What You Need to Know About Pregnancy and PTSD
We'd like to think that pregnancy is always a wonderful, magical time in a woman's life, but the truth is, that's just not always true. The truth is, the hard parts about life don't just magically disappear when a woman is pregnant.
There are women everywhere out there right now dealing with some really, really hard things during pregnancy, from physical illness to family problems to financial struggles to mental health conditions. We hear a lot about women's mental health after pregnancy especially, thanks to increased awareness about the issue of postpartum depression. But we don't hear as much about women's mental health during pregnancy.
However, as doctors are learning more about postpartum mental health, there is more of a spotlight being shined at looking at the entire scope of mental health during pregnancy. Not all mental health disorders that occur after pregnancy occur as isolated postpartum events; some have roots that begin during pregnancy or even before. A 2018 overview of the available studies and research revealed that in high-risk pregnancies, the incidence of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) can be as high as 48% and as high as 21% in community samples. The community samples were not considered to be as high-risk for PTSD, which shows how common the condition can be, no matter what the situation is.
What does PTSD look like during pregnancy?
A 2013 study explained that for women who experience PTSD during pregnancy, there is usually at least one traumatic event in the past that they have gone through. According to one expert, PTSD can be linked to anything traumatic, such as past abuse, combat, being the victim of a home break-in, rape, natural disaster, or a past loss. Even having experience with past miscarriages or having a child with had a health diagnosis can be a trigger for PTSD, because unlike a lot of other situations that triggered the PTSD, pregnancy puts you right back in those situations again; sometimes, even in the same rooms with the same doctors and the same equipment.
And in addition to the PTSD, many women also have at least one other mental disorder that they are dealing with, usually depression. According to the study, the symptoms of PTSD for women during pregnancy tend to decrease somewhat during the months they are pregnant. But then, in the weeks leading up to delivery, the symptoms often “spike,” which doctors theorize may be due to shifting hormones and stress levels in the mother as she prepares to give birth. The decrease in PTSD symptoms, however, isn't true for all women and other studies have found that close to 1 in 4 women actually experience an increase in their PTSD symptoms.
How does PTSD affect pregnancy?
One of the hardest parts about PTSD is that it is common for it to go undiagnosed, especially in women and especially during pregnancy. After all, people expect a pregnant woman to be “happy,” right? She's growing a miracle! But, unfortunately, if a woman with PTSD during pregnancy doesn't recognize her symptoms to be able to seek help, or just simply isn't able to get treatment for the condition, there can be long-term effects for both her and her baby down the road.
Untreated PTSD during pregnancy can cause everything from an increased chance of postpartum depression to decreased breastfeeding rates to interfering with the mother's ability to bond with her baby. And severe PTSD can lead to other really negative effects, such as suicidal thoughts for the mother, so it is crucial that the condition is recognized and more healthcare providers are aware of how common PTSD can be during pregnancy.
How can you get help for PTSD during pregnancy?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the main symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (pregnant or not) include:
- Reliving the trauma through intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares
- Emotional numbness and avoiding places, people, environments or situations that remind you of the trauma
- Heightened senses, such as not being able to sleep, being easily irritable or quick to angry, feeling jumpy, and having trouble sleeping
If you suspect that you might have PTSD, you can take a free screening test online and you should definitely talk to your pregnancy healthcare provider. However, keep in mind that while a doctor or midwife can help you find mental health treatment, most OB/GYNs aren't fully trained on mental health, so if you don't find the help you need from your doctor, seek help from a mental health professional.