EMDR and Birth Trauma

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There isn’t much on the internet, at least not in searches I’ve done, about the use of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for birth trauma, so I thought I’d relate my experience and how this method of therapy, essentially, changed my life. Literally. I don’t use that phrase lightly. It made a significant difference not only in my overall outlook and mental health in general, but also in my ability to have another child.

I wrote out my son’s birth story about a week or so after he was born and even now, when I read it, I can still travel back in time to those horrible weeks following the event when I was in a constant state of immense, bottomless depression. Prior to my EMDR therapy, when remembering those weeks, I would relive them over and over, sinking back into that old feeling of dread and sadness that dominated my thinking for months. I actually wrote on this topic before I did EMDR, trying to kind of work through it on my own, hoping I could find some healing just by getting my thoughts and feelings out.

It didn’t work.

To summarize (you can read the full version here), I had planned on having him in an independent birthing center that I found prior to us even trying to conceive. We went through very in-depth Bradley Method classes for several months, learning about the different relaxation techniques as well as extensive lessons in the different phases of labor and what exactly was happening in the mother’s body during each phase, which I found (and still do) to be fascinating and very helpful during labor. It gave the pain a purpose, and for whatever reason, that made it easier.

It was really a textbook labor. I went to the birthing center after I had been having contractions for about two days. Once there, I spent most of the time in the birthing tub, letting the water buoy me through the contractions, enjoying the sensation of just floating. I got through transition and actually fell asleep for a little until I decided that it was probably time for me to start pushing. So I did.

In hindsight, I wasn’t ready. But having never had a baby before, I had no idea what it was supposed to feel like when I was finally ready to push.

I pushed for a little over two hours. At that time, his head was starting to show with each push, but we weren’t seeing the progress that the midwife wanted and his heart had dropped to worrying levels twice already (though had come right back up), so she told me that he had to be crowning within a half hour (I assumed that the unspoken “or else” meant that I’d have to go down the road to the hospital). I was so tired, but determined to have this baby naturally and at the birthing center, so I gave it another push with everything I had. His head showed once more, but disappeared after the push was over and when the midwife checked his heart rate, it had dropped significantly and wasn’t coming back up.

This was the part where I always used to get “stuck” in my memories of the event. When everyone started panicking (the nurse on duty was awful) and I has on all fours on the bed, naked, with my butt up in the air, trying to get oxygen to the baby inside of me. His heartbeat finally came back up, so she had me stay in that position while she gave me a shot of something that was supposed to stop the desire to push (it didn’t) and the nurse called an ambulance….the wrong ambulance company. Instead of calling an ambulance from the hospital down the road, she called an ambulance company that was at least a ten-minute drive away.

This was and remains the longest ten minutes of my life. I kept cursing both E and myself for having set up the little baby corner in our room with a little bed and bookshelf and diapers and clothes and all the things you do to prepare for a baby. Because we’d have to go home without our baby because he was going to die.

The ambulance finally came and we got to the hospital (I was the fifth person in the birthing center’s five-year history to be transferred via ambulance in active labor) and an emergency c-section was performed before the anesthesia fully set in. I remember E watching in shock in the corner of the operating room as I laid on the table, his scrubs haphazardly pulled on as he had been in such a hurry to get in. None of this was supposed to happen.

I only sort of vaguely remember seeing B for the first time. The first pictures we have are him laying, alone, in a plastic tub, his little arms reaching out, red-faced and crying. I hate looking at those pictures because one of the images that I held on to the most, especially during labor, was the moment when the midwife would catch him and put him up on my belly where I could hold him to me, helping him adjust to this crazy, bright, kind of scary world. Those pictures represent what I always felt was my first failure as a mother.

Ultimately, everyone was okay. B was a robust baby at just under 9 pounds (and I’m not a huge person at 5 feet 2 inches tall), his cord had been wrapped around his neck once, which is common, and he was posterior, which were really the only factors that were against his birth being a smooth, natural one (factors that other women have overcome with ease). I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone over the whole situation, trying to figure out why it happened, but the result is always that it was my fault in starting to push too soon. In trying to control the birthing process. I’ve come to terms with this in the last few years but it was the hardest thing in the world for me to swallow just after his birth and led to tremendous guilt.

Trauma looks different for different people, though, and this is what it looked like for me. Some women might go through this birth and just be glad they had a healthy baby, regardless of how that baby entered the world (and believe me, this suggestion was offered up to me countless times). The weeks following their birth might have some sadness that things didn’t work out the way they wanted, but the overall feeling isn’t sadness or dread or hopelessness or guilt. Or, on the other hand, my daughter’s birth may have been traumatic for some as she was born only 13 minutes after we arrived at the hospital and she had to spend the first hour-and-a-half of her life in the NICU because of breathing problems. I was deeply sad that I didn’t have that time with her, but it was not anywhere near the experience of my son’s birth.

