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Coping After Birth Trauma

How to manage the impacts of birth trauma and experience post-traumatic growth.

Key points

  • "Post-traumatic growth" is a positive psychological change that occurs as a result of a traumatic incident.
  • With time, survivors of a traumatic birth may experience post-traumatic growth.
  • Seeking support and using approach-oriented coping makes you more likely to experience post-traumatic growth.

An emerging line of research on birth trauma can help us to understand just how common this experience is and how to cope with this experience. There should be room to express both gratitude about the birth as well as process the trauma, anger, and feeling of loss that may have occurred at the same time.

How can you cope with birth trauma?

  1. Seek a mental health professional specializing in perinatal mental health, particularly if you have symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety, psychosis, or PTSD. Research suggests that therapy after a traumatic birth decreases symptoms of trauma, self-blame, depression, and stress. Psychology Today Therapy Directory is a good place to find help.
  2. Don’t let anyone (or yourself) invalidate your trauma by telling you that it could have been worse or that you should be grateful for any positive aspect of it. Birth trauma is defined by your emotional experience after the event, not by the outcome. It is also possible to be both grateful for any positive aspect and recognize that the birth was traumatic and that you are mourning the loss of the birth experience you wanted.
  3. Seek social support from other mothers, friends, or family during pregnancy and postpartum. Research finds that mothers with social support, including both practical (babysitting, homework help, etc.) and emotional, are less likely to experience PTSD after childbirth.
  4. Write down your birth story. Research finds telling a coherent story after experiencing trauma may help with recovery and coping. One study found that postpartum women asked to write down their birth stories and experienced emotions showed lower depression and PTSD symptoms. This study asked women to write twice daily for 15 to 20 minutes. Writing your story down prevents the avoidance of traumatic memories, which tends to have a negative impact and may help you to integrate the complex emotions you are experiencing.
  5. Challenge any thoughts related to self-blame. Self-blame is a common experience among birth trauma survivors. When you notice yourself experiencing these thoughts, challenge them with thoughts and evidence that take the blame away from yourself.
  6. If you would like to experience birth again and can, find medical providers and a doula that supports your choices. Support during labor and birth may reduce your chances of experiencing a traumatic birth again. A doula, in particular, may be helpful since their only role is to support you. In addition, having control over your birth experience may reduce your chance of PTSD. Many people who experience a traumatic birth schedule an induction or an elective C-section for subsequent births in order to be more in control.
  7. Ask for skin-to-skin care immediately after birth if possible. A randomized controlled trial found that skin-to-skin in the hour after a traumatic birth improved mental health immediately after the birth and two and three months after the birth. However, it is very important to mention that many birth complications make it impossible to experience skin-to-skin contact in the hour after birth. The benefits of skin-to-skin contact for mental health continue up to 12 weeks after birth, and it is likely never “too late” to start skin-to-skin care.
  8. Advocate for more sensitive and responsive care for birthing individuals and increased mental health resources in the postpartum period. Research finds that lower-quality interactions between birthing individuals and providers are associated with a greater chance of developing PTSD after childbirth. All birthing individuals deserve to be heard and supported throughout this process.

Post-traumatic growth: When something beautiful comes from trauma

With time, survivors of a traumatic birth may experience “post-traumatic growth” (see here for a scientific explanation). Post-traumatic growth is a positive psychological change that occurs as a result of a traumatic incident. It does not mean the distress of the trauma is not still there or that you see the trauma as something positive but that the trauma shakes you to your core in such a way that it causes you to re-examine your life and make positive changes. Researchers use a metaphor of an earthquake to explain post-traumatic growth (see image below). An earthquake causes destruction, which requires you to rebuild in new ways. You would never have wished that the earthquake occurred, but you can still recognize the beauty in the rebuilding.

Source: Cara Goodwin
Posttraumatic Growth After Birth Trauma: “I Was Broken, Now I Am Unbreakable”
Source: Cara Goodwin

Research suggests that almost 50 percent of mothers may experience posttraumatic growth after a traumatic birth. In particular, most mothers reported an increased appreciation for life, an enhanced sense of personal strength, and an improved ability to relate to others after a traumatic birth. Mothers report they feel stronger, more empathetic to others in pain, more assertive in fighting for their own needs, and more deeply connected to partners, friends, and children.

What makes you more likely to experience post-traumatic growth?

  1. Seeking guidance and support from others. Research finds that seeking guidance and support from therapists, friends, and family after a traumatic birth is related to enhanced post-traumatic growth.
  2. Using approach-oriented coping. Approach-oriented coping means actively focusing on the trauma to seek help from others, understand how it happened, use problem-solving, and/or accept the results of the trauma. Research finds that approach-oriented coping is associated with greater post-traumatic growth after childbirth.
  3. Being patient. Research finds that the longer it’s been since the traumatic birth, the greater symptoms of post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth won’t happen in weeks or even months–allow yourself time to process and grieve a trauma before expecting any type of growth.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Cara Goodwin, Ph.D.
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