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Understanding Birth Trauma and Its aftermath

Updated: Oct 11, 2023


A new mother seeking support through therapy for birth trauma.

Having a baby is difficult. Any new mom, or experienced mom, will tell you that! And if you had a childbirth that wasn’t what you expected, you are not alone. Many new mothers do not understand that what you experience during an unexpected childbirth is traumatic.


Was Your Birth Experience Traumatic?


So maybe your birth experience wasn’t as traumatic as the woman from the Netflix movie, Nowhere, where you were forced to deliver your baby by water birth because you were stranded in a storage container that was slowly sinking in the middle of the ocean. And you most likely did not have to eat your afterbirth because you were starving. We can all agree that this scene is a clear definition of a traumatic birth, one that was unexpected in a big way.


But would you consider needing a c-section after hours of pushing “traumatic”? Or what if during your c-section, you start to feel every tug and pull and stick because the anesthesia wasn’t working? Or what if you were just simply “planning” on a certain type of birth but having it turn out to be the complete opposite, with every medical intervention that you didn’t want–would you consider these types of experiences traumatic?


According to Dr. Peter Levine (Levine & van der Kolk, 2015), trauma is the result of an experience when your body’s natural responses are overridden and instead of expressing itself, the energy gets “stuck” in your nervous system. This can cause physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and withdrawal from people and activities. Levine argues that the symptoms commonly associated with trauma are the result of trauma-induced disruptions in the autonomic nervous system.


How Your Own History Affects the Perception of Trauma

A new mother seeking support through therapy for birth trauma.

If you are still wondering why “some women” seem to be able to move on from similar birth experiences as yours, there are several factors that could be contributing to a faster recovery.


Studies have shown that if you had a traumatic event during the birthing process, but you had a supportive hospital team, you are more likely to be less impacted. Also, we all have different life experiences. One of the main reasons that your negative birth experience might feel so impossibly stuck is your own trauma history.


If anything in your birth experience is similar to a past event, your nervous system will remember. For example, say you grew up in a house with a narcissistic mother who often forcefully imposed choices upon you, which left you feeling frozen and powerless. Then if during your birthing process, a doctor enters the room, stating you need to have a c-section or your baby could be medically compromised, even if this information is completely true you have strong feelings of mistrust and confusion when she is speaking to you.


What could happen is that your nervous system could move into a freeze response, where you feel (most likely below consciousness) like that helpless child again. So you then agree to the c-section. After giving birth, you might be left with debilitating self-blame, anger, periods of panic, and bouts of extreme tearful episodes that “come out of nowhere.”


You might be blaming yourself for not “speaking up” and “fighting” for your natural childbirth. You might be left feeling that you are a failure because your birth experience was the opposite of how you wanted it to be or the perfectness seen in the media.


Trauma Attaches to The Experience


Because the birthing process is so unpredictable and complicated, trauma will often attach to your experience, leaving you feeling quite possibly insane at a time when you are, according to all of social media, supposed to be feeling blissful, with your baby cozy in your arms instinctively suckling your breast. Yikes!


This idealized version of childbirth and the postpartum aftermath are not the experiences of most women. It is important to understand the facts–your nervous system was put into extreme stress and it is NATURAL to feel the pains of this. This is trauma and not you. You are not your symptoms (Kleiman, 2017).


Another layer of complication sets in when it is time to bring your baby home. When these traumatic birth experiences happen, you are already starting out with challenges, due to the impact on your nervous system.


Oftentimes, women are sent home from the hospital with a plan of triple feeding, which causes more sleep deprivation and disruption. Remember that trauma and sleep deprivation impact your entire body, so it is also NATURAL that your milk supply (if you are breastfeeding) isn’t producing gallons of milk like my family's old milking cow named Boss. Unfortunately, this scene is what many mothers experience.


Many mothers feel let down because it’s not how it’s “supposed to be.” Please be kind to yourself and ask for support. If you experienced a traumatic birth, you left the hospital already sleep deprived, which both are factors that set you up for a difficult transition to the “new baby” experience." The ability to have those happy oxytocin-induced connecting moments with your newborn are fleeting in the face of a recovering nervous system and sleep deprivation.


What is a Normal Response to Childbirth Trauma?

A new mother seeking support through therapy for birth trauma in Colorado.

Would it be helpful to know that all the above-mentioned examples are “normal” responses to trauma? Would it be helpful to understand that postpartum anxiety, postpartum depression, postpartum OCD, and even postpartum psychosis happened to 15 to 20 % of women (Learn More | Postpartum Support International)? Remember: you are not your symptoms.


If you tend to be a perfectionist in life, just requiring medical interventions that were not planned can lead to cognitive distortions of not being good enough and failing at motherhood. My goodness.


Just listen to the transcending scene in the Barbie movie, where America Ferrera’s character details what it really means to be a woman in our society, and you can understand that being a woman, especially a new mother, is complicated in itself.


Now add trauma and sleep deprivation as another layer of challenges–and are you still expected to be perfect? BE KIND TO YOURSELF. If you are able, ask for specific help from your friends, family, and partner. If you have no idea what would be helpful, that’s okay too.


Get Help for Birth Trauma or Postpartum Concerns


Talking to a professional with experience in PTSD and perinatal mental health can be helpful. Websites like Postpartum Support International can be helpful in obtaining resources and free group support. You can search for a therapist who specializes in birth trauma or postpartum support online. Or you can ask your doctor or OB/GYN for a therapist referral.


Most importantly, stop blaming yourself. Talking to a therapist can help you find tools to “get out of your head,” and tools to regulate your nervous system, so you can feel more like yourself. I know from personal experience that reaching out for help seems like another task that you don’t have the time or energy for. Remember that you need support. Support can give you more energy, more tools, and more insights into making the newborn experience one that is more empowering.


References:


Kleinman, Karen (2017). The Art of Holding in Therapy: An Essential Intervention for Postpartum Depression and Anxiety.


Levine, Peter A. & van der Kolk, Bessel A. (2015). Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory


How We Can Help

Are you in Colorado and looking for a birth trauma or postpartum therapist?



If you are looking for continued trauma support, or if you would like to talk to someone more about how we can help you, follow these simple steps:

  1. Begin your journey towards a calmer, more relaxed life


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Author Biography

Kristen Dammer is an LCSW specializing in women's issues and postpartum depression.

Kristen Dammer believes in addressing the whole health needs of you as a person, and her dedication, creativity, and flexibility as a therapist are her greatest strengths. Her holistic approach to anxiety, grief, and trauma helps you feel in control and creates a welcoming environment for you to share your vulnerabilities, fears, and experiences. She is trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and uses it to treat anxiety and trauma. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.





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