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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’)
 

Debbie was advised during a debrief with a midwife that she needed to seek psychological help as...

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 29
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And I remember getting really upset, the poor woman, and asking for a tissue, and she said, “I think you need to speak to somebody. It’s been a while, and then you should go and have a chat with your GP and see.” She said, “Because you’ve gone through trauma.” And she actually said, “If you’re in a car crash nobody expects you just to get up on your feet again and carry on as normal, as soon as you’re physically healed, you know, there’s issues you need to talk about and fears.” And she said, “There’s no difference here with you. You’ve gone something very traumatic, and you should speak to somebody about it, if you’re not quite ready to move on.” So she was super and I feel all the staff at the hospital were really supportive of us, and then she really did prompt me to get in touch and it was a very quick referral for a psychological assessment because she did that, which was very helpful.

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.
 

After her haemorrhage (heavy uncontrolled bleeding), doctors warned Amy she might feel anxious....

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 29
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Yes, she was, she did say you need to… But they all said give yourself a break, you know, and be, be kind to yourself and the midwives also said, “You know, if you ever become pregnant again, you need to think about this because it might sort of bring it all back, and you might be very anxious.” And I did have when I first came out of hospital I had nightmares, about, and it was always at night, it was about people touching me, and being all the sort of pain and stuff, but mainly people, because I remember, I do remember throughout it saying to people, “Just leave me along. Just stop touching me.” And like it was so painful. And so I had nightmares about that for a while, but they kind of disappeared, relatively quickly, within a few months, they sort of disappeared. But then I had, I thought it was all okay but then we went, we went and had a massage done, at a Spa place and he sat me in a position in the same, in a similar opposition to the one you have the epidural in when you lean over a pillow. And it just, I was just like, “You can’t sit me like that and don’t touch my back.” 

 

Anna was interviewed 14 months after her hysterectomy. She said that straight afterwards she was...

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 21
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Before the anniversary, that’s when I really panicked, because I just thought, well what am I going to do? I don’t know what I’m… It’s weird, it’s like I was in, in prison in my head, and I was happy every, like I was myself still, I wasn’t , it was like I put on a front every day, and I don’t think many people saw past it, but my boyfriend did. And I know he worried for me, and he would just say to me, “You know, we need to get over this.” But not because he was like, oh get over it. It was because he could see how much underneath everything it was sort of eating me up and that was really hard. So when yes, when it came before Christmas I went, because I’d been going to the doctors and I had counselling and stuff like that, but they gave me counselling straight after. And straight afterwards, you are in shock and I think it takes up to six months really for you to sink it because it’s a forever change and forever is a word until you actually live it, if that makes sense. You know, you can say, oh you know, forever, but you don’t realise it until seven, eight months down the line that you actually think oh wait, this is, this is something I’m going to have to face. 
 
So I went to the doctors and I just said, “I, I need some help.” Told them, because I would think things and I’d feel bad for thinking them… And I’d think bad things, and I could never be honest with people about what I was thinking… So I went to the doctors and just said, “This is what I’m thinking.” I wasn’t going to kill myself or anything like that, but it was more like, I’d never ever think about killing myself, but it was more like the case of I just wish it would stop, I just wish for one minute this could just stop. And it wasn’t like killing myself, it was just the feeling inside me. I just wanted it to just stop. I just didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be here, but I didn’t, just didn’t want to be this person, this, this cage that I was in, and so I went to the doctors and I told them everything and they were just like, we need to get you to see somebody and then I ended up being put through to therapy quite quick and then obviously therapy has been going on and the stuff that I’ve, I ended up having to go through it all again and process it all and it really helped. I didn’t think it was, but she says as well that its, because I can like rationalise my thoughts, like I know when I’m having, but I’ve always been able to do it, I don’t know whether that’s everybody or whether it’s just me, but I can, if I think something I can make sense of it, and I think well that’s, that not really true you know. So I can step back from what I’m feeling and, you know, assess the situation.
 
And I mean I am on antidepressants. But that’s not me saying that I’m weak either because I’m not. I just needed, I just needed some help and there’s nothing wrong with that. I won’t let anybody make me feel like it either. Because most people, not many people at all have to go through what I’ve been through. So I won’t, I don’t like people, that anyone ever has, but I wouldn’t let anyone judge me about that anyway.
 
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.
 

Hannah felt that her experiences of uterine rupture had made her much more anxious about her...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 34
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Yes, I think so. I have to catch myself from being a bit judgy with people when they’re moaning about stuff sometimes. Because you know, I have a real awareness now, that bad things can, it’s such a cliché… bad things can happen to you And until something bad happens to you, you don’t really, you know, you do go through life feeling you’re a bit sort of Teflon covered and there was like, I know those things happen, but thought they won’t happen to me, but they actually do, and so it has made me. Actually it has made me more reticent in things I do, more aware that things can happen and, and a bit more anxious I suppose actually. I think I am a bit more anxious about things. Yes, I am. I think that’s probably quite normal.
 
