The birth experience
Birth can be a traumatic experience – filled with sights and sounds, which if associated with fear, can become locked into our minds. It’s of course not birth itself, which is traumatic, but the circumstances in which the baby comes into the world. Birth can be a calm, empowering experience. But many factors which can emerge during labour, including a loss of control and dignity, can leave women with the opposite impression of their births.
The Birth Trauma Association estimates that in the UK, 20,000 women develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of birth trauma each year. A further, 200,000 women may feel traumatised by childbirth and develop some of the symptoms of PTSD. These numbers are particularly high, and yet there remains little understanding of or support for birth traumas.
So what is birth trauma?
The word trauma means a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Psychological trauma is often defined as an event whereby the person subjectively experiences a threat to themselves, in some way. Within labour, some women experience a myriad of medicalised sights and sounds, equipment, difficult requests, procedures and messages. And many develop symptoms of PTSD, which might include distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, and avoidance of places, people and activities that remind them of the trauma.
I often see women in therapy with post-natal depression or anxiety, who come to see me unsure of why they feel the way they do. I find that when they begin to talk, I’m aware that they have never spoken about their labour or how it’s affected them. And 9 out of 10 times, the birth was traumatic; something the mum is generally not aware of until we start to process it. They are often experiencing flashbacks from the labour, difficulty sleeping, avoidance of memories and pictures of the birth etc., but put this down to lack of sleep, adapting to the new baby and mood issues.
Trauma undoubtedly affects mood, however this is poorly understood. Anxiety is often a tell tale sign of trauma, with physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, or nightmares. Shock, confusion, anger, anxiety, guilt, shame, feelings of disconnectedness and urges to withdraw are just a few of the emotional symptoms. However only when starting to talk about how they feel, do women share their distressing experiences and voice that they had not understood the link between their individual birth and their mood.
So how can we process our experiences of birth trauma?
AUTHOR: DR JO GEE
Dr Jo Gee is a psychotherapist and specialist in women’s health. She is also the co-founder of The Luna Hive. Jo offers individual and group psychotherapy in Guildford and at the Priory Hospital Roehampton.