Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

If you are having upsetting thoughts after a traumatic event you may have post-traumatic stress disorder. This can be treated, so it’s important to ask for help.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, scary or distressing events.

PTSD can develop right after an event or it can happen weeks, months or even years later.

It can be caused by something like a car crash or long-lasting stress caused by something like abuse in childhood or domestic abuse.

Some women and birthing people get post-traumatic stress after pregnancy. This may be caused by having a bad birthing experience, pregnancy loss, or neonatal death. This may lead to fear of childbirth in the next pregnancy. 

It can be very hard to come to terms with trauma, but PTSD can be treated. The main thing is to try and confront your feelings with help from healthcare professionals. 

What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • flashbacks to the experience
  • nightmares about it
  • 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 event
  • watching out for danger or threats and being easily startled
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • trouble concentrating
  • angry outbursts
  • sleeping problems
  • headaches
  • stomach pain

Some new parents with PTSD struggle to bond with their baby.

How common is post-traumatic stress?

About 1 or 2 in every 100 women and birthing people have post-traumatic stress after giving birth.

What should I do?

Tell your GP, midwife or health visitor if you are having upsetting thoughts after a traumatic event, or if you think you may have PTSD.

It may be very hard to talk about your thoughts and feelings after a distressing experience. Remember that healthcare professionals won’t judge you.

They know 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 might want to have someone with you when you talk to them. The key thing is to let someone know so that the right help can be found as soon as possible. 

It’s never too late to get 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 well assess your symptoms, before you’re referred to a mental health specialist for more assessments. You might be referred to a clinic that specialises in treating PTSD if there is one near where you live.

The 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 with a specialist therapist or psychologist.

You may have eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). 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 that she does not want to go through with it. 

You may also be offered group therapy so you can talk to other people who’ve been through PTSD too. 

You will likely only be offered medication if talking therapy 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 ashamed about it. 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 often.
  • Don’t use alcohol or smoke to try to cope with your feelings. This may harm you or your baby.
  • Accept that it takes time to recover – don’t be hard on yourself.
  • Accept the help that is offered to you.

Helping someone with PTSD

It’s worrying to see your partner, friend or relative experience PTSD, especially if you do not know how to help. The charity MIND has some useful information on what you can do to help a loved one with PTSD as well as look after your own mental health.

More information and support

Anxiety UK is run by people with anxiety disorders. They offer information, support and therapies for people affected by anxiety. 

Birth Trauma Association provides information and support to women who have had a traumatic birth.

MIND is a mental health health charity providing information, support, local groups and an online chatroom.

No Panic provides online and telephone support for people suffering from panic attacks, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders.

Rape Crisis is a UK charity providing a range of services for women and girls who have experienced abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault.

1. Andersen LB, Melvaer LB, Videbech P, Lamont RF, Joergensen JS (2012) Risk factors for developing post-traumatic stress disorder following childbirth: a systematic review. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica 2012; 91(11):1261-1272

2. NHS. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Page last reviewed: 13 May 2022, Next review due: 13 May 2025)

Review dates
Reviewed: 04 February 2024
Next review: 04 February 2027