Having a baby is a life-changing experience. In the days and weeks after my son was born, I noticed so many changes in how I felt, thought, responded to things, and even in how I saw myself and my purpose in life. It was the roller coaster I always hoped for and never anticipated at the same time.
Here’s just a snapshot of my mental commentary from our first few weeks…
AWWWW!!!! Look at what we made!
My baby is the best baby of all of the babies. He will move mountains and swim oceans and change the world.
Wait, where’s the off switch?
I never fully understood the importance of sleep until now.
My body no longer belongs to me… it has been taken over by an alien force with squinty eyes and an insatiable appetite…
This kid is the cutest… isn’t he the cutest? *Stares at baby for 2 hours straight while he sleeps*
For the love of God, what does he even want?!
I’m starting to forgive Aerosmith for “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”
A very expensive swing that will make him sleep? Take all my money!
I’m not crying… you’re crying…
Did the pizza delivery guy just call you by your name?
*All of the feels*
This parenting thing is the most amazing thing I have ever done in my life! And it feels good. It feels really really good to look down at this tiny person that you helped create and to think about all of the amazing adventures he’ll have and who he’ll be and how he has his dad’s eyes and my smile and how much he seems to enjoy his tiny little life. There is pride, excitement, intense and overwhelming joy. It’s like a whole new plane of existence just opened up…
And then there’s the rest of it. The worry, the rumination, the paralyzing fear. “What if…” “What about when…” “What if he…” I can’t even type the way these sentences ended in my mind because it’s too terrifying to see in print. For me, it was often worst in the middle of the night when the house was quiet and I was alone, and the weight of everything moved in.
One day I lost a baby sock. It wasn’t just any sock, it was the one with the lightning bolt on it (when your last name is Pow, you buy lots of stuff with lightning bolts). And worse, he hadn’t even worn them yet! “It’s cool, Allison, it’s just a sock,” I heard myself thinking. But the rest of my brain wasn’t getting the memo. An hour later I had dismantled the sofa, cleaned out the garbage, and scoured the washer and dryer at least 10 times. My husband – who was desperately trying to be helpful – seemed confused. “Babe, we can go back and get another pair. It’s fine.” But I couldn’t let it go. It wasn’t until I looked up and saw the expression on his face that I knew what was happening was scaring him. It wasn’t about the sock. This was about me.
Don’t get me wrong, this didn’t appear out of nowhere. I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life. But it never looked like this before, or felt this intense, or interfered with my days and my relationships and my ability to be there for my son. This was my trauma… revealing itself in my fear of losing control. It was the same fear that overtook me in the delivery room when the pain became too much and the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I had to cling to consciousness just a little longer so they wouldn’t take him away from me.
My anxiety had hijacked my body and was setting off all of the fire alarms in my brain. Survival mode kicked in. All over a lightning bolt sock.
That was far from the only time I felt intrusive and debilitating anxiety following what I now consider to be a traumatic birth experience. But it was a pivotal moment for me. As I looked at the fear on my husband’s face that day and retraced the steps to how it all got so escalated, I realized the one person who was notably absent from this story… my son, who looked on from his fancy baby swing while the whole thing unfolded and likely wondered (as much as a 4-month-old can), “What’s wrong with mom? Why is she upset? Is it safe here? Am I okay?”
Traumatic things happen far more often than I wish they did. And some of them are easier to define as “traumatic” because they are so clearly acute, devastating, totalizing, and out of the “normal” realm of experience. But what happens when an experience that’s so quintessentially “normal” that it’s part of a universal narrative for what it means to be human takes a sharp detour from the joyous and celebratory event that we spend 9 months (or more) planning and becomes something unexpected, terrifying, paralyzing?
How do we make sense of it? How do we give ourselves permission to call it what it is… traumatic? And – perhaps most importantly - what does that mean for us and our children?
8 signs your birth experience may have been traumatic…
Things did not go according to your birth plan and you felt powerless to do anything about it
You felt like you had no say in what was going on (e.g., things were going too fast, there was a need for unexpected medical intervention, you felt like others were making decisions without consulting you)
You do not remember important details of the birth experience
You dissociated – You remember having an out-of-body experience, feeling numb, feeling as if you were watching yourself from outside your body
You felt flooded by fear or anxiety to the point of incapacitation
You felt a strong need/desire to escape and/or control things, but felt helpless to act
You’re now experiencing anxiety, fear, sadness, or a strong need to control what’s going on around you
You’re having thoughts that distress you (e.g., intrusive worries about something happening to you or your baby, self-deprecating thoughts like, “I’m a bad parent” or “there’s something wrong with me,” thoughts of harming yourself or your baby)
Circumstances that can lead to trauma during and after the birth of a baby…
You had unexpected medical intervention (e.g., C-section, surgery, epidural, unexpected pain-relieving measures, use of forceps or suction)
You were put under general anesthesia
You had planned to spend time with your baby immediately after birth and were not able to
Your baby had to go into intensive care/NICU
You believed the baby’s life, your own life, or your partner’s life was in danger at any point
Our brains do a lot of really neat stuff, and most of it in the interest of taking care of us in ways we never even consider in our day-to-day lives. When something traumatic happens (that is, something that feels threatening to our safety or to the safety of those close to us), our brains have a very unique response. It’s like a switch flips and an alarm sounds, “You’re not safe here!” Cue lights flashing, sirens blaring, the whole deal… neurologically speaking. That switch amplifies our emotional response (feelings like panic, fear, dread) and dampens our ability to see the situation as a whole – to problem solve and reason through what’s happening to us in the moment. Instead, the limbic system – home to our stress response center – takes over and cuts through all of that thinking and reasoning crap so that we can be free to act quickly in order to escape or fight back against the perceived threat (the “fight or flight” response in action). When we are helpless to either act or escape the threatening situation, things can get even worse. Our brains literally shut us down, and the moment of fear and panic gets frozen in our bodies (like Han Solo in emotional carbonite).
