Post traumatic stress disorder

Anyone who has had a traumatic experience (such as a violent attack or serious accident where their life has been in danger) experiences a stress reaction for at least a few weeks afterwards.

Sometimes a person does not get over the stress reaction – this is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some women experience post traumatic stress after pregnancy - from having a traumatic birthing experience, miscarriage or neonatal death.

Symptoms of PTSD 

The symptoms of PTSD are:

  • flashbacks to the experience
  • nightmares about the experience
  • feeling emotionally numb and using distraction techniques/keeping your mid busy to avoid thinking about the experience
  • avoidance of places, people or other triggers that remind you of the traumatic event
  • being very watchful for danger or threats and being easily startled.

Other symptoms may include:

  • irregular or racing heartbeat
  • feelings of panic and fear
  • depression
  • aches and pains
  • diarrhoea
  • headaches
  • difficulty bonding with your baby
  • feeling irritable and constantly on edge for no reason
  • feeling out of control of your mood.

How common is it?

About one or two in every 100 women giving birth develops PTSD.

What should I do?

Tell your midwife, health visitor or doctor if you have the symptoms of PTSD after giving birth. You may feel very distressed or guilty that your thoughts are focusing on the birth at a time when everyone expects you to be happy with your baby, but postnatal PTSD is not your fault. The midwife, health visitor or doctor won’t criticise you or judge you for your thoughts and feelings – it is a treatable condition and they can help you get better.

It can be difficult to talk about your thoughts and feelings.  You may want to write down what you want to say first, or you may want to have someone with you. The important thing is to let someone know so that the right help can be found as soon as possible. 

Treatment for PTSD

You should be offered high intensity psychological treatment - trauma focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EDMR), a therapy that uses eye movements to dampen the power of the memories and the emotions linked to them. Your doctor will discuss the options with you.

How can I help myself?

  • Talk to your partner, family or a friend about what happened and how you are feeling.
  • 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 and exercise regularly.
  • Don’t use alcohol, smoking or coffee to try to cope with your feelings.
  • 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: Helpline: 08444 775 774. Organisation run by people with anxiety disorders, offering information, support and therapies for people experiencing anxiety.

No Panic: Helpline: 0800 138 8889.  Online and telephone support for people suffering from panic attacks, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and anxiety disorders.

MIND Helpline: 0300 123 3393. Mental health charity providing information, support, local groups and an online chatroom

Click here to find out more about PTSD treatments

Other resources

Sources

  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. NICE (2005) Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): The management of PTSD in adults and children in primary and secondary care http://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg26/resources/guidance-posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-pdf
  3. NICE (2014) Antenatal and postnatal mental health: clinical and service management guidance, clinical guideline 192, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.  London, Available at: http://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg192
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Last reviewed on February 1st, 2015. Next review date February 1st, 2018.

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