Therapeutic Strategies, Tools and Relief for Prenatal, Birth, Pregnancy and Post Birth Traumatic Stress
Though having babies and raising children is as old as human experience, it isn’t always straightforward. The additional burden of unresolved trauma can add to traumatic stress, shame and stigma that envelops the experience and prevents people from seeking help. Quite simply, people don’t seek help because they feel they *should* be feeling joy with something so natural.
Sometimes what could be a normal developmental transitional experience is made that more challenging by a person’s own childhood attachments and trauma together with day-to-day ordinary stresses and those related to infertility, loss, high-risk pregnancy and lack of caregiving competency.
What is sometimes described as the perinatal period includes pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum and the baby’s first year of life. Perinatal therapy also includes prenatal care that is the time period before birth and may include aspects related to infertility and loss.
Goals of Perinatal/Post Birth Trauma Therapy
Part of my mission as a trauma therapist is to reach back as far as possible to not only heal trauma, but prevent it.
Healing trauma that has remained “beneath the surface” from childhood is one of the goals of perinatal therapy that targets the child-parent bond, infertility, pregnancy stress, and so forth. In so doing, there is hope of preventing the intergenerational transmission of the same patterns of dysfunctional coping and stress from generation to generation.
Postpartum therapy can help address the physical and emotional vulnerability mothers and fathers face so that they can provide the love and care their baby needs to promote healthy development. Stress can impact this development. The unique challenges of pregnancy and the perinatal term necessitate therapy tailored to the psychological and specific issues that manifest during this particular stage of adult development.
Specific Pregnancy, Fertility and Post-Partum Trauma Challenges
Without the addition challenges of loss of finances, singlehood, medical challenges, the pandemic, pregnancy and the postnatal period can present traumatic reminders of childhood/developmental trauma in which attachment injuries that generate shame, fear of abandonment and rejection, loneliness, isolation, not feeling good enough are relived subconsciously or with full awareness.
Fatherhood/New Dad Expectations and Stress
While women can experience physical sensations associated with the growing fetus as well as sensory reminders that evoke bliss or stress, fathers can also undergo many multidimensional emotional experiences associated with fatherhood. Being a new father can also carry with it the stigma that such emotional experiences *shouldn’t* be experienced or mere confusion about appropriate responses regarding their inner experience or relational challenges relating to their partners shifting moods, bodily changes and behaviors related to pregnancy, motherhood or postpartum depression that affect interaction, identity and intimacy.
For some expectant parents, pregnancy, parenthood and postpartum transitions can evoke feelings of helplessness and dependence that evoke additional stress that can impact interpersonal relationships and a baby’s healthy development.
In addition to bliss, joy and pride, parents can experience anxiety, self-doubt and overwhelm. Anger and resentment can also surface and it can be confusing if this is being triggered by past trauma, but is projected onto thoughts about one’s partner or the new addition to the family.
Sometimes there is stress related to unanticipated or unrealistic expectations regarding the baby’s behavior as a result of idealized notions projected by new parents. These can have implications with respect to the child-parent bond, identity and interaction between partners.
Possibilities and Challenges of Pregnancy
As with most periods of life transition, pregnancy opens doors for new experiences and opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment. Therapy can provide a way to actualize these possibilities particularly if there is an overwhelming sense of fear attributed to an anxious disposition or adverse childhood experiences that provided a lack of attachment and experience to realize the positive potential of parenthood. Thus, the perinatal period can also be a time of immense psychological disorganization that can impact the entire family especially if there are pre-existing mood disorders, substance use or limited adaptive coping skills.
Learning how to manage one’s emotions is critical because it not only impacts individual well-being, but it is the cornerstone of how new infants learn the key relational skills that will help sustain their healthy development throughout their lifespan. Self-regulation impacts one’s ability to develop confidence, self-esteem and trust for learning and foundational skills for mastering other core coping skills well into adulthood.
The prospect of nurturing new life presents no better time to obtain the education and psychological repair of old emotional wounds to build the internal resources that allow us to not only cope with life challenges, but experience joy and purpose.
Paternal and Maternal Identity
Internal and reality-based stressors provide opportunity, for better or worse, to reshape identity. In addition to our other roles in life as daughter, son, wife, partner, sibling, a new infant by his or her very existence provides an ever-lasting and permanent identity as “parent. Therapy provides the developmental guidance and support to help new parents process their new role particularly when they must do so under tragic circumstances that involve loss.
This new identity is experiences individually and/or in combination with an other and in that regard is rather unique. What does it mean to have a shared identity? How does that impact a baby’s unique identity and sense of separateness? How do lifestyle changes made for the family and/or baby affect individual and collective identity?
The Perinatal Therapist
Perinatal therapy is more than a rehash of therapy for mere parenting, anxiety and identity. It requires expertise in understanding the developmental needs of babies, caregiving skills, and lifecycle developmental stages that occur as the adults mature and babies grow into middle school aged children, teens and young adults. An understanding and ability to help clients process emotional reactions and childhood experiences are essential. These may include ambivalence, doubt, fear, anger, resentment in addition to unanticipated joy and anxiety. It is also not uncommon for new parents to be triggered by their own unmet needs from childhood that can affect caregiving.