When moms reach out for counseling for postpartum depression, anxiety, and trauma, there are often common themes to their experiences. Many women come to realize that part of their birth story felt very out of control, often traumatic. This is especially true if the NICU was a part of their experience.
In the article, “We Need to Talk About PTSD in NICU Parents,” author Catriona Ogilvy calls attention to the fact that “parents who have experienced premature birth are at greater risk of postnatal depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
PTSD symptoms span these five categories:
- Exposure: Either direct exposure to something traumatic (actual death/injury/sexual violence or threatened death/injury/sexual violence), witnessing a trauma, or indirect exposure to a trauma
- Intrusive Symptoms: Memories, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional distress, physical reactions to reminders
- Avoidance Symptoms: Avoiding thoughts, feelings, or exposure to reminders of the trauma
- Cognitive Symptoms: Inability to recall part of all of the trauma, negative beliefs about oneself, blaming self or others, disinterest in activities, feeling isolated
- Reactive Symptoms: Irritability, aggression, risky or destructive behavior, hypervigilince, startle reflex, difficulty concentrating or sleeping
It’s impossible to read that list without envisioning how a NICU experience could result in PTSD. As the focus of care in the NICU is mainly on the infant, parents often feel confused, overwhelmed, left out, out of control, and vulnerable. There are legitimate fears about whether or not their baby will survive. During a long NICU stay, many parents struggle to find the balance between being in the NICU vs. at home with other children, or returning to work before the baby is discharged. (It is important to note that not everyone views their NICU experience as traumatic or experiences adverse symptoms as a result. However, there is a higher risk.)
If the NICU has been a part of your birth story, and you are experiencing some of the above reactions, there is a lot of help available. Here are some ideas to help you move forward:
- Acknowledge the trauma. No one can tell you whether your birth experience was traumatic. If it felt traumatic to you, then it was. Validate this for yourself, and find at least one other person that can listen and validate this for you as well.
- Tell your story. Many parents find it helpful to write out and/or speak aloud their birth story. This is a helpful aspect of counseling, because therapy sessions are focused only on you, giving you all the time you need to share your own story, without being interrupted or feeling you’re burdening a friend or family member.
- Turn toward your partner. You and your partner have both been through something difficult together, and it affected you each in different ways. Another approach to this above exercise is for each of you to write out all of your memories about the birth experience, then swap and read the others’ perspective. This can be healing as help each of you realize that although you’re responding differently to the stress, you’re both in it together.
- Trauma therapy. Trauma affects the brain. A trained trauma therapist can walk with you to help your brain recover from your experience. An approach that I have used with many NICU parents is called EMDR therapy, a type of therapy that allows the brain to reprocess traumatic or distressing memories. Sometimes even just a few sessions is enough to help “put the past in the past” and feel better about your parenting role, have less intrusive memories or distress, feel less self-blame, and feel more settled about the parenting adjustment.
If you have been affected by a NICU experience and it’s holding you back from embracing your life, I would love to walk with you through your healing. Contact me today to schedule an intake session.