Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Understanding Postpartum PTSD

Postpartum PTSD is a condition that presents the same types of symptoms and outcomes 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 and can help mothers restore their quality of life and improve 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 is the result of a traumatic experience that took place before, during or after delivering the child. To the woman in question, 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 many women to live in a constant state of fear and danger.

Like all other forms of PTSD, women with postpartum PTSD often suffer their symptoms in the form of flashbacks or memories that continue to remind them of the trauma they experienced.

While postpartum PTSD is a separate condition altogether from depression, the two are not mutually exclusive. Postpartum PTSD and postpartum depression can co-occur in the same case and this creates further diagnostic and treatment challenges.

Who Does Postpartum PTSD Affect?

Postpartum PTSD is a relatively unknown condition likely in part because of PTSD being associated exclusively with soldiers or emergency response personnel. However, some studies have shown that over 30% of women suffer some symptoms of PTSD after childbirth. These studies also found that between 3% and 7% of women suffer full-blown postpartum PTSD meaning they experience the full gamut of symptoms after childbirth. Some studies have also placed the rate of full-blown postpartum PTSD at as high as 9% of women.

Postpartum PTSD, like many postpartum depression subtypes, is potentially severely underdiagnosed. Postpartum PTSD is only in recent years been brought to attention as a real and serious condition for women, and so many new mothers remain underdiagnosed when it comes to the residual effects of their traumatic experiences.

Postpartum PTSD Causes and Risk Factors

PTSD, in general, is caused by the experiencing of one or multiple traumatic incidents that has left an imprint on the mind. In the case of postpartum PTSD, the traumatic incident that creates PTSD symptoms was directly involved with pregnancy, delivery or some other event surrounding childbirth.

Some examples of traumatic experiences that may cause postpartum PTSD 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 neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
  • A lack of support or communication during delivery that causes feelings of hopelessness and despair
  • Any kind of physical condition such as postpartum hemorrhage, a hysterectomy, preeclampsia or eclampsia, severe perineal trauma or any form of cardiac condition

These are only some of the 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 a trauma during pregnancy or childbirth doesn’t necessarily mean she will develop postpartum PTSD. There are other risk factors that may make women more susceptible to developing PTSD symptoms after they’ve undergone a traumatic childbirth event.

Here are some of the potential postpartum PTSD risk factors:

  • A history of 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 sets it apart from postpartum depression, anxiety or any other form of postpartum mental health condition.

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 the trauma
  • Being reminded of the trauma through triggering events
  • Actively avoiding anything that will trigger the trauma such as specific people, places or any details
  • Remaining constantly on edge, hypervigilant, or aware of perceived threats and danger
  • Reacting in an exaggerated startled way 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 is what 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 that can be damaging to mental and personal health especially when it comes to functioning daily life and maintaining interpersonal 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 so that they can overcome their fears, reduce the level of distress in their lives and ensure they build a bond with their child. Early treatment for postpartum PTSD also prevents the condition from manifesting itself 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.