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Coping With Birth Trauma
Birth trauma is more common than many people realize, with up to 45% of new mothers reporting experiencing it. However, it remains a topic often unspoken, leading to feelings of isolation and difficulty in coping with the aftermath.
Every pregnant person has an idea of how they would like their birth to go. So it can be extremely unsettling when it doesn’t go to plan. It’s hard to cope when something that is supposed to be so joyous causes such distress.
We hope this article can bring clarity to the subject while also providing some support in knowing you are not alone.
What is trauma?
Trauma is a distressing or disturbing experience that ultimately affects our ability to cope adequately. Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes; it is not a one size fits all issue. The misconception that trauma has to be an utterly brutal near-death experience is not always the truth – as everyone is different and our perceptions and coping abilities vary between differing live events.
According to Psychology Today, ‘traumatic events tend to be sudden, unpredictable, and feel beyond a person’s control.’ So, when it comes to birth trauma, more often than not, there are feelings of having little control or say in how things went.
As a perinatal mental health expert, oftentimes there’s an ‘off’ feeling with birth trauma – feeling anxious, on-edge, easily irritated, or just simply fatigued. Trauma lives in our bodies and it will exacerbate itself in a number of ways. Motherhood is hard enough, adding birth trauma to that can be exhaustive in every sense of the word. Dealing with trauma can be scary and upsetting – but there are ways to treat symptoms, learn to cope, and ultimately heal.
Examples of what birth trauma may look like:
- Physical and/or medical complications with pregnancy and/or birth
- Medical complications with newborn or newborn born prematurely
- Assisted delivery (medications, forceps, emergency c-section)
- Birth plan did not go as anticipated
- Feeling unheard, helpless, or unsafe during your birthing experience
- Added stressors (ie: Covid, childcare issues with other children, no birthing partner, etc)
- Stillbirth or neonatal death
- Previous birth trauma
These are just a few examples. Ultimately, if you are feeling unable to cope after you give birth, birth trauma may be something you are experiencing.
After we give birth there are lots of fluctuating hormones. So, how can we differentiate birth trauma from baby blues, postpartum depression, or just normal recovery? Here are some of the symptoms of birth trauma that you can look out for:
- Vivid flashbacks and nightmares (normally about birth)
- Physical symptoms: shaking, sweating, nausea
- Inability to talk about your birthing experience without becoming anxious, upset, angry, or overwhelmed
- Difficulty sleeping
- Avoidance (emotionally numb, blocking out the trauma, feeling detached from your body, etc)
- Feeling like no one understands or would believe you
- Blaming yourself
- Feelings of shame and/or guilt
Sometimes it can be very difficult to identify. At first, it is common to blame symptoms on lack of help or sleep deprivation. But, if what you are experiencing is, in fact, birth trauma, it’s important to seek help.
What is a trigger?
Unfortunately, trauma does not go away on its own. It will reappear through different triggers that will continue to cause distress. A trigger could be a person, place, scent, a particular song – it is something from the time of your trauma that brings you back to it, causing you to feel overwhelmed or flooded. For some women, the scent of their newborn is a trigger to their traumatic birth.
How do we heal from birth trauma?
The first step is being able to label your birth as traumatic. By being able to accept that your birth experience was traumatic, you are allowing yourself to be open to healing. There are many ways we can heal from our birth trauma. Some people can adopt certain coping mechanisms while others seek out professional support. Ultimately – by learning to cope, heal, and process what happened, you will be able to find the root of the trauma. Once you begin to understand your experience more, telling your story and speaking your truth will help reinforce your ability to be the resilient strong mama you are.
Some ways we can heal from birth trauma:
Support in all forms. Support yourself by not blaming or judging yourself – you did not cause this or do this to yourself. Seek out support from a friend, partner, family member, and/or community member.
When seeking outside support make sure it’s from someone you trust and feel you can be honest with. If seeking out professional support surrounding birth trauma, look for someone who specializes in trauma or perinatal mental health. Support may also look like taking medications to manage distressing symptoms. This is something you can discuss further with your doctor or mental health professional.
2. Learning Triggers
It’s important to identify triggers so we can implement coping strategies when/if it comes up. When you are feeling triggered, some ways you can cope are – breathing/relaxation techniques, keep a log/journal for when you are feeling triggered (journal writing can also help identify patterns in your triggers like a certain time of a day or a specific place), and call someone you trust when feeling triggered. If you have identified a trigger – plan ahead! If you know seeing a specific provider will be triggering, ask to see a different provider or bring along a support person to your appointment. There are a ton of ways we can cope with triggers; don’t get discouraged! Everyone has different coping strategies that fit their personalities and experiences. It may take time to find a strategy that works for you.
3. Relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques can be extremely helpful when dealing with trauma. They help ground us when trauma and triggers make it difficult to remain in the present. Some relaxation techniques are:
- deep breathing
- guided meditations
- listening to calming music
- using a diffuser with calming scents (lavender or lemongrass)
- practicing gratitude
- taking a hot shower or warm bath
- getting out in nature (going for a walk and/or sitting in the park)
It’s important to try to de-escalate ourselves emotionally and mentally because after experiencing trauma, we tend to be overstimulated. Finding a technique that works for you may take some trial and error. Start small and try to find one that works best for you.
Own your story. Own your truth.
Trauma can be silencing. Birth trauma can be deafening. We are often taught to just ‘deal’ or ‘push through,’ but when experiencing trauma – that can become impossible. No one deserves to suffer and constantly relive and struggle with trauma. As mothers, we want to be our best selves for our children, and owning our stories – traumatic or not – is a part of that. There are so many avenues where you can do this; some we discussed above. Owning your truth doesn’t always mean you need to scream it from the mountain tops (but that’s okay too – catharsis). Sometimes just writing your story out with pen and paper or telling someone you trust about your experience can help. The more you can let go of any shame, guilt, and blame the more you can build up your ability to cope and heal. It’s important to also make note that everyone’s birth story and/or experience is unique to them. Don’t let someone else’s experience hinder what you are feeling.
So, when you catch yourself saying “Well Jane had it worse than I did” or “I need to just get over it, it’s been 2 years” – stop yourself right there. Everyone’s perception and experience of birth trauma is different and that does not take away from what you may have felt or experienced. Also, let’s give ourselves some grace. There is so much about fertility/infertility, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum that can be traumatic. Experiencing birth trauma and continuing to navigate motherhood is no easy feat. Just by reading this article, maybe (hopefully) something resonated with you.
And that’s the first step. Just becoming aware.
As a clinical social worker who specializes in perinatal mental health and a mother myself, I understand how tricky birth trauma can be. Sometimes we find ourselves questioning ‘Can I do this?’ or telling ourselves that we’re not good moms because we yelled or had a bad day. But the fact that you are questioning or worrying – makes you a good mom.
We want to be the absolute best for our children so that our children can also be their absolute best. And in order to be the best moms, we have to allow ourselves the space to heal. Unfortunately, even after all the healing in the world, we will still have bad days. Don’t forget that you are doing an amazing job!
Lastly, I want to encourage any mama’s out there who are struggling to seek out professional help. Remember how strong you are and how far you’ve come – you’ve gotten yourself this far and it will get better.
The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress.