Understanding Postpartum PTSD
Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that presents similar symptoms as other forms of PTSD. When women experience real or perceived traumas before, during or after childbirth, it can result in chronic and terrifying symptoms. Early treatment for postpartum PTSD is highly effective in restoring a mother’s quality of life and improving their ability to bond with their child.
What is Postpartum PTSD?
Postpartum PTSD is a mental health condition that affects women following childbirth. The condition develops from a traumatic experience that occurred before, during or shortly after the birth. This traumatic incident could have been real or it could have been perceived. Either way, the result is a chronic mental health issue that creates anxiety or panic-like symptoms and causes its victms to live in a constant state of fear and danger.
Like other forms of PTSD, women with postpartum PTSD often suffer in the form of flashbacks or memories that continue to remind them of the trauma they experienced.
While postpartum PTSD is separate from depression, the two are not mutually exclusive. Postpartum PTSD and postpartum depression can co-occur in the same case, creating further diagnostic and treatment challenges.
Who Does Postpartum PTSD Affect?
Postpartum PTSD is a relatively unknown condition, in part because PTSD is often associated with soldiers or emergency response personnel. However, some studies have shown that over 30 percent of women suffer some symptoms of PTSD after childbirth. These studies also found that between 3 and 7 percent of women suffer full-blown postpartum PTSD after childbirth. Other studies have placed the rate of full-blown postpartum PTSD at as high as 9 percent in new mothers.
Postpartum PTSD, like many postpartum depression subtypes, may be severely underdiagnosed. Postpartum PTSD has only recently been brought to attention as a serious condition for women. So many new mothers remain undiagnosed regarding the residual effects of their traumatic experiences.
Postpartum PTSD Causes and Risk Factors
PTSD, in general, is caused by experiencing one or several traumatic incidents that have imprinted the mind. In the case of postpartum PTSD, the traumatic incident that triggers these symptoms directly involves the pregnancy, delivery or some another event relating to childbirth.
Some examples of traumatic experiences that may cause postpartum PTSD to include:
- Difficult, long and painful child labor
- The use of forceps or vacuum on the baby during delivery
- Having to undergo an emergency C-section
- A health threat or crisis to either the mother or the baby during pregnancy or childbirth
- Umbilical cord prolapse
- The baby being placed in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
- A lack of support or communication during delivery causes feelings of hopelessness and despair
- Any physical condition such as postpartum hemorrhage, a hysterectomy, preeclampsia or eclampsia, severe perineal trauma or any form of cardiac condition
These are only some potential traumatic incidents and complications that can occur during childbirth. There may be other events that can trigger postpartum PTSD symptoms as well.
Postpartum PTSD Risk Factors
Just because a woman has suffered trauma during pregnancy or childbirth doesn’t necessarily mean she will develop postpartum PTSD. Other risk factors make women more susceptible to developing PTSD symptoms after a traumatic childbirth event.
Here are some of the potential postpartum PTSD risk factors:
- A history of past trauma such as rape, sexual violence or an accident
- A history of PTSD symptoms from any past trauma
- A history of anxiety or depression
If a woman is reminded of threats, anxiety or any other form of distress, it can trigger PTSD symptoms and develop into what is known as postpartum PTSD. Therefore, simple memories of trauma can activate postpartum PTSD symptoms.
Postpartum PTSD Symptoms
Postpartum PTSD has a distinct set of symptoms that set it apart from postpartum depression, anxiety or other postpartum mental health conditions.
The following are the most common sets of postpartum PTSD symptoms experienced by new mothers:
- Repetitively re-experiencing the trauma in an intrusive and uncontrollable way
- Suffering from flashbacks, nightmares and/or memories of trauma
- Being reminded of the trauma through triggering events
- Actively avoiding anything that will trigger the trauma such as specific people or places
- Remaining constantly on edge, hyper vigilant, or aware of perceived threats and danger
- Reacting exaggeratedly to perceived threats or dangers (such as being excessively startled by sounds or touch)
- Feeling detached or disconnected from reality and people
- Suffering anxiety and panic attacks for seemingly no reason
- Difficulty sleeping, concentrating or remembering things
Overall, women with full-blown postpartum PTSD will feel as though they are in a constant state of distress, which activates the brain’s “fight or flight” mode. This causes all of the above physical, mental, emotional and behavioral symptoms.
Postpartum PTSD symptoms should be temporary and they are highly treatable. However, if a diagnosis isn’t reached and treatment is not sought, postpartum PTSD can have devastating long-term effects on mental and personal health. The worst-hit areas are daily life functions and the maintenance of personal relationships.
Postpartum PTSD Treatment
Symptoms of postpartum PTSD are highly treatable. Many women who receive treatment for their trauma go on to live normal lives and never experience reminders and flashbacks of the event again.
It is important for women to recognize their symptoms and seek treatment to overcome their fears, reduce the level of distress in their lives and ensure they bond with their children. Early treatment for postpartum PTSD also prevents the condition from manifesting in other destructive ways, such as eating disorders, addiction, compulsive behavior, or suicide.
Psychotherapy options such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are highly effective forms of PTSD treatment. These can be conducted by psychiatrists, psychologists or other mental health care professionals.
If you are experiencing postpartum PTSD, it is important to seek the advice of a physician or mental health professional as soon as you notice the signs and symptoms.