The 16th of July marks Birth Trauma Awareness Week, a hallmark to increase awareness around perinatal and postnatal mental health for birthing people and partners.
Transitioning to parenthood is challenging enough alone, but the experiences of birth-related trauma make this experience even more difficult.
Postnatal trauma can manifest as both physical and psychological trauma. Physical trauma might look like Perineal Tears, Pelvic Floor Muscle Injury, or Caesarean Section, while examples of psychological trauma are Postnatal Depression, Postnatal Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or Postnatal Anxiety Disorders.
For 2023, the theme of Birth Trauma Awareness Week is Postpartum Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One in ten of women and birthing people experience postpartum PTSD, which makes adjustment to becoming a parent or growing a family significantly more challenging.
Although not talked about much, postpartum psychological trauma is widely common:
- 1 in 3 women view some aspect of their birth experience as traumatic
- 1 in 3 women experience some PTSD symptoms after birth
- 1 in 16 women have met the criteria for having PTSD after birth
However, it is not just women who can experience birth-related trauma. These experiences also happen to
- Birthing people
- Fathers or non-birthing parents
- Friends or family supporting the birth
- Health professionals and other people witnessing the birth
Each experience of birthing trauma is unique, meaning that the same experience may impact two people differently. The postpartum trauma also isn’t related to just birth alone, and can in fact occur at any time throughout the pregnancy, such as when trying to get pregnant, during labour and birth, or the period after birth.
Experiences of postnatal PTSD
Each individual may experience postnatal PTSD differently, but there are also commonly experienced responses. While these alone do not mean that someone classifies for a postnatal PTSD diagnosis, they may indicate a reason to seek support. Some experiences look like:
- Increased, unmanageable fear for yourself, your baby, or your partner
- Feeling out of control or forced into decisions
- Having undergone procedures outside of your consent
- Having experienced significant pain
- Having felt alone or unsupported by your partner
- Feeling like you weren’t listened to or respected by healthcare professionals, friends, family, or your partner
- Having feelings of anger at those who were in the birthing room with you
- A lack of positive emotion
- Difficulty remembering important parts of the birth
- Intrusive and fearful memories of labour, birth, and the immediate post-birth period
- Feeling distressed from things that are reminding you of the birth
- Trying to avoid talking about the birth
- Avoiding places or people that remind you of the birth experience
The risk for postnatal PTSD also increases if someone experienced birth complications, has a history of mental health conditions or previous trauma, a history of still-birthing or miscarriage, or low social support during pregnancy and after birth.
Getting help for postnatal PTSD
Support services exist to support you through navigating postnatal PTSD, or other types of postnatal trauma. Getting a mental health care plan from your GP and finding a suitable therapist is an excellent way to ensure that you get the support you need.
Some therapeutic strategies that help postnatal PTSD include:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), to identify and challenge the thoughts that may arise from a traumatic experience, as well as processing memories and reducing unhelpful coping mechanisms
- Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), to help in processing traumatic memories
- Mindfulness and compassion-focussed therapies, to help address feelings of guilt or shame surrounding your experience
- Somatic therapies, to help focus and heal the body’s reaction to a traumatic experience
- Antidepressant medication, if recommended by your doctor, can help ease anxiety and depression symptoms
Support groups can also help you heal through the process, as experiencing postnatal trauma can often feel isolating. The Australasian Birth Trauma Association (ABTA) has created a private Peer2Peer Online Support Group for birthing parents who may experience birth-related trauma. This organisation also has Peer2Peer Online Chat Support Services, and Peer2Peer Group Meet Support Programs that may be useful to connect with others and share the birthing experience.
Many of the practitioners at Mindful Psychology can support you with birth trauma. Feel free to reach out to us to help find the best person for you.
This blog was written with care and kindness by Mai Mendelson.