare professionals use or the tone of voice that is received in a way that sticks with the person giving birth. Pre-existing mental health issues (like OCD and health anxiety) may cause certain things to be more triggering for them too.
These types of emotionally unsafe experiences can be easily over-looked as traumatic and therefore hard for someone to understand why they are struggling afterwards.
In terms of physical safety, examples may be things like having a physical birth injury, or having their baby taken to Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU). These situations can leave birthing people, and their birth partners/staff looking after them, feeling traumatised and unable to really come to terms with what has happened.
The impact of this on you
Trauma impacts your brain in the following ways; when your brain interprets a threat in your environment, it sends messages to the body to help you try and say as safe as possible. While this is going on, other parts of the brain that focus on helping you to process and come to terms with the current situation, don’t work in the same way. The consequence of this is our experience of the event remains unprocessed, and the brain can act in the same way as if the trauma was happening again, by being triggered by a smell, or any other reminders of the birth.
When a birthing person (or anyone present in the birthing room) is left traumatised after the birth of a baby, they can experience intrusive memories of the birth, bad dreams about the birth or certain aspects of it and can be urged to avoid thinking about or feeling as they did at the time. These symptoms, alongside looking after a new-born can be extremely tough, and emotional support is often required to help overcome the distressing memories and feelings.
How to cope with this
The main thing to remember is that your reaction to the birth is a normal reaction to a stressful life event, and your brain was doing exactly what it needed to at the time. It’s not your fault, you can’t just get over it, you are likely to need some support by a therapist who is both trained at and experienced in helping people come to terms with their unfortunate experiences.
If you feel you have experienced a traumatic birth, please get in touch with your local talking therapies service. Most IAPT services allow you to refer yourself to them and they will offer you an assessment to talk more about your birth and how it has affected you and your life. You can also access support from The Birth Trauma Association website. The site offers lots of information and has a list of therapists that are highly trained and skilled in helping people overcome birth trauma.
Written by Laura Hans
Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist (Perinatal) and EMDR Therapist