Coping With Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often associated with extreme violence and combat veterans, but any traumatic event can trigger this serious mental illness. This includes experiences during or after childbirth. Postpartum PTSD is a real condition that many women face. It may go unrecognized or be misdiagnosed as postpartum depression. PTSD of any type or from any cause is treatable. Women struggling with trauma related to birth must be diagnosed and receive help from professionals to recover and be able to enjoy new motherhood.
Postpartum depression, a serious mental illness that causes intense sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety after childbirth, carries an unfortunate stigma for many women. New mothers feel pressured to be blissfully happy, and it can feel like a failure to be depressed, yet one in seven will experience this depression.
As more people recognize and destigmatize postpartum depression, another serious condition needs recognition, too. Up to nine percent of women experience trauma during childbirth, to the extent that it triggers postpartum PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Professional care is available and can help these traumatized new mothers regain control, learn to cope, and bond with their babies.
What Is Postpartum PTSD?
PTSD is a condition triggered by an event that is terrifying and threatening. It causes a long-term response to that trauma that includes intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, emotional outbursts, hyperarousal, negative thoughts, social isolation, and distress that can take any number of forms.
Trauma means different things for different people. It is a mistake to assume you have to be a victim of violence or in combat to react to a frightening situation in such a way that triggers PTSD. Several aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and new motherhood can be traumatic:
- Unplanned pregnancies
- An abortion or a miscarriage
- A stillbirth
- Complications in the mother, including mental illnesses like postpartum depression
- Complications in the baby
- A difficult, intense, or prolonged, painful labor
PTSD, regardless of the cause, must be treated. It does not get better without professional intervention. Trauma-focused therapies form the basis of care plans and help patients process and reframe past experiences to better cope with them.
How to Cope With and Manage PTSD for New Moms
If you have struggled with difficult birth experiences; if you can’t seem to bond with your baby or shake feelings of depression and anxiety; if you can’t get the memories of labor out of your head; and if you can’t function normally or experience joy or pleasure, it’s time to get a mental health evaluation.
Living with PTSD presents challenges, but it is a manageable, treatable mental illness. Start with professional help, which will give you the important tools you need to cope with this condition.
1. Get Professional Help.
The most important thing you can do if you are struggling with any type of mental health challenge after childbirth is to get professional help. Recognize and treat this as the medical condition it is. Just as you treat the physical complications of childbirth, you must also seek professional care for mental illness.
The recovery plan for PTSD centers on therapy. Medications may be helpful for some women, but medications alone are not a solution or a cure for PTSD. Consider getting care in a residential facility that specializes in women’s mental health. It may feel as if you are abandoning your baby, but let go of that guilt. The selfless thing to do is to take care of your own health first.
A residential facility gives you the time and focus necessary to get better. Therapies that focus on trauma, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, exposure therapy, and trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy, will give you a productive, safe way to relive and reprocess your traumatic experiences.
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2. Focus on Bonding With Your Baby.
Attachment between mother and child is essential for the mental health of both. With PTSD, bonding is challenging. Once you have been through care, focus on building this attachment, relying on experts for guidance if you are struggling.
There are many simple things you can do to develop a strong, healthy attachment:
- Respond to your baby’s emotional needs, providing comfort and cuddles when distressed or smiling and laughing when happy
- Increase physical contact, touching, holding, and carrying your baby whenever possible
- Talk to your baby throughout the day
- Read and sing to your baby
- Make eye contact with your baby regularly and mirror movements
3. Manage Expectations.
Exactly how and why PTSD develops after childbirth isn’t known. However, there is an idea that expectations for the mother can play a role. Many women never expect to have a difficult birth. Instead, they expect what every new mom wishes for: a smooth, if painful delivery and pure joy at seeing their new baby.
But the truth about childbirth and being a mom is often drastically different from idealistic expectations. If you are struggling with the trauma of birth and new motherhood, adjust your expectations. Understand that no mom has a perfect experience. Every new mother has challenges and struggles. Take that pressure to be perfect off yourself and embrace the difficulties.
4. Get Active.
Making time for exercise isn’t selfish. As a new mom, you’re busy, but exercise is a great way to manage the difficult memories and emotions associated with PTSD. Exercise is a stress buster and a mood booster.
Finding time is the difficult part, but there are ways to squeeze it into your day. Take your baby for a walk every day, for example. You can even sign up for baby and mom exercise classes that engage both of you. And, when possible, let someone else watch your baby while you fit in a more intense workout.
5. Find Support in Other Mothers.
For too long women have not talked about the unique mental health challenges of motherhood. This silence promotes isolation. You probably feel alone, as if other mothers are doing just fine and that there is something wrong with you.
Look for support in other mothers with similar experiences. There are many more out there than you may realize. Support groups for postpartum PTSD and depression, or even just regular coffee sessions with moms you know, can be a huge relief. Share your experiences, learn from each other, and know that you are not alone.
6. Work on Your Relationship With Your Partner.
It’s so easy for both moms and dads to neglect their relationship. This may feel amplified when you’re struggling with mental health. Having a supportive partner can make all the difference, though, so keeping your relationship strong is an essential coping strategy. Here are some things you can do:
- Keep communicating about everything, especially as your roles and expectations shift with a new baby.
- Bond together with the baby, spending time reading, singing, laughing and playing as a family.
- Let the grandparents step in to help with the baby so you can spend time together, even if only for a walk around the block.
- Go to therapy sessions together, both to help manage your PTSD together and to work on strengthening your relationship.
- Avoid turning your frustrations on your partner. Address your challenges together, not divided and against each other.
Postpartum PTSD is a real phenomenon, and it affects more women than most people realize. You don’t have to live with this in silence or alone. PTSD is manageable. Get professional help first and then try these coping strategies to heal and to be able to fully embrace the joys of motherhood.