One of my specialty practice areas is birth trauma, specifically using EMDR therapy to treat birth trauma. This blog post will discuss what birth trauma is, my own experience with birth trauma, and how EMDR therapy can be helpful in treating birth trauma.
What is Birth Trauma?
Any traumatic event surrounding the birth of a child can be considered birth trauma. Preterm labor and birth, separation from your baby due to a NICU stay, an emergency c-section, any difficulties the baby or birthing person may have during or immediately following birth, the tragedy of stillbirth, physical, psychological, and emotional distress during or immediately following birth, and poor treatment by providers during or immediately following the birth of your baby all fall under the category of birth trauma. Really, the birthing person is the one who determines if the birth was traumatic – no one else gets to make that determination for you. With this kind of broad definition of birth trauma, some data suggests that up to 45% of birthing people report experiencing a traumatic birth (Beck, Watson, & Gable, 2018). Birth trauma greatly increases the incidence of postpartum mental health issues.
My Birth Trauma Story
I experienced a traumatic birth with my first child. Although both my baby and I were physically fine after her birth, the experience was so challenging and frightening that I knew I had to radically alter the care I would receive for subsequent pregnancies and births. I had very traditional OB care during my first pregnancy – at a large practice connected to a hospital. I really didn’t know much about the birthing experience and what my options were, in spite of lots of reading and in spite of taking a class at the hospital which was supposed to prepare me! Essentially, my labor escalated quickly and was excruciating. I finally got an epidural, but it wore off before it was time to push. Because I was in a traditional hospital setting, I was required to birth on my back – probably the least efficient way to push – and I never felt the urge to push. I just pushed, in agonizing pain, for three hours. My baby was born healthy, thank goodness, but the internal physical trauma was significant, affecting my ability to go to the bathroom and to resume physical activity for months. I was an avid runner before birth and after my first daughter’s birth, every time I went for even the shortest run, I felt like my insides were going to fall out. It was horrendous. I also was psychologically impacted by the disempowerment and fear I experienced throughout the pushing ordeal.
The Aftermath of Birth Trauma
When it came time to have my second child, I went to a birth center. I was encouraged to move through labor in whatever position felt comfortable to me. I moved in and out of a whirlpool tub, used a birthing ball, crouched, walked, etc. This birth was by no means easy – are there any easy births? No – but I had choice, autonomy, and the support of a great team of providers, and my wonderful spouse who completely supported my choices for a different birth setting. He witnessed my experience with baby #1 and knew that we had to try something different. In any case, this baby came out in three pushes, once I finally felt the urge to push, and the physical trauma was minimal and my recovery was quicker and uneventful.
Birth Trauma and EMDR Therapy
These experiences informed my desire to help other birthing people recover from their own birth traumas. My professional identity as a trauma therapist helped me view these experiences through the lens of trauma. I recognized that trauma treatment techniques that work well for treating other traumas could also apply to birth trauma. Trauma is embodied – its vestiges remain in the body long after the event has come to an end. What could be a more embodied experience than birth? Intense, potentially overwhelming and often painful body sensations are pivotal elements of the birth experience. For many birthing people, myself included, those sensations – whether we are talking about painful contractions, pushing, c-section surgery, medical interventions during birth, the body sensations of panic, fear, anxiety that can accompany the tumultuous ride of birthing, the physical aftermath of birth – are traumatic. An embodied approach to trauma treatment like EMDR can clear the remains of those experiences that live on in our bodies. EMDR can also treat the psychological reminders of a traumatic birth – flashbacks, anxiety about future births, fear of other medical procedures, the separation from your baby due to a NICU stay, etc.
Contact me to learn more about EMDR therapy and birth trauma
I have worked with many birthing people who have successfully moved through the traumas that surrounded the birth of their child. Some clients who thought they would never have another baby felt ready to do so after processing their birth traumas with EMDR. If you are interested in learning more about how EMDR can help you overcome the trauma you experienced during the birth of your child, please reach out! I’d love to talk to you.