Anxious about yourself? Anxious about your husband?
 
Anxious about things happening to the children healthwise. But everyone is anxious like that I know. But really anxious about that. Anxious healthwise, no not really about myself. Just generally, I think. Just have a heightened like, you know, crowds and things I don’t really like any more. I don’t like being in a situation where I could. I can be in a situation where I’m in a crowded underground station, and I’m much more easily now, able to think, this might happen, and this might happen, and this might happen. And make myself, almost make myself more anxious. Which is odd. Like it was almost as if the whole experience has opened up a sort of line to anxiety, which I can now access. Whereas before I didn’t have that. I can’t explain that really but it’s a sort of feeling like that before, has allowed me to sort of I can slip back into it, without noticing I think a little bit. I don’t know whether you could get rid of that but talking to someone, I don’t know. I think it’s probably quite a natural reaction. I don’t know whether it’s sort of… I’m not sure.
 
Do you feel that’s changing? Is that improving do you think? Or do you think that’s going stay with you?
 
I think it will stay with me, yes. Sometimes when I lie in bed at night, I can easily start sort of day dreaming about bad things which I never used to do before, and I can sort of make myself really quite anxious so I can’t sleep and then have to wake my husband up, and get some reassurance. So I suppose that is an effect that’s stayed with me, that I haven’t really thought about or explored that much…
 
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.
 

Tom became very anxious after his wife's emergency. About 6 months after the birth he had a...

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Age at interview: 34
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 32
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So you had, you said about five weeks off around the time that the baby was born.

 
Tom' Yes.
 
And then was it about six months afterwards you think things kind of came to a head or …?
 
Tom' I was getting anxious about things within the house probably four months after the birth.
 
And were you an anxious person before? Or was that a new…?
 
Tom' I have been nervous at other points previously in my life, associated with times of extreme stress. - submission of M.Sc. dissertation , being perhaps one of those examples. But the staffing changes at work in association with all the issues at home and the health issues, I think it came to a head again really.
 
Sophie' Well I think there’s a lot to contend. He had to say goodbye to me twice to go to theatre and that’s not an easy thing to do anyway is it? And then you were there when the babies were born and certainly the second baby was much more traumatic to deal with so…
 
Are those, have you talking about those in your counselling sessions? I mean is it those experiences that you’ve been working on to try to come through…?
 
Tom' Yes, he was a very clever counsellor, very senior. And he’s you know, he sort of went back and it was, you know, it was a case of I was….
 
Yes, so you were telling me about the counsellor?
 
Tom' Yes. And he was essentially saying, he was exploring why, what situations made me anxious and how I dealt with them and what was the reasonable way to deal with them. My job is not without risks associated with health and safety management with you know, a number of things sort of in and around that and you know, essentially he approached the situation with me and said, “Right, so what do you do? What’s the problem?” And it was a case of I was going back and double checking and treble things that didn’t really need to be checked, and you know, what was reasonable.
 
In that context I think it principally what he said was, “What do you do to relax? What do you do when you’re you know, at home to relax, you know.” I said, “Well I love to go cycling or running, but because I’m anxious I’m not going out and doing that, because I might see something that concerns me in the countryside, and he said, “Well the first thing is start doing that again.” If you have problems, we’ll talk around them. But let’s get that squared up first, and returning to that normal regime of actually five or six hours of outdoor exercise a week. is principally what helped me back.
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.
 

After her emergency, Jo had a short period of flashbacks. During her next pregnancy she was very...

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Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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I suppose I started having the flash, I had flashbacks, probably when he was about, it started happening when he was about three or four weeks, where I had these awful. They weren’t exactly hallucinations, but a kind of, I might sort of turn round and just imagine seeing him, [son], in the pram all covered in blood and things, and actually it was really quite bleugh… But then I think I was sort of aware enough, I was telling myself, I know what this is, this is post traumatic stuff, I’ve got here. And I thought well, I didn’t actually mention it to anyone because I knew what it was. I knew why, I sort of knew why it was happening. So I felt you know, I could sort of control it myself really, which probably was a bit of a silly idea in hindsight. But … I thought well he’s not lying in the pram covered, the pram covered in blood you know, so…
 
