Let's talk birth and reproductive trauma


Artistic image of female genitalia that appears to bemade of paper

Trauma is so subjective, right? Why is it one person's emergent c-section can be experienced as “that was scary but it’s over now, I’m relieved” whereas another person might experience their as traumatic (and continuing to cause distress when they are reminded of it?) ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Subjective distress is the most important correlation with a traumatic birth experience (Anderson et al., 2012). When a woman feels a loss of control, has a negative experience with labor, or an intense fear for herself or her baby, among other experiences, this becomes a traumatic event. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Your perception of your care is critical, not just what has happened to you. Meaning, the level of medical intervention has an impact on whether or not you experience your birth as traumatic as well as HOW you experience that care. And we see this backed up in the research. (Creedy, Shocket, & Horstall, 2003, Greckin & O’Hara, 2014). ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ The good thing to know, though, as you hear me say this often, is that birth trauma is treatable. You know I love talking about how effective EMDR therapy is for this issue. Our brains are resilient and capable of processing information adaptively.  It's during heightened distress that our brains do not process information thoroughly, and will often internalize experiences as our fault, and we may relive the experience over and over with negative beliefs about ourselves.

What might you be saying to yourself about your experience?

If you had a traumatic birth or reproductive experience, what are you saying to yourself? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ It’s common for parents to internalize their reproductive trauma as “I’ve failed”, “I’m weak”, or even “I’m permanently broken “. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ But here’s the thing. Trauma is a symptom of a central nervous system response to a distressing event and NOT an indicator that you’ve done something wrong or that you’ve failed. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ While about 6-8% of women will have full Posttraumatic Stress Disorder symptoms after a giving birth, way more (33-41%, depending on the study) will have trauma symptoms. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ And this can happen REGARDLESS of the outcome (meaning both you and the baby can be fine but you still feel traumatized and awful). But of course having an emergent Cesarean section, having injuries from your delivery, a baby in the NICU, or unwanted medical interventions can cause distress, too. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Whatever you experienced, you deserve healing and freedom from your trauma, and the triggers that you may be experiencing.

So, how about those trauma triggers?

Your own body can be a source of trauma. Your body holds the memory of what happened to you, and even every-day common situations can trigger traumatic responses. Difficulty being touched (even by your baby or partner), flashbacks going to the bathroom, discomfort while breastfeeding and even menstrual cramps are examples of being triggered by your own body. For some, the body sensations are painful reminders of what happened but it feels like a marker of an historical event from the past (i.e. scarring). For others, these body sensations are an intolerable slingshot back into the past, and it feels like the event is still happening and they are still living in “trauma time”. It can be common to feel disconnected and unsafe in ones own body following a reproductive trauma. Anyone who has experienced infertility, pregnancy loss, a traumatic birth, a pregnancy termination, postpartum complications or other events surrounding the perinatal period is at risk for traumatic responses. Women who have experienced pelvic floor injuries (such as perineal tears) after giving birth, for example, are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and PTSD after delivery. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ This can be even more complex if a woman has a history of sexual trauma and/or if she experienced non consensual procedures during her birth or loss. Trauma can be cumulative. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ The good news in all of this is you are not alone. There are therapists who specialize in perinatal mental health and trauma (you can go to my resources highlights for help finding one near you) and many great support groups of other women who have experienced similar things and who have your back. There are OBs, PTs, OTs, acupuncturists and other specialists who can help you heal on the physical front. Find your people to help you heal, this wasn’t your fault and doesn’t need to define you.💜