No other human experience makes it necessary to handle the same emotional extremes that childbirth does. Coping with fear, pain and trauma have to coincide with joy, happiness and excitement. It is quite understandable that childbirth is often described as overwhelming. It takes weeks, months and sometimes years for women to sort through and process their emotions and memories of their experience.
Any person can be traumatized. Each of us has a threshold where we can cope with life’s difficulties without long term trauma symptoms. The more emotional and/or physical suffering people endure the more likely they are to surpass that threshold and develop symptoms consistent with trauma.
A person’s response to trauma depends on the level of trauma THEY experience and how many ways they were traumatized. It is important to remember that childbirth is often a series of traumatic experiences. As an example: extreme pain, loss of control and feeling violated and disrespected are three separate traumatizing experiences.
Trauma symptoms can include: nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, insomnia and sleep deprivation, inability to talk about the experience (denial), anger, an overwhelming need to talk about and understand what happened and why, inability to concentrate, hopelessness, powerlessness, inability to trust, fear, sadness, emotional detachment, crying, inability to enjoy activities that were once enjoyable, avoiding situations likely to trigger fear or anxiety or act as a reminder of childbirth, heightened awareness of social injustice, lack of interest in or fear of sex, low self confidence, panic and anxiety attacks, worry, grief, inability to bond with baby, feeling isolated, obsessive and compulsive behaviours, chest tightness, shortness of breath, headache, constant fatigue, feeling inadequate, withdrawal, feeling uncomfortable in social situations, restlessness, suicidal thoughts
If you have trauma symptoms you are not weak, crazy or abnormal. You are a normal human being. Being labelled as weak, abnormal or crazy – by anyone – is unacceptable. Being told to ‘get over it and be thankful you have a healthy baby’ is unacceptable. Women can be both traumatized and thankful they have a healthy baby. Being denied proper explanations for the treatment you received or being denied access to your medical records is unacceptable. Being told it’s the fault of your hormones is unacceptable. Not having your human rights and choices respected or being made to feel guilty about your choices is unacceptable. Being subjected to substandard medical care is unacceptable. Being stigmatized for requiring sleep aids, anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication during recovery is unacceptable. Sadly, these unacceptable situations occur far too frequently. BTCanada would like to elevate the level of obstetrical care women receive. Every pregnant woman has the right to be respected, appreciated and honoured by the medical profession and society in general.
Every woman needs to deal with the consequences of her negative childbirth experience in a way that works for her. She must control every aspect of her recovery. The idea is to get you back in control of your life, to feel safe in your environment and to combat the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation by getting as much sleep as possible. For those traumatized by the medical profession the idea of going to them for help is often unthinkable. These women prefer self-help suggestions. Some women want to talk to other mothers who have experienced similar situations or to another person they know and trust. Some choose to see a psychiatrist/psychologist/ therapist or a trusted family doctor. If you choose this route BTCanada strongly recommends seeing a specialist in trauma recovery that you are comfortable with. Some choose to confront the people responsible. It is important to remember that all these options are valid. Each woman is an individual and each woman must decide what works best for her – without coercion or guilt from outside parties.
SELF-HELP SUGGESTIONS ( These can be used during acute trauma phases and during recurring episodes of symptoms)
- Put your birth story on paper. Write it down as many times as you need. Tell us. Letting us know what happened is often therapeutic. We always respect your privacy. All of us have been traumatized by our birth experiences as well. BTCanada will also publish your story on our website if you choose and we always do this anonymously. You can write as little or as much as you choose. We do not judge and it is doubtful we will hear anything that we also haven’t felt or experienced.
- Use art, music or other forms of expression to address your emotions.
- If there are people or relationships that hinder your recovery or self-esteem end your relationship with them or alter your relationship with them so they no longer negatively impact you. Do not let anyone burden you with guilt, pressure, shame or a lack of understanding. Cultivate those relationships that nurture you and make you feel better.
- Limit or exclude the baby paparazzi. People who interfere with your ability to sleep, to care for yourself or care for your baby make your situation worse. Visitors should come on your schedule and when/if you choose.
- Don’t be shy about asking for help if you want it and make sure you give clear instructions about how they can best help you. Also let them know when you no longer require help. If they are going to make you feel obligated to them for helping they are not the right choice. You are not a failure when you ask for help. Delegating duties is often a sign of a good manager. Post partum doulas or your mother are two suggestions of people who can help. Use someone you feel comfortable with.
- Don’t be hard on yourself. You, your sleep and recovery are far more important than laundry, entertaining guests or the multitude of other things women are responsible for.
- Make time for yourself doing what you want. Other people do not have the right to dictate what is right for you.
- Use stress reduction techniques. Some suggestions are: yoga, listening to music or relaxation recordings, silence, reading books and watching films, etc. that you think are funny, deep breathing, retreats, muscle relaxation techniques, positive imagery, exercise, aromatherapy, meditation, spirituality, reading, massage and other spa treatments, long showers or baths……
- It’s O.K. to cry.
- Write letters to the people involved in your negative experience. Mail them if you choose or destroy them.
- Avoid situations that provoke strong ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses. These will differ between different individuals. As an example, women often find they can no longer watch frightening or intense movies.
- Understand you are not alone. You are not weak or crazy. You are a good mother. Don’t doubt yourself. There are millions of people around the world – men and women – who have reacted to trauma just as you have.
- Make sure your nutritional needs are met.
- Use concentration/mental exercises to redirect your focus during episodes of intrusive memories and flashbacks. Doing Sudoku puzzles, answering rapid math questions and memorizing poetry are suggestions. Some women report success when they hold ice in their hand during flashbacks. The cold sensation keeps them grounded until the flashback passes.
- If you grind your teeth during nightmares consider wearing a mouth guard to sleep. It will protect your teeth and help avoid future dental problems.
- Use white noise to help get to sleep. Some people sleep better with air purifiers, humidifiers or fans running quietly as background noise.
- Research your situation. Gather information from a variety of sources. The internet is a great source of information, contacts and support.
The following books have been helpful in assessing and understanding trauma and in self-directed healing from trauma. They are available through our lending service.
The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment; Babette Rothschild, Norton Publishers, 2000
I Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors; Aphrodite Matsakis, New Harbinger Publications, 1996
Life After Trauma: A Workbook for Healing; Dana Rosenbloom and Mary Beth Williams, Guilford Press, 1999
The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook: A Guide to Healing, Recovery and Growth; Glen R. Schiraldi, McGraw-Hill, 2000
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma; Peter A. Levine, North Atlantic Books, 1997
Trauma and Recovery; Judith L. Herman, Basic Books, 1997
Does Stress Damage The Brain? Understanding Trauma-Related Disorders from a Mind-Body Perspective, J. Douglas Bremner 2005 (short answer is yes)
Coping with PTSD can be a life long problem. Women often report that abusive behaviour from their teenagers during the teenage years is a trigger for trauma symptoms. Women also report the onset of disabilities related to childbirth (like urinary or fecal incontinence and pelvic prolapse) is also a later acting trigger to trauma symptoms. The child's birthday and Mother's Day can also trigger post traumatic stress symptoms.