- My fear and anxiety over my soon-to-arrive first child is overwhelming on a daily basis…I’m angry some days, sad some days, and panicked other days.
- My anxiety and depression levels has been higher than normal
- I’m scared when I go anywhere or see anyone, even when I’m maintaining social distancing.
- We planned on having an amazing support team and the rug was pulled from under us.
- I realize this is uncharted territory, but I have not felt supported as a first-time mother.1
These were the sentiments of pregnant individuals going through the pandemic. It was an unprecedented event and as MotherToBaby Specialists we were challenged with dealing with the anxiety of expectant parents as they tried to get reliable information and deal with their fears, anxiety, and frustrations. Fortunately, as time went on, the infection did not appear to increase the chance of birth defects but now there is a question of the emotional toil it put on pregnant people.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress that occurs after suffering a stressful or extremely traumatic event. Unlike post-traumatic stress that lessens over time, the symptoms of PTSD do not fade. Symptoms of PTSD fall into the following four categories and can vary in severity:
- Intrusion: may include intrusive thoughts or distressing memories, flashbacks, nightmares
- Avoidance: may include avoiding thinking or talking about the event or their feelings; avoiding things that remind them of the event (people, places, activities).
- Negative changes in thinking or mood: may include lack of memory on details about the event; negative thoughts and feelings about themselves or others; feeling numb or detached from others; loss of interest in activities.
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions (arousal): may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; self-destructive behavior; having problems concentrating or sleeping.
In general, PTSD occurs more often in women than in men and in the pregnant population more than non-pregnant individuals. According to some studies, 3% to 19% of pregnant people experience PTSD.2 When it comes to psychiatric disorders during pregnancy, PTSD after childbirth or postpartum PTSD is considered the third most common mental health disorder after depression and nicotine dependence.3
If left untreated or poorly treated, PTSD can have long lasting effects not only for the pregnant person but also in their relationships with other people, especially family, and interfere in bonding with their child and breastfeeding that can have long-lasting impact on the child. Pregnant persons with untreated PTSD have a higher chance of experiencing negative birth outcomes including gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops during pregnancy), preeclampsia (severe high blood pressure), low birthweight (weight at birth of < 2500 grams,5.5 pounds), and preterm birth (before 37 weeks pregnancy). Also, quite alarming, PTSD is closely linked to attempting or committing suicide and substance abuse, two leading causes of maternal death in the United States.3
We know that the pandemic was a stressful situation for the entire country and especially pregnant people, but what were the long-term effects, particularly in regard to PTSD. In general, risk factors for postpartum PTSD include, but are not limited to, the fear of childbirth, prenatal health concerns (preeclampsia, birth defects), the lack of emotional/social support, depression and anxiety. During the pandemic the primary concern was the risk of infection for themselves and for their child before birth and after. Also, birth plans had to be changed due to hospital restrictions. They did not have the social support that they expected or planned with their doulas, partners, family or friends. The lack of social support was not only an issue during childbirth but remained after birth due to stay-at-home orders. Furthermore, expectant parents may have had to face other problems amplified by the pandemic like unemployment and the loss of a loved one. The sense of security and community was greatly affected during the pandemic and then expectant parents had to navigate a new world while just becoming parents, as expressed by pregnant persons above. All of these factors can create a traumatic experience of childbirth and raise the chance for PTSD.
There have been multiple studies investigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic during pregnancy. While studies may have differed in their approach to review this topic, the results generally showed that giving birth during the pandemic had many effects on the pregnant population and that PTSD was quite common. Also, rates of PTSD were higher among Black and Latinx pregnant people than whites and lower socio-economic status (i.e., less educational and income).
There is a call for PTSD to be screened during pregnancy and after to make sure that no one falls through the cracks. It is suggested that providers who had patients deliver in the early part of the pandemic, follow-up with them to make sure they are coping well. Not everyone who experiences PTSD will need counseling, but pregnant people should know about their options.
“Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering,” said Peter Levine, PhD, trauma specialist. For pregnant individuals, if your symptoms are interfering with your quality of life, please speak with your healthcare professional so that you can get the assistance that you need. As MotherToBaby information specialists we can connect you to the resources that can promote your health and well-being. We provide information about medications used to treat PTSD as well as exposure to anxiety, depression, and stress on pregnancy and breastfeeding. We are just one important resource that new and expecting parents can rely on for confidential information. Contact us today or visit our Resource Hub on Mental Health during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
There are resources available to help you.
Postpartum Support International: https://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/postpartum-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/
National Maternal Mental Health Hotline: 1-833-943-5746 (1-833-9-HELP4MOMS)
- Kinser PA, Jallo N, Amstadter AB, et al. 2021. Depression, Anxiety, Resilience, and Coping: The Experience of Pregnant and New Mothers During the First Few Months of the COVID-19 Pandemic. J Womens Health (Larchmt). May;30(5):654-664.
- Padin AC, Stevens NR, Che ML, et al. 2022. Screening for PTSD during pregnancy: a missed opportunity. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. Jun 14;22(1):487.
- Khsim IEF, Rodríguez MM, et al. 2022. Risk Factors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Childbirth: A Systematic Review. Diagnostics (Basel). Oct 26;12(11):2598.
- Sharpe, Rachel. “100+ PTSD Quotes to Help Survivors Cope with Trauma”. Declutter the Mind, 27 February 2021. https://declutterthemind.com/blog/ptsd-quotes/. Accessed 22 April 2023
- Shuman CJ, Morgan ME, et al. 2022. Associations Among Postpartum Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms and COVID-19 Pandemic-Related Stressors. J Midwifery Womens Health. Sep;67(5):626-634.
- Benzakour L, Gayet-Ageron A, et al. 2022. Traumatic Childbirth and Birth-Related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Prospective Cohort Study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. Oct 31;19(21):14246.