As far as we have come in understanding the importance of mental health in society, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is still a condition that comes with a variety of misconceptions. Chief among them is the notion that PTSD is a condition that exclusively affects soldiers or people involved in violent experiences. Not only does this stereotype make it difficult for individuals to be properly diagnosed, it also can hinder their progress toward recovery, as victims may feel as though their trauma does not compare with that of war veterans.
Postpartum PTSD (or birth trauma) is just one type of PTSD that is easily overlooked, even though 9% of women experience it. Symptoms such as physical sensations, feelings of detachment and insomnia may be misunderstood by many new mothers as just regular postpartum stress, rather than problems that may require treatment and time.
While any kind of PTSD should be diagnosed and monitored by a qualified health professional, mothers can turn to self-help methods such as yoga for trauma to aid in their recovery.
What is Birth Trauma?
Birth trauma refers to post-traumatic stress that is experienced during the postpartum period. Modern medicine and birthing techniques have ensured that mothers can give birth with very little risk to them or their child. However, there are occasions in which a difficult birth can result in a traumatic experience.
For example, longer or more complicated births are more likely to require medical intervention or C Sections, which can place an incredible amount of stress on the mother (especially if these are unplanned). Even relatively “minor” emergency procedures such as episiotomies can be hugely distressing – and most especially if they are administered without consent. After a traumatic birth, women may feel loss of control and agency over their bodies.
However, prolonged or difficult births are not the only reasons for an individual experiencing birth trauma. Giving birth in a hospital (especially if the individual experiences a hostile or unwelcoming environment, or has negative memories and associations attached to medicalised environments) can also place stress upon some expectant mothers. In fact, negative or abusive behaviour towards women during birth, including ‘lack of informed consent, misrepresentation of medical situations, and threats, likely contribute to the high rates of unnecessary interventions and to traumatic birth experiences.’
Symptoms of birth trauma are analogous with the symptoms of PTSD; for example re-living aspects of the trauma through dreams, flashbacks or physical sensations, or experiencing a sense of constant anxiety that makes concentration and sleep extremely difficult. Feelings of detachment or being emotionally ‘numb’ are also common in cases of birth trauma. This is usually due to the repression of painful and traumatic memories and can even cause the individual to struggle with showing affection towards others.
Not only can these symptoms prevent a mother from bonding with her child due to the constant reminders of her traumatic birth, but in some cases, women can feel too traumatised or scared to have any more children for years after – or even at all.
This is exacerbated if women suffering from birth trauma are misdiagnosed with Postnatal Depression (though the two conditions can overlap), as opposed to being treated for the right condition. Because not all mothers will experience a traumatic birth, this can often put women in a situation where they feel even more isolated and ashamed of their experiences.
Alleviating the symptoms of birth trauma with yoga therapy
Because trauma affects our minds, our bodies and our emotions, the best treatment will help to guide us in all these aspects. While it is vital that anyone suffering from birth trauma consult a health professional such as a doctor, therapist or psychologist, yoga is an effective complementary treatment that can be used in combination with therapy in order to alleviate symptoms.
In fact, not only can yoga aid in PTSD recovery in its own right, it can also create a more positive and open mindset in the patient, which can make them more receptive to any therapy they may be receiving.
Psychologically, new mothers are likely to feel fragile after giving birth, even if there was no trauma involved. However, for those having experienced a traumatic birth, there are many things that could easily trigger an unpleasant memory. For example, being asked by friends or family about the details of a birth story could cause a woman to panic, even when her brain rationally knows that she is no longer in that difficult situation.
However, because yoga therapy increases our mind and body awareness, and helps to regulate our nervous system, we can reach a baseline physiological state more quickly after a distressing memory is triggered.
Emotionally, yoga classes can help women to integrate into a social environment, which can also become part of the healing process. Any kind of postpartum condition, whether it be PTSD or depression can be isolating and frightening and can have a huge impact on someone’s social life.
Going to a yoga class can offer a relaxing alternative to socialising where individuals are focused on growth and progression and mothers suffering from birth trauma can omit their potentially triggering experiences in a way that can be more difficult with family or friends.
Physically, yoga allows us to create a stronger connection between our minds and our bodies and teaches us body awareness. Taking part in activities such as these can help women feel in control over a body that may feel alien to them. Many women feel as though their body has let them down’ in some way during a traumatic birth. Using and strengthening it in a positive way can help women feel in tune with themselves again as well as helping to decrease the physical symptoms of PTSD, such as panic attacks and hyperventilation.
Tackling any kind of trauma means assessing a person’s needs physically, emotionally and psychologically and helping the individual understand themselves the best they can in order to move forward. Regarding birth trauma, this could mean forming a deeper connection to your baby, not feeling over personal birthing experience and even perhaps tackling the fear of having more children in the future because of one negative experience.
Yoga therapy has a history of helping PTSD survivors from various backgrounds and experiences and helps to create a mental and physical environment in which you can stabilize your nervous system, calm your mind and create a stronger connection between yourself and your body.