Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pregnancy
If you have experienced a traumatic event in your life and feel that you are still physically or emotionally affected by it, then you might be suffering from PTSD. This is a very serious mental health condition that can be even more problematic if you are pregnant or are a first-time mother.
Rest assured, though, that help and treatment are available. To find out more about this, keep reading our comprehensive guide below.
What is PTSD and how can it affect your pregnancy?
PTSD is the acronym for “post-traumatic stress disorder”. As the expression itself says, this is a mental health disorder that occurs following trauma. It’s important to note that trauma looks different for different people.
Traumas sit on a wide-ranging spectrum that goes from something life-threatening like experiencing war, violence, or abuse, to something that most people go through such as ending a relationship or losing a job. Trauma, in fact, has a lot more to do with how we react to and process negative experiences, than with the experiences themselves.
As you can expect, suffering from PTSD can be very harmful if you are pregnant. This is because it can cause you to experience both physical and psychological symptoms that might put at risk your health or that of your baby.
The risk of undiagnosed PTSD
Receiving a formal diagnosis of PTSD is not always easy, precisely because traumas can range so much in type and severity. Symptoms of PTSD can also surface months or even years after the occurrence of a traumatic event, which further adds to the complexity of a diagnosis.
When PTSD remains undiagnosed, however, its symptoms can escalate and turn into potentially life-threatening ones. This is one of the main reasons why it’s so crucial to be able to diagnose PTSD rapidly and provide effective and personalised support and treatment.
PTSD after pregnancy
PTSD can occur at any time in a person’s life, if they experience a traumatic event. PTSD after pregnancy is much more common than we think, with statistics stating it affects one to two in 100 women. This type of PTSD can be caused by a range of factors, including:
- Pre-existing (and, especially, undiagnosed) mental health problems
- High-risk, traumatic pregnancy and/or birth
- Pregnancy loss, such as miscarriage, stillbirth, or termination for medical reasons.
In some cases, women can experience PTSD during pregnancy. This is particularly common in women who are pregnant following either a difficult pregnancy, the previous loss of a baby, or birth trauma.
Causes and symptoms
The symptoms of PTSD are usually quite obvious and pronounced, and can include:
- Constant flashbacks to the traumatic experience
- Constant negative, intrusive thoughts
- A constant feeling of panic, dread, and anxiety
- Physical sensations of pain
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
- Finding it difficult to bond with your baby
- Experiencing frequent outbursts of anger
- Having trouble sleeping
Where to seek help?
As a first step, you’ll want to lead as healthy a lifestyle as possible. This includes nourishing your body with wholesome, nutritious foods, staying active, meditating, and surrounding yourself with people who love and support you.
Taking the time to practice some self-care every day is also very important. Something as simple as relaxing in a warm bath with a lovely, scented candle can help still your mind and rest your body. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD after your baby is born, it might help to try and practice activities that release high levels of the so-called “love hormone”, oxytocin.
These will allow you to bond with your baby and shift the focus away from the anxious, negative feelings and thoughts of PTSD. Things like calm and loving feeding or skin-to-skin sessions, perhaps in a candle-lit room, are great to help your body produce more oxytocin.
However, when PTSD symptoms get too difficult to handle through self-help, it’s vital to seek professional help. Speak with your GP or midwife if you think you have experienced a traumatic event and are suffering from it.
They will likely refer you to a mental health practitioner, who will be able to offer you specialised support. Both CBT and EMDR, for example, are very effective in treating PTSD. In some cases, your doctor might prescribe some medication that will help you ease the anxiety caused by your PTSD.
What's a traumatic pregnancy?
The definition of “traumatic pregnancy” is not easy to provide, as trauma can look different in different people. However, pregnancies that are classified as “high-risk”, or pregnancies that occur following a previous pregnancy loss or birth trauma can result in traumatic pregnancies.
How can my pregnancy affect my PTSD?
It is difficult to anticipate how pre-existing PTSD will go on to affect your pregnancy. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that if you are suffering with PTSD – whether or not you have received a formal diagnosis from a medical professional – you can seek the right help and treatment through your GP or midwife.