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Thoughts and Emotions During Traumatic Birth: A Qualitative Study


  • Susan Ayers PhD

    Corresponding author
    1. Susan Ayers is a Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology in the Psychology Department at the University of Sussex, Brighton, Sussex, United Kingdom.
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Susan Ayers, PhD, Psychology Department, University of Sussex, Brighton, Sussex BN1 9QH, United Kingdom.


ABSTRACT: Background: Previous research shows that 1 to 6 percent of women will develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder after childbirth. The objective of this study was to examine thoughts and emotions during birth, cognitive processing after birth, and memories of birth that might be important in the development of postnatal posttraumatic stress symptoms. Methods: In a qualitative study, women with posttraumatic stress symptoms (n= 25) and without (n = 25) were matched for obstetric events to examine the nonmedical aspects of birth that made it traumatic. Women were interviewed 3 months after birth. Results: The following themes emerged for all women: thoughts during birth included mental coping strategies, wanting labor to end, poor understanding of what was going on, and mental defeat. More negative than positive emotions were described during birth, primarily feeling scared, frightened, and upset. Postnatal cognitive processing included retrospective appraisal of birth, such as taking a fatalistic view and focusing on the present, for example, concentrating on the baby. Memories of birth included not remembering parts of the birth and forgetting how bad it was. Women with posttraumatic stress symptoms reported more panic, anger, thoughts of death, mental defeat, and dissociation during birth; after birth, they reported fewer strategies that focused on the present, more painful memories, intrusive memories, and rumination, than women without symptoms. Conclusions: The results provide a useful first step toward identifying aspects of birth and postnatal processing that might determine whether women develop postnatal posttraumatic stress symptoms. Further research is needed to broaden knowledge of posttraumatic stress disorder before drawing definite conclusions (BIRTH 34:3 September 2007)