What is PTSD and birth trauma?
Postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder. It is also known as birth trauma.
You may develop postnatal PTSD if you experience traumatic events during labour or childbirth.
This page covers:
- Causes of postnatal PTSD
- Signs and symptoms of postnatal PTSD
- Treatments for postnatal PTSD
- Self-care for postnatal PTSD
Causes of postnatal PTSD
Examples of traumatic events that may cause postnatal PTSD include:
- a difficult labour with a long and painful delivery
- an unplanned caesarean section
- emergency treatment
- other shocking, unexpected and traumatic experiences during birth.
Some people feel that having a new baby makes up for any traumatic experiences. Or they may think that enjoying being a new parent means they will soon forget about trauma.
But these traumatic experiences can have a negative effect on your relationship with your baby and the people around you.
You may feel disappointed that childbirth was not the experience you were hoping for. Or you might feel angry with the medical staff if you felt that the delivery wasn’t handled well.
Your experiences may also make you feel anxious about having another baby in future, in case you have to go through a similar experience during birth.
“I had a traumatic birth. I was so petrified that my son would die that in my head it was easier not to love him just in case.”
Signs and symptoms of postnatal PTSD
Some of the common signs and symptoms of postnatal PTSD include:
Re-living aspects of the trauma
This may include:
- vivid flashbacks (feeling that the trauma is happening right now)
- intrusive thoughts and images
- intense distress at real or symbolic reminders of the trauma
- physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling.
Alertness or feeling on edge
This may include:
- panicking when reminded of the trauma
- being easily upset or angry
- extreme alertness, sometimes known as ‘hypervigilance’
- finding it hard to sleep, even when you have the chance
- irritability or aggressive behaviour
- finding it hard to concentrate, including on simple or everyday tasks
- being jumpy or easily startled
- self-destructive or reckless behaviour
- other symptoms of anxiety.
Avoiding feelings or memories
This may include:
- feeling like you have to keep busy
- avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma
- being unable to remember details of what happened
- feeling emotionally numb or cut off from your feelings
- feeling physically numb or detached from your body
- being unable to express affection
- using alcohol or recreational drugs to avoid memories.
Difficult beliefs and feelings
This may include:
- feeling like you can’t trust anyone
- feeling like nowhere is safe
- feeling like nobody understands
- blaming yourself for what happened
- overwhelming feelings of anger, sadness, guilt or shame.
Treatments for postnatal PTSD
There are various treatments that you may be offered for postnatal PTSD. Your doctor should discuss these options with you, so you can make a decision together about the best treatment for you:
The main treatments for PTSD are specific types of talking therapy:
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is specifically designed to treat PTSD. See our pages on CBT for more information.
- Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). In this treatment a therapist guides you to make rhythmic eye movements while recalling the traumatic event. The eye movements are designed to stimulate the information-processing system in the brain. The aim of the treatment is to help you process the traumatic events, and speed up re- adjustment and recovery.
Medication is not normally offered to treat PTSD itself. But there are a few related reasons why your doctor may offer you medication:
- It is common to also experience anxiety and depression alongside PTSD. Your doctor might offer you medication to treat those symptoms.
- Your doctor might offer you medication to help you feel more stable and able to care for your baby.
- Sometimes there are long waiting lists for talking therapies in your area. Your doctor may offer you medication to help you while you wait for therapy.
- Some medications are used to treat recurrent nightmares in PTSD.
See our page on treatments for PTSD for more information.
Self-care for postnatal PTSD
Living with the effects of a traumatic birth can feel very challenging, but there are some things you can do to help yourself:
Get to know your triggers
You might find that certain experiences, situations or people seem to trigger flashbacks or other symptoms. These might include specific reminders of past trauma, such as smells, sounds, words, places, or particular types of book or film.
Some people find things especially difficult on significant dates. For example, this could be the anniversary of a traumatic experience, such as a child’s birthday.
Confide in someone
If you experience postnatal PTSD, you may find it hard to open up to others. This may be because you feel unable to talk about what has happened to you. But you don’t need to be able to describe the trauma to tell someone how you are currently feeling.
It could help to talk to a friend or family member. Or you might want to speak to a professional such as your family doctor or a trained listener at a helpline.
Give yourself time
Everyone has their own response to trauma and it’s important to take things at your own pace. For example, it may not be helpful to talk about your experiences before you feel ready.
Try to be patient with yourself. Don’t judge yourself for needing time and support to recover from postnatal PTSD.
Try peer support
Peer support brings together people who have similar experiences, to share and listen to each other’s experiences. This includes meeting in person at a local peer support group, or joining an online community.
See our pages on peer support to find out more.
Look after your physical health
Coping with postnatal PTSD can be exhausting. You might feel like you can’t find the energy to take care of yourself. But where possible, looking after your physical health can make a difference to how you feel emotionally. For example, it can help to spend time outside, look after your diet, and try to do some physical activity.
For more ideas, see our page on ways to look after your mental health when becoming a parent.