It’s something soldiers often suffer after being in combat situations: frightening flashbacks and panic attacks due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). So when Meeka Centimano experienced similar symptoms after a pretty ordinary birth experience—an 11-hour labor in the hospital before delivering a healthy baby girl vaginally—she didn’t understand why.
The medical events that can lead to this kind of trauma aren’t cut and dried, says Centimano, L.S.C.s.W., now a therapist specializing in pregnancy and postpartum mood disorders in Prairie Village, Kansas. Whereas many women don’t feel traumatized by childbirth, other women might have serious PTSD symptoms afterward that can linger for years. “The issue isn’t always the physical birth experience itself, but rather whether a woman feels heard when she’s scared or in pain, and that people were communicating with her during the birth,” Centimano says.
Research suggests that up to 8 percent of women experience PTSD following labor and 20 percent to 33 percent of moms have some PTSD symptoms. (A doctor can make an official PTSD diagnosis.) Symptoms of the disorder include intrusive re-experiencing of the birth or flashbacks, anxiety and panic attacks, persistent irritability, feeling a sense of unreality or detachment and avoidance of stimuli associated with the birth (including thoughts, feelings, people and places). PTSD isn’t as well-recognized as other postpartum disorders, says Susan Ayers, Ph.D., professor of maternal and child health at City University London. While any mental health problem in new mothers is serious, PTSD has additional consequences because it can include avoiding anything that reminds women of the birth. “This means women might avoid postpartum checkups or contact with their babies,” says Ayers.
If you’ve experienced previous trauma (particularly sexual abuse), are very frightened of childbirth and/or are anxious during pregnancy, you’re at higher risk of PTSD, Ayers says. Additionally, poor pain relief, medical interventions, such as an emergency Cesarean section, and a baby’s stay in the NICU can raise your risk.
Fortunately, there are ways to decrease your chances of being traumatized by your birth experience:
1. Talk to your OB or midwife ahead of time. Write a list of your concerns related to childbirth and bring it to your next appointment.
2. Educate yourself In a recent study of 89 women published in the Israel Medical Association Journal, those who consulted fewer sources about childbirth—such as classes, books and magazines—were more likely to have PTSD symptoms.
3. Gather a support team The level of support during birth affects a woman’s mood, anxiety and perceived control more than stressful interventions, according to a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.
4. Speak up If you’re in pain, scared or confused, tell your care provider. If you experience symptoms of PTSD after having your baby, see a mental-health specialist. Visit birth trauma association (birthtrauma association.org.uk) or postpartum support international (postpartum .net) for more information