My son was nearly three years old by the time I decided to get therapy for his traumatic birth. It took me a long time to recognise the post-traumatic stress symptoms and differentiate them from the anxiety and depression I experienced during pregnancy and after the birth. Although I had seen a number of health professionals over those years, it wasn't something that was explored, nor did I know how to articulate what it was I needed help with – I had this idea that it was something I would just ‘get over’ with time. I didn't, of course, and I felt angry with myself that I couldn't. I found it was affecting my relationships with my husband and son, my self-esteem, and my ability to advocate for myself in medical settings. I also found the pregnancies of others – even strangers – upsetting. I would pass a pregnant women and think, “Someone should warn them.” Or, if they already had kids, “Why on Earth would you do it again?” You’ll be pleased to hear I managed to not act on this! But the thoughts were there, screaming in my head, just the same.
A post by my women’s health physiotherapist put me on to Birth Trauma Association website and I finally realised that it was trauma that was affecting me. The site has a list of practitioners who can help, and it was there I found the clinical psychologist who I would go on to have therapy from. I chose to go privately – and I know I am lucky to have that option – because of the speed at which I could be seen and because I wanted to be able to choose the person according to their experience and kind of therapy provided. At this point, I wasn’t exactly sure what EMDR therapy was, but I knew I was looking for something other than CBT, which hadn’t always hit the mark for me personally.
So what is EMDR therapy? EMDR stands for ‘eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing’. The idea as it was explained to me is that when you have post-traumatic stress, the traumatic memories are stuck in the ‘present’ part of your brain and not filed away in the ‘past’ like other memories are. The therapy aims to get you to reprocess the memories so they can be properly filed. This is done by revisiting the traumatic memories while generating a ‘rhythmic stimulus’. In my case, this was eye movements from side to side following my therapist’s fingers, but I understand that tapping is also used.
What I really liked about the therapy was that, after the initial consultation, I didn’t have to go over everything out loud in great detail or feel the need to articulate it in any particular way. During the EMDR itself, I needed only to think about a particular memory and let my mind go where it wanted. It would start off hard and uncomfortable with the memory seeming so very clear. Then as the eye movements continued, I’d progress through the memory, and by the end of that round I would usually start to feel lighter and the memory would start to soften around the edges. I wasn’t hypnotised; I was in control the whole time and could stop whenever I wanted to. Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I had physical sensations that went along with the memories.
Although it went well, I did find it to be incredibly draining. I would have my sessions in the morning and would be completely wiped out for the rest of the day, so I scheduled it for a day my son was at nursery. Emotions were all stirred up and sometimes I was actually thinking about the trauma more. I was warned about this, though, and I understood that it was the memories being reprocessed.
The other things I learned from my sessions were grounding techniques, which are strategies you can use to bring yourself into the present when the trauma feels too real. At the end of each session, or during if it was particularly hard, we would practice these. My therapist liked to throw a soft ball back and forth while going through an alphabetical list, such as naming a country (X is always really hard!). I’ve continued to use grounding outside therapy, too, when triggers come. My husband and I have sat in many a NHS waiting room naming capital cities! I have also started practicing yoga more regularly, which I find really helps me.
I finished my therapy right before Christmas last year after twelve sessions. My scores on the assessment for PTSD went down and I definitely felt better, though it took some time for things to settle down. And now after six months, although it’s something that will always be a part of me and my story, I feel that my trauma has so much less impact on my day-to-day life.
I was even able to help run and speak at an event for Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week in May, and, of course, write this blog to share my experience of EMDR. I don’t think I could have done these things before the therapy. And you’ll be glad to hear my urge to give unsolicited warnings to pregnant strangers has gone from a constant scream to an infrequent whisper.
I really hope that the work of initiatives like Make Birth Better and Birth Trauma Awareness Week encourage those suffering the effects of trauma to not be afraid to ask for help or keep asking if they’re not heard the first time. I also hope that it encourages professionals to be more aware of birth trauma to enable them to ask the right questions – it’s possible I could have got the help I needed so much earlier. Because there is help out there and it can be life changing.
Angie lives in Surrey with her son and husband. Having always been passionate about women’s health, Angie has become interested in helping women and campaigning for change in birth, postpartum care, and maternal mental health following her own perinatal experiences. Follow Angie on Instagram @angie_newco