Post Traumatic Stress Related to Pregnancy Loss, Stillbirth and Infant Death 

by Ivy Margulies, Psy.D.

What is trauma?

Trauma is the most misunderstood, ignored, avoided, denied, and untreated cause of human suffering. When a woman experiences and witnesses an unexpected death, and may or may not almost lose their life in giving birth, and/or experience feelings of overwhelming helplessness, she has now experienced trauma. When we feel we have been unable to respond adequately in a life threatening emergency situation, the feeling of losing control can have long term mental health consequences that can impact our quality of life moving forward.

Trauma can happen in a moment. Everything you knew to be true and safe has inextricably been altered in the moment you are told there’s no heartbeat, or hear the words “I’m sorry your baby has died”, or your baby is born and then without forewarning something is wrong with its health and he/she dies, or you have to decide when to withdraw life support for your infant when you have been told your child will not survive without tremendous medical procedures and interventions. One moment you felt joy and hope, the next helplessness and hopelessness for the future. Your assumptive world has just blown up.

Everyone will respond differently to trauma - it depends on your age (the younger you are the more vulnerable you are), personal experiences growing up, your family history, your spirituality/religion, your personality and temperament, any previous traumas, your feelings of responsibility for causing or not preventing the baby’s death, the amount of physical damage to your body, any preexisting mental health conditions, substance abuse, social support and resiliency. Gender matters, women are twice as likely than men to develop post traumatic stress disorder.

What do you do? What does it mean to keep living? What does it mean to survive it?

The first step is to recognize the impact trauma has on your life. It can affect your feelings, thoughts, relationships, behaviors, attitudes, dreams and hopes. You never thought this would happen to you. It happens on the news, it happens to other people, not you. 

What is helpful?

Seeing and working with a professional is helpful. However, there are plenty of things you can do now to help yourself cope with the symptoms, reduce your feelings of anxiety and fear, and take back control of your life. 

1. Exercise - moving your body helps you feel better, mentally, physically and spiritually. New research suggests that exercise (this includes Yoga, walking, biking, hiking, swimming, pilates, dancing, martial arts, boxing, etc.) helps your nervous system move out of an “immobilization stress response”. Any exercise that keeps your brain focused on the body and not your thoughts is very therapeutic.

2. Getting Out In Nature - Anyone with PTSD can benefit from the relaxation, seclusion, and peace that come with being out in nature. Focusing on strenuous outdoor activities can also challenge your sense of helplessness and help your nervous system become “unstuck.” Seek out local organizations that offer outdoor recreation or team building opportunities. !

3. Social Interaction - Many people find that PTSD can leave them feeling disconnected, withdrawn and, while their nervous system is still stuck, make it difficult to connect with other people. No matter how close they are to the person, or how helpful that person tries to be, they just don’t feel any better after talking with them. If that describes you, there are some things you can do to help the process along. First, go exercise or meditate, both will help you get your breath going and focusing on the body - this is grounding.

Another suggestion found in the literature is to sing, yes SING (alone before you meet a friend or attend a social gathering), this helps your body open up your nervous system before social engagement. Or make the sound “mmmm”. Interesting tip!!

4. Volunteer Your Time - Trauma can leave you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times. One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping

others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity. Taking positive action directly challenges the sense of helplessness.

5. Join A Support Group - Also consider joining a support group for survivors of the same type of trauma you experienced. Support groups for PTSD can help you feel less isolated and alone and also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, look for an online group.!

6. Take Care Of Yourself, Self Care - Develop healthy lifestyle habits. Take time everyday to connect with yourself in a quiet relaxing way. Meditate, practice Yoga or journal. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Choose nourishing foods; limit processed foods. Get your sleep! Sleep deprivation exacerbates anger, irritability, and moodiness. Aim for somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Develop a relaxing bedtime ritual (listen to calming music, watch a funny show, or read something light) and make your bedroom as quiet, dark, and soothing as possible.