The notion ‘birth trauma’ seems to be heard quite a lot these days. What exactly is birth trauma? Who does it affect? What can be done about it?
As a starting point to unpacking these questions, I think it’s a good idea to understand what trauma is.
A traumatic event is an event that causes an individual experience intense feelings of terror, horror, helplessness or hopelessness. For some, not all, this event can be something that occurs during the birth of their child, whether it be feelings of being unheard or dismissed by caregivers, routine and unecessary interventions, lack of communication from staff. Physical injury from the birth to mother or baby, unpredictability/uncontrollability of the events that unfold, admission to special care or NICU, fear of unnecessary procedures, premature birth.… anything that leaves a mother experiencing intense feelings of terror, horror, helplessness or hopelessness in any aspect of her birth.
This event does not have to be directly experienced by the person, they may witness it happening to someone else, or learn about it occurring to someone close to them. And by ‘witnessing’ we can see how birth for some partners can also be a traumatic event.
And trauma itself is a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing for that individual. It is a state of high arousal in which normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed in response to the perception of threat.
If a mother perceives any part of her birth as threatening the safety of herself or her baby, a state of high arousal may ensue as a coping mechanism.
From this it is easy to see how birth for some women can be a traumatic experience.
It is important to reiterate that trauma involves PERCEIVED threat to safety or personal integrity.
Whether or not caregivers, or anyone else, views that a birth was traumatic for a mother or father, is irrelevant. If a mother or father perceives that an aspect of birth was threatening to mother or baby, they may experience trauma from it.
In normal everyday events, we receive information from the outside world via our senses, this moves toward the amygdala to blend up and distribute to other areas of the brain. One of these is the thalamus, and the other is the pre-fontal cortex. It’s the thalamus’s job to sense imminent threat, and if threat is sensed, it sends an instant message other areas of the brain to recruit the stress hormone system and the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) to orchestrate a whole body response (fight, flight or freeze). Cortisol release increases, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, all preparing the body to respond. Very soon after the thalamus receives this information, the pre-fontal cortex does too. It acts as the overseer, objectively and rationally looking at the situation unfolding. If it detects that there is in fact NO real threat, or when the danger has passed, it communicates to the amygdala to calm down, returning the body to its normal state.
In the case of a mother or father affected by trauma from birth, this can be very different.
In the event that trauma has occurred for any individual, certain areas of the brain can be physiologically changed.
The amygdala can begin to misinterpret whether a situation is dangerous or safe. The pre-fontal cortex that allows us to objectively view situations/thoughts/feelings may be inhibited, engaging the body’s flight/fight/freeze response when it is not needed.
Emotional, survival mode remains on, without a real threat of danger.
In trauma the critical balance between these areas of the brain shifts dramatically, making it harder for an individual to control how they manage emotions. The body is quite literally misinterpreting information, sensing danger and reacting. Mothers may begin to be hypervigilant about their baby’s safety within the home. They may dissociate and withdraw from what is going on around them, including their baby. Become intolerant to loud noises, enraged by small frustrations, freezing with touch because everything is sensed as a threat. Postnatal depression, postnatal anxiety, PTSD. All coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma.
You’ve read through this blog, and you understand what trauma is, how it works, and are possibly starting to understand a little bit more about your own experience of birth. Perhaps you still don’t understand your birth at all. Perhaps all you know right now is that you recognise that something doesn’t quite feel right for you in response to your birth. And that’s ok.
Taking the step to be curious about this blog post and read through it is a massive start that must be acknowledged.
There are many avenues for mothers and fathers to begin to explore their experience of birth. With trauma in particular it is important to seek out the best avenues for YOU in doing this. What you need at any one time in working through your birth experience may change as your exploration develops. Some avenues to explore may include:
The impact of birth, particularly birth trauma, can last a lifetime.
The negative fall-out of a traumatic birth doesn’t have to last forever.
It is NEVER too late to begin working through your experience of childbirth. It can be a hard journey for some, but well worth it.
My name is Fiona Rogerson and I am an ACA accredited perinatal and Perth women’s counsellor, and Hypnobirthing (Mongan Method) Practitioner. I work with women and men to overcome emotional and psychological hurdles surrounding conception, pregnancy, postpartum, parenting and identity. I am also available to provide professional development training and workshops to various organisations. I am based south of the river in Perth and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0402 017 425 or via my contact page.