About six months after my son’s birth, after countless sleepless nights where I would wake up sobbing and reliving the whole thing over and over again, especially the moment before the ambulance arrived and I was sure my baby was going to die, E finally convinced me to see a therapist through our church. She officially diagnosed me with PTSD and we met weekly for a while until I realized she wasn’t for me. My depression continued, though I started growing pretty numb to it, for another year or so before I finally made it to an ICAN meeting and shared my story (while sobbing…as usual). The women were incredibly supportive and one of them (who wrote the poem on this piece that resonated very strongly with me) passed me a business card with the name of her therapist who specializes in birth trauma on it and told me that I should really call her.

So a few weeks later, I did. She had a waitlist and told me it would probably be a month or so before she could get me in, but then called me just a week later to tell me she had an opening.

I told her my story in detail and I think even at the first meeting, she brought up EMDR, but I was against it. I think I was scared as it sounded too much like hypnosis or that I’d somehow forget the birth itself. Despite the pain and depression it caused me, I didn’t want to completely forget his birth, but I didn’t see how I could separate the overpowering sadness of it from the event itself. I also wasn’t comfortable with it from a Christian standpoint. My religious views have changed dramatically from where they were back then, but at the time, I was convinced that there was something God wanted me to learn from this experience. And a part of me wasn’t sure that maybe I was being punished for something. She was completely understanding, but asked that I just keep it in the back of my mind. She was fine with going forward with traditional therapy, but mentioned that she found often that, especially with PTSD, this wasn’t “enough.”

After a few meetings, I knew she was right and I was getting desperate. The depression was affecting my relationships, my parenting, my well-being….pretty much every aspect of my life. I started asked her a lot of questions about EMDR…. did it make me forget? Was it hypnosis? The answer to both was no. I would definitely not forget the event, but EMDR would “remove the sting”….make it less powerful. Make it more like a normal memory, though it would definitely still have strong emotions for me. And I would be fully conscious through the entire session.

She said that for PTSD, EMDR sort of “unstuck” your brain. With a traumatic situation, your brain’s coping mechanism for handling stress can get overloaded in a way, and can’t process everything that’s happening fast enough, so it gets stuck. Any time in the future when you recall that event, your path of memory goes into an unending loop, usually of a specific traumatic moment from the memory, and relives it over and over and over again with debilitating detail. This, in a really unscientific and very summarized nutshell, is PTSD.

As it was explained to me, EMDR comes in and helps your brain sort of “unroll” the memory by allowing you to process it. She said that it’s not clear why it works, but it just does. Admittedly, I was skeptical, but as I said, I was also desperate.

So we began the process and finally got to the actual therapeutic part of EMDR after two meetings of getting ready. She asked me which method I wanted to use (sound, touch, or visual) and I went with touch since it seemed the less “hypnotic” of the three. She handed me a little device that had two little fobs (this isn’t the technical term….I’m not sure what else to call them) connected by wire to a main part. I took the little fobs, one in each hand, and the main part controlled how often and how long the fobs pulsed. And then we sat and I held the fobs and just….remembered. She didn’t say anything, other than asking me to remember the one part specifically where I thought B was going to die, and let me go. It was silent as I sat there with my eyes closed, remembering and feeling the pulses from the little device switch back and forth between my hands.

I remember crying a lot, but this was normal for me at the time whenever I relived the birth. Aside from that, there was really nothing very memorable about any of it (which is maybe the point?). We did this two or three sessions (not for very long each session), and then…..that was it. She asked me in the next meeting to start talking about his birth again and….I didn’t get stuck. It wasn’t a huge change that I noticed right away because, as I said, the tremendous sadness was still there, but with each subsequent remembering of the event, the huge emotions surrounding have become easier and easier to handle.

There was nothing particularly dramatic or crazy about any of it, which I think was good as I don’t handle things like that well. It simply allowed me to finally process through his birth and remember it without becoming a basket case. For that, I’m so very, very thankful in more ways than one. I was able to actually entertain the possibility of having another child without curling into the fetal position. It also allowed me to accept the fact that C’s birth may have also ended up with another c-section, and though this thought did make me cry on a number of occasions (including during the hospital walkthrough when they shared how conveniently close the OR was to the birthing rooms), it was a concept I could handle.

Admittedly, having a successful VBAC with my daughter also helped tremendously, but I never could’ve even gotten to that point without EMDR. Despite my initial misgivings about it, I have absolutely no regrets and am so glad I did it.

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  1. I am really glad you shared this. I think you and I have similar personalities/ways of thinking about things, and I am grateful to have this information through you — I don’t think I would accept it from most sources. So glad that you were able to heal and still appreciate the experience of the birth of your son! All truth comes from God — it seems like this technique might be a wonderful blessing from him for some of the distinctly challenging issues of our day!

    1. I’m glad it was helpful, Michelle. I know it sounded so strange to me at first and counseling (especially this kind) can, at times, be frowned upon, but I wanted to share with others how it helped me. ❤️

  2. I am so thankful you posted this. My son is 22 years old and I went through all of this when I had him. I am now living with major anxiety, fear and depression that has just grown and festered year after year to a point that it is controlling many aspects of my life. It has been a very long journey and I’m excited to find out more about this process. So glad you shared 🙂

    1. Oh Heather, I’m so sorry you’ve had to struggle with this for so long. I hope EMDR can benefit you as well!

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