Birth Trauma- Is It Real?

(Side note: You can read more about me and my therapy work with trauma here.)
Update: You can listen to my podcast interview on birth trauma here.
You can join a free Facebook support group for birth trauma here.

Early in my career, I became a mom. This meant, by whatever mysterious law governs these things, I began attracting other new moms to my practice. I felt honored to be trusted at such a sacred season of life.

And a funny thing happens when you listen to people, really listen. They start to tell you the things they don't usually say to others. They start to open up their stories and experiences as they trust your care.

And I began to notice something. At first I thought it was a coincidence.

But over time, the pattern held. And my curiosity got involved. Now it has been years. And the pattern still holds. And so I am beyond curious. I am on fire about it.

This pattern? Women with medically "normal" deliveries were ending up in my office with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from their birth experiences. WHAT?

Some of them met all the diagnostic criteria. But a larger portion had just enough PTSD symptoms that they were affecting their life. Their sleep, their relationships, their anxiety, their bonding with their infant... were all being affected.

Now I need to pause here and explain. We are taught in school that PTSD only happens after a specific series of experiences. Namely, that the experience in question has to feel life-threatening. Otherwise, it's not PTSD. At least, this is what we are taught. (Thankfully this is slowly changing.)

So my mind wasn't primed to believe this was possible in any more than a few women. Sure, if a woman had a dangerous death-defying birth experience then PTSD would make sense. But this large group of women who didn't fear for their lives or their baby's? How could this be? What in the hell is happening here?

No lie, I used my professional access to ask this question of the foremost trauma experts in the field. And I got... nowhere. Blank stares and confusion at the question mostly.

So (a post for another day) I have dedicated a great deal of my professional life understanding this phenomenon. I trained as a doula (birth attendant) and I am currently researching this topic. We are only just beginning to acknowledge this trend exists as a profession. I know very few fellow clinicians who are aware of this and working on it. But don't worry, we are. I have heard you. I carry you in my heart. You are seen.

For those of you who found your way here because you think you might be suffering symptoms of Birth Trauma, here's what I want you to know.

- You can love your baby and be grateful for your baby's health and still have birth trauma. People who suggest "just be thankful for a healthy baby" don't get it. They mean well but they are shaming you. Do not listen to them. What you feel matters.

- You can have a medically normal birth and still have PTSD symptoms. In fact, most women suffering with birth trauma had medically normal births.

- You are not alone. In fact, research suggests more than 30% of women have trauma after their birth. And no, they are not okay either.

- There is hope. There are many therapies that work quickly and effectively on birth trauma. These include EMDR or Brainspotting (I offer these, click for the link). My research tells me that other treatment which might be helpful would include narrative-based therapies and other body-based therapies.

So what are some signs of Birth Trauma? Well, that's a trickier question than you would think. As of yet, we have no diagnostic criteria that we agree on as a profession. So I will just offer what I observe based on my experience and reading. If you have any of the following, you might have birth trauma.

1. Intrusion: This can be flashbacks, dreams or intrusive memories. For many of my moms, it is the sense that their birth memories (once triggered) plays through in their brain whether they want it to or not. They find it distracting, distressing or in some way unpleasant. At the same time, it happens more often than they want.

2. Mood and Beliefs: This can vary greatly by person. But generally there is some mood or belief consequence to what you're experiencing. It might include- anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, numbness, or emotional disconnection. It is an all-encompassing category that means these symptoms are having a negative effect on your life, whether internally or in relationships.

3. Avoidance: This one I find is less frequent. Some moms find they avoid things that trigger the upsetting part of their birth experience. In some cases this means they might even avoid their baby at times. I personally have found that this is variable. Some women experience it and others do not.

4. Arousal: This is a state of heightened emotions or attention. It can look like anxiety, an exaggerated startle response, or irritability. In new moms it can look like intense fear of germs, or other people holding baby, or a compulsion to watch baby while sleeping. It is as if (while part of you is so tired!) the other part of your brain is on high alert; ready for any possible danger whether real or imagined.

If you, or someone you love, recognizes their experiences in this list- please know you are not alone. Please know there is help for you. Please find a therapist who is experienced with trauma treatment. And find someone who will treat this seriously regardless of what the manuals say. One who will treat you as an individual. One who will believe you and your story. It can make all the difference.

And please know, that you have an ally. We are a small group but we are growing. We are listening. Birth trauma is real and women and babies deserve better.

Wishing you healing for your journey,

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