What is post-traumatic stress disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. PTSD can develop immediately after an event or it can happen weeks, months or even years later.
PTSD can be caused by something like a road accident or long-lasting stress caused by something like abuse in childhood or domestic abuse.
Some people experience post-traumatic stress after pregnancy. This may be caused by having a traumatic birthing experience, miscarriage or neonatal death. This may lead to fear of childbirth in the next pregnancy.
It can be very difficult to come to terms with a traumatic event, but PTSD is treatable. The important thing is to try and confront your feelings with help from healthcare professionals.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Symptoms of PTSD include:
- flashbacks to the experience
- nightmares about the experience
- repetitive and distressing images or sensations
- physical sensations such as pain, sweating, feeling sick (nausea) or trembling
- constant negative thoughts about the experience
- trying to feel nothing at all (emotional numbing) and trying to distract yourself to avoid thinking about what happened
- avoiding places, people or other things that remind you of the traumatic event
- watching out for danger or threats and being easily startled
- difficulty concentrating
- angry outbursts
- sleeping problems
- stomach pain.
Some people with post-traumatic disorder find it difficult to bond with their baby.
How common is PTSD?
About one or two in every 100 women have post-traumatic stress after giving birth.
It's possible for birth partners to experience PTSD symptoms too. Seeing someone you care about in distress or pain can be very upsetting and many partners have told us that seeing a traumatic birth made them feel helpless, out of control or scared. This can cause birth trauma.
PTSD UK states that research is limited, but it is thought that 5% of partners develop trauma symptoms after being present during the birth.
What should I do?
Tell your GP, midwife, or health visitor if you are having upsetting thoughts after a traumatic event.
It may be very difficult to talk about your thoughts and feelings, especially after a distressing experience. Remember that healthcare professionals won’t judge you.
They understand that PTSD is a mental health condition. It is not your fault, or something that you just need to ‘get over’ or move on from. They will focus on helping you find the right treatment and support so you can take care of yourself and your baby.
You may want to write down what you want to say first, or you may want to have someone with you when you talk to them. The important thing is to let someone know so that the right help can be found as soon as possible.
It can be very difficult to come to terms with a traumatic event, but it’s never too late to ask for help. PTSD can be treated many years after the event happened.
Treatment for PTSD
The main treatments for PTSD are therapy and medication.
Your GP may carry out an assessment of your symptoms, before you’re referred to a mental health specialist for more assessments. You may be referred to a clinic that specialises in treating PTSD if there is one in your area.
Your mental health specialist should talk to you about:
- how to cope with any feelings of fear
- how to cope with any other symptoms you have
- your options for birth that may help.
You should also be referred for talking (psychological) therapy. This will be with a specialist therapist or psychologist.
You may have eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EDMR). This a therapy that uses eye movements to dampen the power of the memories and the emotions linked to them.
You may also be offered cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is a type of therapy that aims to help you manage your problems by changing how you think and act. This is also helpful if you have tokophobia. Tokophobia describes a severe fear of childbirth, where a woman is so afraid of giving birth she does not want to go through with it.
You may also be offered group therapy so you can talk to other people about their experiences.
You will probably only be offered medication if talking therapies doesn’t help.
How can I help myself?
- Talk to your partner, family or a friend about what happened and how you are feeling, if you can.
- Try not to feel guilty or embarrassed. These thoughts and feelings are not your fault.
- Look after yourself - try some of our top tips for looking after your wellbeing.
- Practise these NHS relaxation exercises.
- Eat well and exercise regularly.
- Don’t use alcohol or smoke to try to cope with your feelings. This may harm you or your baby.
- Accept that recovering takes time – don’t be hard on yourself.
- Accept the help that is offered to you.
More information and support
Birth Trauma Association provides information and support to women who have had a traumatic birth.
Anxiety UK: run by people with anxiety disorders, Anxiety UK offers information, support and therapies for people experiencing anxiety.
No Panic provides Online and telephone support for people suffering from panic attacks, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and anxiety disorders.
MIND is a mental health health charity providing information, support, local groups and an online chatroom.
BabyCentre: offers a traumatic birth support group where you can chat and share your experiences with others going through the same thing.