Acutely like that for a few weeks. I think it was more, you know, part possibly influenced by hormones, so you know, the usual, usual, length of time that, you know, first two, three months something like that. And then it sort of changed into something else. It wasn’t that kind of graphic feeling. But it was more manifested itself in my relationship with [son] actually. Because I think I felt, and I still do to a degree actually if I’m really honest, feel slightly detached. I mean I love him dearly, but I think it was because I had, you know, this, it was so sudden. It was so quick, his birth, that I actually think, well how do I actually know he was mine. I wasn’t, wasn’t there. Mark wasn’t there. He doesn’t look like me, you know, there’s all these funny things go through your head and when you sort of… and I just think, oh how do I know? I just have to trust them, that they, they gave me the right child. And it’s really, really hard and especially where my daughter was born, because I was conscious and I was, you know, I saw her come straight out. And I felt awful. I thought well I didn’t have that with him. And it, you know, it really has. I mean I know in future I’m going to have to work a lot harder at my relationship with him because of it. So yes, its, I think what happened is, its, so there I’m finding it much, much easier to talk about now. I think it still will be there for different, it’ll come up at different stages of my life I think. I think it’s a bit simplistic to say, oh you know, I’m over it now, because I’m not, I am over it to a degree but I don’t think I’m going to forget, you know, that day or the implications of that day, ever, I don’t think.
 
And did you feel, I mean how did you feel about the pregnancy? Did you feel anxious about it?
 
Oh terrible. I think every day I cried. Usually in the shower for some reason. I suppose no one was there to see me. Every day, I thought is today the day my placenta’s going to fall apart again? Yes, it was, from the moment, you know, she was conceived, to literally the moment she came out I was anxious.
 
 

Alison T had post-traumatic stress disorder and daily panic attacks for a long while after her...

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Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 42
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I had an MRI scan, but I had a major panic attack while I was in there. Which you don’t know you’re going to have until you’re in it. And also they wanted to put a drug into me which puts your heart under stress which panicked me even more. So the whole thing was a bit of a disaster and I couldn’t go through with it. And I tried twice. I was upset with myself because I’d got all the way there, felt I was wasting people’s time, tried a second time and couldn’t do it. Because unfortunately the one thing it has left me with are panic attacks. But that can be quite common with being in Intensive Care. And I have post-traumatic stress syndrome. Which I’ve had counselling for. So that’s an ongoing thing at the moment. 
 
They were very frequent to begin with. Daily I would say. Left me, to the point, I couldn’t even go to bed and lay down. I had a block where it came to laying down. So nights were awful. I had to fall asleep literally sitting up. And I became afraid of turning the television off. I got into a routine of, to get me upstairs to try and relax to watch TV and then try and lie down but I couldn’t do it. So it took quite a lot of counselling with that. They give you lots of little things to try and it did work in the end. But even now I still can’t turn the television off. I have to leave it on, just on standby and I don’t know what the connection is there. I don’t know. But and I can lay down, not completely, but I’m not sitting up. So, but, and I can’t, I used to go to bed quite early, but now I’m, because I was sitting up, I’m staying awake longer and longer. So it’s not completely gone yet.
 
Oh months. Months. And you don’t realise. As I say being in the MRI scan was one. My sister in law organised a theatre trip which included me, which I was really pleased about until I got on the train and had a massive one on the train as well. And then in the underground when we was up in London. And then another one in the theatre, so that was three in one night which was awful. But I just, I know when they’re coming on, so I’ve got things to put in place now, when I know one of them’s coming on.
 
Some of the men we spoke to also talked about disturbing flashbacks.
 

Memories of his wife in intensive care, after her hysterectomy, caused Rob to have flashbacks. He...

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Age at interview: 34
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 29
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But that was the beginning of the end for me. That, that, that was my flashbacks, that was my nightmares, that was my you know. 
 
So I finally curled up in the corner and the kitchen and, and I’m not in the kitchen, I’m in that room. As I say I didn’t believe it when soldiers come back saying … you know, different people, and I think, well you know, I can imagine the vision that you could, you know, the, the memory of the trauma or whatever you know, whatever you saw in the war, whatever, you know, I can understand it would affect you. I totally get it. Buy to say that you can smell it and see it and be in the same room, no you can’t be like that. And there am I in my kitchen, although I’m not. I’m… and it’s the strangest feeling to actually be stood somewhere but be somewhere else. It was just horrific, and my whole life has fell apart.
 
