For most women, pregnancy is a blissful time. Despite some expected discomforts, such as morning sickness or aches and pains, many women enjoy their growing belly and bask in the glow of a new life they are creating while they plan for a birth experience that feels empowering and in-line with their values and wishes.
Unfortunately, this is not the experience of all women.
Every year hundreds of thousands of women are diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy and many others experience a traumatic birth experience. For many of these women, the uncertainties of what could happen to their baby, experiencing unexpected complications, and/or requiring medical interventions required for their safety and the safety of their baby can be traumatic.
What is a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience?
There are no simple diagnostic criteria to identify what a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience is. Simply put, trauma lies in the eye of the beholder. What is a traumatic experience for one woman may not be traumatic for someone else.
Anything from an unexpected medical diagnosis for mom or baby to unforeseen interventions during pregnancy or labor and delivery to a sudden change in a well though out and researched birth plan can be triggers for a traumatic experience. Delivering prematurely and feeling like you have no control over your pregnancy or birth experience are also common triggers for a traumatic response.
This is why a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience are not identified by certain external criteria, but rather by the symptoms mom presents after the initial event. If these symptoms go unchecked, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in the postpartum period and beyond.
How do I know if I’ve had a traumatic pregnancy or birth trauma?
Common symptoms of having experienced a traumatic pregnancy or birth experience that could lead to the development of PTSD include:
Does everyone who experiences a traumatic pregnancy or birth trauma have PTSD?
The short answer is no. Not everyone who experiences trauma during their pregnancy or delivery develops PTSD. Trauma responses are normal reactions to abnormal events. By the very nature of a high-risk pregnancy and traumatic delivery, you had to learn to cope with high levels of fear, stress and anxiety. This put you on high alert, made you hyper-vigilant to changes in your body and to your baby and helped you become accustomed to feelings of helplessness.
Your nervous system has been in high gear since your pregnancy and delivery. All of these reactions can continue and are very normal reactions to a trauma such as a high-risk pregnancy or traumatic birth experience. With time and effort, you can reset your nervous system and heal from the trauma.
This normal reaction to trauma becomes PTSD when your nervous system becomes “stuck” in this hyper-aroused state. That means the symptoms are persistent, don’t lessen with time and significantly impair daily functioning. A diagnosis of PTSD should be made by a licensed mental health professional and should be followed with treatment to help alleviate symptoms. True PTSD does not improve with time without intervention and treatment.
Healing from a traumatic pregnancy and delivery experience IS possible.
Here are a few tips to get the healing process started:
If you are worried about yourself and/or your baby…
If things are bad and you are having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming your baby, place your baby in the care of a trusted friend or family member and call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. A healthy baby needs a healthy mom. Taking care of yourself is essential.
Parijat Deshpande is a Perinatal Wellness Counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area who works with women who are experiencing high stress during their high-risk pregnancy. Combining her personal experience with a very high-risk pregnancy and her professional training in clinical psychology, Parijat helps guide moms in managing their stress so they can feel less anxious, more in control and more hopeful as they fight for their baby. Parijat received a Bachelor's of Science degree in Psychology with High Honors from University of California, Berkeley, after which she earned a Masters' of Science degree in Clinical Psychology from San Francisco State University. She has worked with children and families as a psychotherapist and taught undergraduate psychology courses at UC Berkeley for over 4 years. She is also the Founder of MySahana, a mental health nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness and education in the South Asian community. Parijat is a Certified Wellness Coach, Certified Stress Management Coach and Certified Marriage Educator.
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