Conditions that threaten women’s lives in childbirth & pregnancy

How women felt emotionally

A life-threatening emergency during childbirth can have a long lasting impact on the emotional and mental health of women and their partners. There was great variation in how these traumatic events affected the people we spoke to. Some felt it did not affect their mental health, but others did, and told us about having anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of their experiences. (See also ‘Father’s/Partner’s emotional recovery’)
We spoke to people at different time points after their traumatic events, some just weeks afterwards, others months or years later. So their descriptions of their emotional recovery came from different perspectives.
 
Many of the women we interviewed said that they felt physically and emotionally exhausted when they got home. Kate described herself as feeling “shell shocked”. As the weeks and months passed, some developed anxiety and/or depression.
Several described feeling generally far more anxious after the emergency than before, as if the “what ifs?” of life were much more likely to happen.
Others described particular times or situations where they felt more anxious, such as if they or their child became ill. Alison felt more anxious as her son’s first birthday (and the anniversary of her hysterectomy) approached. Lisa, interviewed a year after her hysterectomy, said she would not let her daughter out of her sight, “I live on my nerves.” Fathers could also be affected, such as Tom who looked after his wife who had both a blood clot (pulmonary embolism) and post-partum haemorrhage (heavy uncontrolled bleeding after birth) when their second daughter was born.
Several women described having flashbacks and panic attacks as they relived their experiences in their minds. Michelle had a post-partum haemorrhage after her first daughter was born. Although she is much better now, she said for a period, “I kept having flashbacks, and you know, I was tearful when I talked about it.” Karen was still experiencing what she described as “intrusive thoughts” two years on from her haemorrhage and hysterectomy. Jo had a placental abruption (the placenta separates from the lining of the womb) and described a short period of a few weeks after her son was born when she had flashbacks.
Some of the men we spoke to also talked about disturbing flashbacks.
Some women and men were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), others postnatal depression and were offered counselling (see summary on ‘Counselling’).
 
There was variation in when women and men first experienced anxiety, depression or PTSD, how severe it was and how long it took to recover. Lisa was interviewed a year after her daughter was born. She described a very difficult year as she suffered anxiety and panic attacks. But she felt that she was getting over it and starting to feel a lot better – “I want to move on now.” Cara said that for the first year after her haemorrhage and hysterectomy she was “very depressed and manic about my research into what had happened”, but each year it gets a little easier.

Last reviewed April 2016.
 

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