I can’t remember how far after we’d come out of hospital, I don’t know. She would know. She could tell you the exact time probably. So I think it was about four weeks after, I think. And it was quite late at night. I remember it was quite late at night. And I was walking across the lounge to go and make a cup of tea or something, because I hadn’t been sleeping. And I hadn’t been eating, you know, and I wasn’t feeling right, and then I collapsed in the lounge. Just fell to the floor. So we rang a friend, and he took me down to the hospital and I was admitted that night. I stayed for two nights I think it was. Admitted with nervous exhaustion. And then discharged. And then, then I started to get the flash, then I started to get to the flashbacks, although I was keeping that to myself. I wasn’t telling anyone. Although I think she kind of had an idea, because I wasn’t sleeping and I wasn’t eating. And I look back at pictures and I look horrendous. I mean my bags, I’ve got bags. I was pale and really skinny. I ended up getting IBS which I now have really bad now, which I suffered quite horrendously with that because the of the nature of my diet or lack of it at that time. I lost my job because of it. Because I had to reduce my hours anyway to help look after my wife because I was, at the time I was a stock room manager. So it was quite an important role, but I had to reduce the hours, which they were pretty good, quite flexible with. And, then as the flashbacks got worse, then eventually I just couldn’t leave the house. So, you know, it ended very amicably, but you know, I was politely asked to leave at the same time as I asked if I could leave, if you know what I mean. It was very nice, you know, and they were very helpful as far as they could be, but ultimately they do have a business to run and I understand that, so it ended rather, it ended very well, but I did lose my job. 
 
Whichever way you wasn’t to sugar coat that, you know, I did lose it. Because of it, I just couldn’t, I physically couldn’t leave the house. 
 
 

Dean said he still has flashbacks of his wife’s emergency, over two years after the event.

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Male
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And so, yes, it’s not nice. I get flashbacks every now and again. They used to be really bad, really, really bad, because visions are, meant to be a happy time picking your baby up. I get, You know, your brothers and the siblings come along, and I thought I hope it’s not all like it is visions of her being whizzed passed me, my wife. Doctors and nurses running and all of a sudden me baby is whizzed straight past and she’s going to special care baby unit, you know, in an incubator. It’s not nice.
 
No.
 
And that’s what visions come back all the time and haunt me.
 
Still, three years on?
 
Yes. They do…. they’re not as bad let’s be fair I seem to block them out straight away, because I don’t like it, because when I’m working, on particular jobs, I have to concentrate on, and they go bang [claps hands] just like that. It’s horrible. It’s not nice. I would like to see someone to get rid of it.
 
Have you talked to anyone about?
 
No. You. Only you. 
 
Did no one offer you any counselling?
 
No. I would like some I must admit. I suppose being a man you don’t want none, you know, but at the end of day everyone wants this help at the end of the day if there’s a problem. You know, they may be able to get rid of them. The real of them… the vision… your daughter going past and all of a sudden your wife going past. It’s not nice. It should have been a happy time but luckily the one out there, she’s a monster, she’s nearly two and a half, [wife] she’s here. You know. Sort of she’s got to wear stockings now for the rest of her life, which is not nice. But what I keep saying to her, [wife] is, “Okay, now you’re wearing stockings now, or you can’t have a drink, like a glass of wine or whatever, or you can’t fly, you know. What would these women who have died from it, what would they give to be in your shoes and their husbands to be with them, yes. So think yourself grateful and lucky that you’re here. Because those women ain’t. “And they’re not. Right. You know, husbands bringing up their children by their selves. My wife was lucky that someone turned round and said it isn’t me. If someone said I’ve got to wear stockings. Or can’t have a drink again. Or can’t fly. Yes, so, and. You know, so I do tell her off. But then obviously, she obviously down I can’t do this and I can’t do that. You know, but I then put her in her place. So I tell her, you know, all these dads and little kiddies go and visit their mums at graveside because they aren’t around. It can’t be fair. That’s the way I see it.
 
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.
 

Joanna’s baby was stillborn after she had a uterine rupture. A year on, she and her husband feel...

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Age at interview: 32
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 31
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So I think I’m right about that kind of, that stage now, because you just, you go round and round in circles with it, because you’re trying to fix it and you can’t so…. You know, you are where you are and it’s never going to change. And in the early days you spend all your time going over it in your head, thinking, and believing that if you do something different, it will all be different now, and just sounds really bizarre when you say it back, but you think that somehow you’ll wake up one morning and it won’t be, that you’ve managed to replay it the right way in your mind, all that thinking about it, and now I just, you come to the point where you accept it I suppose. And you just say, “There is nothing that I can possibly do now to change it. I just have to live with it.” And that’s what, where we are isn’t it? And you know, you think you’re never, ever going to smile or laugh or anything again and then you know, you do don’t you? It didn’t ever mean that it goes away…. yes, but we do, and we, I sort of enjoy things, and things now. But, yes, its, I like to think about it now, is that it’s like disbelief that any of that happened to us isn’t it. You know, it’s like the day before our wedding anniversary as well, so it’s kind of … yes, just tied up in all that sort of emotion as well, so…but, yes.

Last reviewed April 2016.
 

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