Birth Trauma Awareness Week - Talking about PTSD

Published on: 07/07/2018

Today we are talking about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Last month, new draft NICE guidelines suggest that people who have suffered a trauma should be offered CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) within one month of a trauma to help prevent PTSD.

What is PTSD? 

PTSD is a mental health condition that some people can develop after being involved in or witnessing a traumatic event.
It is normal under these circumstances to have difficult memories and feelings for a while, but with PTSD symptoms can last for months or even years.
Symptoms can include reliving the event over and over again, flashbacks, avoiding people or places that might remind you of the event, feeling negatively towards yourself and things you used to enjoy and feeling on high alert and jittery all the time.

If we are thinking about pregnancy and birth, it’s important to acknowledge and talk about the fact that things don’t always go to plan. Perhaps during your delivery, all of a sudden the room was filled with medical staff and you did not know what was going on. Perhaps you lost your baby. Following either of those events, memories and feelings would be difficult to process afterwards for you and for partners or close family members that were with you at the time.

Speaking from my own experience of losing a baby, the symptoms mentioned of PTSD can feel quite normal and expected with such grief to start with. So when does it become not normal? Jess from The Legacy of Leo explains it really well in her blog and says:

“Those memories (specifically, finding out that he died, and awaiting labour) have become intrusive and anxiety filled, when before they were memories with just sadness, one’s that I could think about with a gentler level of ease. Far from my favourite memories, but safe(ish) nonetheless. I don’t like to refer to these memories as ‘unwanted’ (given its hard to start getting picky about memories of Leo when we have so few), but the reaction to them certainly is unwanted. Now, I suddenly fear them and the emotional panic that they elicit.”

Looking at an instance of a traumatic delivery, there seems to be a view of “phew, at least everyone is safe and okay”. That may be so, but for parents who went through that trauma believing that either they, or their baby might die does not therefore negate the difficult feelings and memories that follow. 

So the new draft NICE guidelines are very welcome, but they still require us, health professionals or people close to us to recognise and acknowledge the feelings that follow a traumatic event. It also requires us to do something lots of us find hard…. Ask for help (& early on). The fact is though in doing so, you could be avoiding a long term, ongoing struggle that ultimately makes day to day life feel like wading through treacle. Whilst there is no “fix” and you never “get over” a traumatic event, you can learn for it to become a part of you in a way that enables you to still enjoy life and still look to the future with hope.

If you have suffered a traumatic event, you can speak with your GP about getting a referral for CBT. Even with the new draft guidelines, waiting times will still vary from area to area. If you didn’t want to wait, your GP will normally have private practitioners they can recommend. It can be helpful to ask the receptionist which of the GP’s in your practice are most helpful with mental health issues.

The Birth Trauma Association have some great information over on their website and offer help and support.

You can also check if your area offers a birth reflection service. This enables you to talk through your experience with a midwife. In some cases, perceptions of the same event will vary greatly and speaking with a midwife about the aspects that you perhaps are struggling with can really help.

If you are a health professional and know of a family who has suffered a traumatic event, then offering information about help available or CBT early on to help them deal with difficult memories could be really helpful.