Traumatic events are inherently outside of the “norm.” These are experiences that we have likely never encountered before and are threatening in ways that just feel physically and emotionally unsafe. What we experience in response to something traumatic is our body’s miraculous way of protecting us and channeling energy in the most quick and efficient way to the systems that will enable us to survive. But our minds and bodies weren’t made to sustain this kind of impact easily; and it takes time for them to process it all.
Potential impact of unaddressed trauma…
Physical, mental, and emotional pain (e.g., muscle tension, increased heart rate, hypervigilance, feeling on edge, intrusive and troubling thoughts, excessive worry or anxiety, sadness, anger, irritability, feeling unsafe or easily panicked)
Heightened susceptibility to other mental health issues like depression and anxiety
Strain and conflict in relationships
Threats to or shifts in your sense of self or role as a parent/partner
Disrupted attachments with your baby that can have a long-term impact on their health and wellbeing
Unprocessed trauma dysregulates so many of the physiological systems on which our bodies rely to function normally. This leads to tsunami waves of overwhelming fear and anxiety coupled with neurological efforts to numb – to psychologically escape the parts of the experience that are still too big to take in. It leads to the physiological symptoms we associate with things like posttraumatic stress disorder – racing heart, anxious vigilance, nightmares, flashbacks, inability to sleep. And it drives our frantic efforts to seek safety and control, even in situations that are no longer threatening (like losing a lightning bolt sock).
We’re told that birth should be a happy, exhilarating thing. And it is, it really is! But for those whose birth experiences have been traumatic, that narrative just does not paint the full picture.
And so their picture – their story – goes unrecognized, unacknowledged, unaccepted… unprocessed. Stuck in emotional carbonite… as they look at this tiny baby and wonder how in the hell they are supposed to take care of that little person when they are struggling to feel safe themselves.
Factors that can make things worse…
Trauma goes unrecognized and unacknowledged
Significant others do not understand or support you in coping with what’s happened to you or try to deny/dismiss the intensity and significance of it
Extended separation from your baby, partner, or significant others
Medical complications for you, your baby, or your partner
I’m a big fan of attachment theory. I think it explains so very much about how we learn to be in the world and, importantly, how we learn to feel safe. And it hinges on those pivotal early relationships with caregivers who, from our very first days on Earth, show us with their handling of emotions how to understand and deal with our own. Those raw, unfiltered cries for comfort – when met with a responsive, loving, and empathetic presence – turn to soft smiles and sweet dreams and curious eyes that learn it’s okay to explore the world because they know where to seek comfort when it gets scary.
In this way, we teach our babies how to regulate their new little bodies and brains and how to cope with fear and distress in healthy, adaptive ways. But how can we be that safe base for them while stuck in our own emotional prison?
Recovery from trauma is an active process. It requires a focused and patient dedication to yourself, a trust that your mind and body know how to take care of you if you let them, and a willingness to let yourself be taken care of by those you love and trust so that they can show you all the ways you can feel safe again.
What you can do to support your healing process…
Comfort. Surround yourself with things/people/activities that help you feel safe and comforted.
Breathe. Yes, it’s really that simple. But try doing it in a steady, slow, gentle way…. mindfully. You might try counting while you breathe (inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale 4 counts, hold another 4 – this is called “square breathing”).
Move. Go for a walk. Do some yoga. Stretch, bend, anything you’re able to do. Just start moving. Movement reminds your body what it feels like to be safe and explore.
Connect. Let others help you. You’re carrying a heavier mental and emotional load than they can easily see…
Recalibrate. Do a hobby. It can help to refocus your energy and bring the problem-solving part of your brain back online. Bonus if it’s something that involves rhythmic or repetitive action like sewing, knitting, listening to or playing music, singing, dancing, cooking, etc.
Tell your story. When you feel ready, telling your story through writing, talking, art, or music (or any other way that feels good to you) can help you process what’s happened and find a place to put parts of your experience that feel disconnected or overwhelming. It may feel like a lot to do this on your own. Find someone you trust who can honor this part of the journey with you (a counselor who specializes in perinatal trauma is a great option!).
Early intervention after trauma is vital and can mean the difference between adaptive and effective processing of the trauma and, well, remaining stuck in the carbonite – trapped by a dysregulated nervous system that leads you to believe you and your family are in danger even when everyone is safe and healthy and cared for.
But early intervention is particularly important for survivors of traumatic birth because of the exponential impact your healing has on your entire family… especially that tiny little one that’s looking to you to tell them the world is a safe place to be.
The good news is there are things you can do! The hard news is… it’s up to you to do them. Only then can the healing begin.
Trauma is not always preventable, but having skilled birth professionals involved throughout your pregnancy and birth can help to mitigate the impact of traumatic stress… I know it did for me. We hired Natural Baby Doulas and our doulas helped us to advocate for what we needed, offered us invaluable information and support, and were instrumental in creating a safe space for us as we brought our son into the world. If you’re expecting, go get you a doula. Best money we spent.
Allison M. Pow, Ph.D. is a Licensed Professional Counselor and National Certified Counselor who specializes in working with developmental and attachment traumas and perinatal traumatic stress. She has worked with trauma survivors for over 10 years and also has extensive teaching and research experience in the areas of trauma and attachment. Her private practice is in Greensboro, North Carolina: www.allisonpowcounseling.com.