We’ve all heard those birth horror stories. It's hard to navigate pregnancy without being inundated with stories of other's awful experiences. Sadly, we dismiss these stories as being nothing more than “war stories” and tell these mothers to be quiet and to stop scaring new parents-to-be. The trouble is, their births were awful. In fact, one in three women says that her birth experience was traumatic. It might have been due to a life-threatening emergency or a horrific loss. She may have felt helpless, a number in a system, deceived, isolated, unsupported, threatened, coerced, and afraid. She may have been the one-in-ten new mothers who begins parenthood with postpartum PTSD, along with postpartum depression or anxiety. When we silence these stories, we stop hearing what women are actually experiencing. And we deny their reality and lose the opportunity to make changes to ensure the epidemic of birth trauma is ended.
It isn’t up to anyone but you to decide if the experience was traumatic and how you feel about it. It doesn’t matter if someone had a ‘worse’ experience. If you would like to connect with other mothers who understand, you can request to join our closed facebook forum. This is limited to mothers-of-trauma only as this is for peer support.
Trauma actually changes the structure and function of parts of the brain and is considered to be a brain injury. Structures within the limbic system, such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate cortex can become smaller and impact memories, emotions, and the ability to do things that once came easily. This trauma-induced brain injury contributes to the symptoms of trauma – flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, sweats, tremors, forgetfulness, increased pain, and more. Symptoms of trauma can last from month to years. The good news is that the brain is plastic, meaning changeable, and can heal. For almost half of sufferers, their symptoms go away in time without treatment. However, there are therapies that can help.
EMDR (eye movement desensitisation & reprocessing) – this type of treatment is offered by a trained therapist. Many mothers-of-trauma find that it helps them get their life back as the symptoms lessen. It’s a proven strategy for recovery from trauma. You can look for a therapist near you here.
CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) – this is often a short-term therapy that helps the individual learn new ways of thinking about the experience. This is an evidence-based approach to working through trauma. You can look for a certified CBT therapist here.
Music therapy applies the science of healing through targeted musical interventions that bring healing to a trauma-injured brain. The evidence for this therapy is growing daily and offers many benefits. You can look for a licensed music therapist here.
Pelvic floor physiotherapy offers hope and healing for issues connected to the pelvic floor, including incontinence, pain, sexual dysfunction, and trauma. This is a specialised branch of physiotherapy that carefully respects your dignity and your trauma. You can look for a specialised physiotherapist here.
There are many more trauma-informed and trauma-specialised therapists that can help you recover. Birth Trauma Ontario is partnering with professionals that are equipped to offer you the care you need. If you are a trauma-informed professional or know of one who might like to partner with us, please contact us. You can also search online in your area, ask other parents who have been through this, or consult your care provider.
Learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD Association of Canada.
Not everyone who has a traumatic experience develops post-traumatic stress disorder. There are certain events that may increase your risk. And once you know about them, you can take steps to help lessen the possibility.
Prior sexual violation. If you’ve been sexually violated, you are not alone. It happens everywhere, but it’s more common if you are female, and especially if you are part of a marginalised group, such as being indigenous or aboriginal, having a disability, or being a member of the LGBTQA+ community. It’s not up to you to disclose all the parts of your past in order to be treated with careful dignity; it’s up to your care providers to extend careful services. You may insist that you are provided with trauma-informed services for your pregnancy and birthing experience. You may also choose non-medical, culturally-appropriate support for your family’s needs.
An abusive or traumatic past. When people have a difficult childhood, we say they have experienced “adverse childhood experiences”. This could mean the child was abused (physically, sexually, emotionally) or neglected (not cared for, left alone, not fed, not educated), grew up with family dysfunction (there was alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence, a parent who was in jail, or had mental health issues), or is a survivor of sex trafficking, or war and displacement. When a child grows up with traumatic events, it affects their health. It also means that they learn different ways of coping that don’t seem “healthy”, such as smoking or drinking or using drugs, not being able to stay in school, running away to escape abuse, having unhealthy relationships, and such. When there’s a history of abuse, it makes it harder to have a healthy pregnancy and birth. And it means that your care providers might not understand your coping strategies and may be harsh and unkind to you. Finding support for your pregnancy and birth means you may look for a doula in addition to requesting a trauma-informed care provider. You can also join online forums where other parents will understand and encourage you in your path towards growing from your past.
Missing key nutrients. Whether it’s because of prior abuse, current living conditions, health issues, or poverty, many people are now missing some key nutrients that help to ensure their brains are operating at the highest level of health. Trauma causes changes in the brain’s structure and how it functions. When someone has a low level of some key nutrients, it means that their brain doesn’t have everything it needs to resist trauma in the same way that someone who has all the nutrients does. Here are some key nutrients to think about as you are making sure you have increasing resilience to trauma:
Vitamin D. This is the “sunshine vitamin”. Many people are very low in vitamin D because of needing to work indoors and using sunscreen to prevent sunburn. However, our brains need vitamin D for optimal health.
Magnesium. This mineral is required for over 300 enzyme systems. Magnesium is so important, that when it’s too low it contributes to anxiety, agitation, confusion, memory loss, hyperexcitability, insomnia, sleep disorders, suicidal ideation, restless leg syndrome, muscle weakness, heart arrhythmias, migraines and headaches, and IQ loss. This sounds a lot like the symptoms of trauma! It’s been suggested that magnesium deficiency could be a part of most major depression and related mental health illnesses, including postpartum depression.
Omega-3. This essential (meaning it must come from the food we eat) fat is needed to keep our brains healthy and to reduce inflammation. It mostly comes from fish and seafood. Most Canadians are very low in omega-3 intake and this affect their health, including depression and other mood disorders, and thoughts of suicide.
Reducing foods that add to inflammation and increasing healthy colourful foods can help protect and heal our wonderful brains from trauma.
You can review the references for the above information here.
Counselor talking to woman with hand on shoulder