When people think about Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD), they often think of a soldier, returning from battle traumatised and battered by the ravages of war and the terrible things seen and experienced.
However, PTSD doesn’t only affect those affected in the aftermath of war, surviving a natural disaster or violent act. PTSD can also affect someone at a time in their life that should be safe, happy and joyous, that should be the start of an amazing new journey.
For some women and their partners the birth of their baby can be traumatic and can be a trigger for PTSD. It can severely affect the life of a woman and that of her partner and family. It can impact on bonding with their baby, caring for their baby, as well as relationships with family and friends, doing everyday activities and also physical health.
So what is PTSD?
PTSD is the clinical term for a set of normal reactions to a traumatic, distressing experience or event. It can occur after a person experiences or witnesses something that was, or they perceive to have been, life threatening.
Signs of PTSD include;
- feelings of intense fear, helplessness and/or terror
- re-experiencing the event by recurrent intrusive memories, flashbacks and/or nightmares
- feeling distressed, anxious or panicky when exposed to something which reminds them of the event
- avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma, this can include talking about it, going to or near the place where the trauma happened, or people that may have been involved in the trauma, such as hospitals, doctors, healthcare professionals, even T.V programs or books may be avoided
- bad memories or flashbacks can occur leading to difficulties with sleeping or concentrating, thus affecting daily activities
- sufferers may also feel angry, irritable and be hyper-vigilant or jumpy, and easily startled.
- those affected may suffer panic attacks, depression or/and anxiety. They may feel detached, alone and have a sense that something bad may happen to them or their loved ones at any time
- dissociation can occur, a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of who he or she is, this can involve “losing touch” with awareness of one’s immediate surroundings and can happen during flashbacks
Women who have have a history of previous trauma are especially at risk of developing perinatal PTSD.
Sadly some women are wrongly diagnosed with PND due to a lack of awareness of birth trauma when in reality they have PTSD. While PTSD can occur along side PND it is important that a woman receives a correct diagnosis of PTSD so she can access the right support, help and therapies she needs to recover.
It is important to remember that PTSD is beyond the sufferer’s control. It is the mind’s way of trying to make sense of an extremely traumatic experience and is not a sign of an individual’s weakness or inability to cope. The person cannot just ‘get over it’ or ‘pull themselves together’ or ‘move on’. Rather they need help and support to process not only what has happened to them but also the feelings surrounding it and how it has affected the way they now think and perceive the world. Trauma is a nervous system that in stuck in threat, unable to switch off the bodies reactions.
There are various treatments for PTSD including;
- trauma counselling
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- somatic therapies a form of body-centered therapy that looks at how to reduce the impact of trauma
- antidepressants such as paroxetine, sertraline, mirtazapine, are sometimes used to treat PTSD
Other strategies that can help support you;
- journaling, writing about your feelings can be helpful
- learning about PTSD, how it affects you mentally and physically
- grounding techniques to help coping with flashbacks, disassociation and intrusive thoughts
- debriefing/birth reflection sessions to help you understand your birth experience
- learning relaxation and breathing techniques to help lessen the physical responses of trauma
- art and music therapy
If you feel you may have PTSD or someone you love may be showing signs of PTSD reach out for help. You can speak to your Midwife, Health Visitor or GP. Some areas allow for self referral to primary mental health services for assessment and help. Early intervention is important as is accessing proper support. It can be scary asking for help but taking that first step will help you to receive the support you need to recover before the roots of trauma take a firm hold.
PTSD is real and its effects can be devastating. Suffers often feel alone and isolated and like in a cocoon of darkness. There are treatments and it is possible to recover with the right support. It will take time and each day may be a struggle as you try to heal but do not lose hope. It is a battle that can be won and it is possible to find the light again.
You can watch about my experience of PTSD after birth trauma in the Out of the Blue project by Best Beginnings.