For many, choosing to grow a family brings with it much excitement; however, for birthing people who experienced trauma during a previous pregnancy, the idea of carrying and birthing another child might induce fear and anxiety. Those traumatic memories and associated feelings, if left unprocessed, can weigh on a person’s mental health and negatively impact the trust they have in their bodies not only to protect their unborn child, but to safely carry themselves through the perinatal period.
As we move out of Mental Health Awareness Month, it is our responsibility to remain committed to improving awareness and providing support for all areas of maternal mental health – which includes uplifting those looking to heal their perinatal trauma to move forward on their journeys across the reproductive continuum. We were lucky enough to connect with Parijat Deshpande, leading integrative high-risk pregnancy specialist, somatic trauma professional, speaker, and author, who guides women to improve their pregnancy complications so they can reduce their risk of preterm birth.
What is perinatal trauma?
PARIJAT: Trauma is an experience when your body has identified something dangerous to you and/or your baby, and you were not able to complete the stress cycle to return to safety. When our bodies are frozen in that state of danger, that is what we mean by trauma. Perinatal trauma specifically is trauma that happens any time on the family building journey. That can be fertility trauma, pregnancy trauma, medical trauma, birth trauma, etc.
What does it mean to have trust and feel safe in your body?
To feel safe in your body is actually a physiological state and not an emotional experience as we typically assume it to be. Safety is when your parasympathetic nervous system is functioning in rest, relaxation, and repair mode. It is in this state that all of our body systems can repair and return to their homeostatic ranges. When our nervous system (and ultimately all our other body systems), are in this mode, we can truly benefit from our social relationships to help us stay connected and feel supported. Trust in our body comes from understanding and experiencing firsthand that we can influence our health and our bodies in multiple ways, especially during times when we are scared or going through health challenges. We cannot influence our bodies in a body that is living with unresolved trauma, but when we can restore health to the nervous system, come out of that trauma-induced fight/flight/freeze mode into safety, we absolutely can trust our bodies again.
What are some of the ways in which you work with clients so that they can have safe and positive pregnancies?
I primarily work 1:1 with clients from conception to homecoming to teach them how to modulate their nervous system and support their body so they can heal from their trauma from their previous pregnancies, how they can reduce their risk of pregnancy complications, and protect themselves from experiencing trauma again in their next birth. I also have several other programs just for trauma healing as well as preparing for pregnancy before they’re medically cleared to try to conceive again. All of my work is body-based, meaning we work to restore health to the nervous system, muscles, postures, etc, understanding that the thoughts and emotions follow.
What are some of the long-lasting effects of birth trauma if it is left unaddressed?
For all traumas, there is a long list of long-term effects. For adults, there is an increased risk of autoimmune disease, chronic illness, chronic pain, insomnia, digestive issues, hormone imbalance, and so much more. It can impact lactation, bonding with baby, decision-making, and can impact baby’s nervous system development both in utero and after birth.
For someone who experienced birth trauma in the past and is pregnant again, how can they heal and have a positive birth experience?
During pregnancy, the work is quite dynamic because the body is changing every day so triggers and trauma responses can change from what they were pre-pregnancy. The goal for this work is stay connected in your body, be able to tolerate the sensations of pregnancy as well as the anxiety that may come with it, before you try to do anything to “fix” it. Trauma takes us out of our bodies and the first step to healing has to be learning to tolerate our body sensations again (which is why I highly recommend beginning the work pre-pregnancy!).
What is the impact that birth trauma can have on a person’s mental health, especially in the postpartum period?
Birth trauma can leave someone feeling confused, overwhelmed, and lonely, as others in their life move on from the traumatic events and they are left feeling like it’s happening over and over. That isolation can exacerbate the experiences of low mood, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and even discourage someone from reaching out for help if they feel like no one understands what they’re going through. Recent understanding about postpartum mental health centers around the idea that if a person experienced perinatal trauma (meaning traumatic moment(s) anywhere on the family-building journey, any mental health symptoms are a sign of unresolved trauma, and not a separate mental health issue. This is why symptoms that would fall under the umbrella of depression or anxiety, even psychosis, should be viewed and addressed from a trauma-informed lens.
How can the non-birthing partner be there for the birthing person if they had a bad birth experience?
The first step is for the non-birthing partner to do their own trauma healing work. Both partners are affected by the traumatic events and to support their birthing partners, they need to be in a body that is functioning in safety so they can help co-regulate their partner.
What are some resources you recommend to people dealing with and overcoming birth trauma?
Learn and understand what trauma is so you can give yourself compassion for what you’ve been through. Too often people discount their experiences as “not trauma” or “not traumatic enough” and then spend years of their life living with chronic health issues or emotional challenges that don’t seem to “get better.” Build that compassion for yourself and allow yourself to receive the support you deserve.
I recommend checking out my webinar a Modern Approach to Grief and Trauma Healing as well as my live event coming up called Fear Less Pregnancy.
Is there anything additional you want to share with someone who may be suffering from trauma in silence?
Trauma does not mean you are broken. Living with traumatic stress is a reminder that your body did what it needed to keep you alive and that now it’s searching for how to get back to safety. From a body-based perspective, this is absolutely possible without having to dive into the details of what happened, open old wounds, or recall/remember your story. You can do this very gently, very effectively, and you deserve to heal.