Understanding your response to Birth Trauma

The previous article looked at Post-Natal PTSD and at how PTSD symptoms can be triggered by the experience of Birth Trauma, both in men as well as women.

This article takes the idea further and explores how changes in our body at the time of the birth trauma event can serve to influence the development and course of Post-Natal PTSD symptoms.

Birth Trauma and the body

What is it that makes our experience of a traumatic event, a traumatic birth for example, different to any other type of event?

Why in times of stress, do we find ourselves shaking with our hearts pounding in our chests and breathless?

And why do we do things that we normally wouldn’t, like run away from the situation or freeze with fear?

To understand this, we need to understand how our body responds to threat. Can you think of a time when you have had to do something that made you nervous or anxious – attending a job interview or having to have a difficult conversation with someone?

Can you remember what happened in your body that told you that you were nervous? When asked this question, people will often reply soemthing along the lines of them feeling tension in their muscles, their heart beating more quickly or that their breathing became more rapid. This is the Fight or Flight response in action.

The Fight or Flight response is part of a physical system in our bodies which has evolved over time to keep us safe from threat. We may also include “Freeze” as another part of the system. This Threat system gives us all of the physical tools necessary for us to try to deal with the threat as best as we can.

When our brain perceives there to be a threat, such as that experienced in a traumatic birth situation, a signal is sent from the brain down to the adrenal glands, from where adrenaline (epinephrine) is released into the body.

This adrenaline then quickly moves around the body to the key organs that are involved in responding to the threat, and prepares them to enable us to take action. The key changes in our body are:

  • Increased Heartrate – This is to pump more blood faster around the body
  • Faster breathing – To increase the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream
  • Increased muscular tension – Ready to Fight, Flight or Freeze
  • Increased thoughtrate – Our brain speeds up to enable us to make quicker decisions
  • Tunnel vision – We pay more attention to the threat than to others things around us
Diagram of the fight or Flight response

Source:  Jvnkfood, 6/3/2014.  CC by SA 3.0

There are also other responses which tie in with the response including dilated pupils, trembling and the need to go to the toilet, all of which are designed through evolution to support us in dealing with threat.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

So, what is the point of all of these bodily responses? Simply, they give us the physical resources to fight the threat, escape from it or freeze so that it doesn’t engage with us. These responses have developed over the course of our evolution and are “hard-wired” into us as a way of dealing with danger. For this reason, they can sometimes over-ride our more rational, considered responses, prioritising our safety (or that of our loved ones) above absolutely everything else.

Here is an explanation of the three responses:

  • Fight – One of our options when faced with physical threat is to fight it head on
  • Flight – Escape from the threatening situation
  • Freeze – Stay rigidly still until the threat passes over (think “rabbit caught in the the headlights”

Because each of these types of responses have the capability to override our more considered responses, we may act in ways that surprise us when exposed to a threatening situation.

For instance, we make run away or avoid some of the things we might see or hear during the childbirth process, become aggressive towards maternity staff or freeze during frightening aspects of the delivery.  The fact that we have behaved in a certain, unusual way during the process can sometimes lead to us later being critical, embarrassed or ashamed of ourselves, rather than us seeing understanding that it was the fight or flight response taking over.  This is a common experience during traumatic events and it is incredibly important to not be critical of yourself in light of this. Your hard-wired threat system is doing what it is programmed to do – prioritise survival in response to a threatening event.

Summary

We’ve seen here how our body will react in response to a traumatic life event such as birth trauma.  Fight, Flight and Freeze are all hardwired responses to threatening situations that can lead us to act in ways that we might not ordinarily act.  It’s important to remember the role of the threat response in influencing our actions in the weeks and months following the trauma event.

But how does this lead to PTSD, Post-Natal PTSD and Birth Trauma symptoms.  Follow the link below to understand how Trauma symptoms develop and  what keeps them going.

George Maxwell CBT Therapist

George Maxwell is an Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and director of Access CBT UK.

He specialises in the treatment of Male depression in the post-natal period but also has extensive skills in working with PTSD, Anxiety disorders, OCD and Panic. If you would like to arrange individual therapy with him (either face to face or via Skype), or would like to receive information and updates relating to New Dad Depression then feel free to contact him at enquiries@accesscbt.co.uk or follow on twitter @newdad_depressn.