Study: Moderate-to-serious psychological trauma much more common in first-time mothers than thought

University of Haifa researchers find that the way in which women perceive the post-natal period, combined with personal factors, may be a risk factor for developing the experience of crisis and PTSD.

A pregnant woman (photo credit: REUTERS)
A pregnant woman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
About half of first-time Israeli mothers go through a moderate to severe psychological crisis, according to a University of Haifa researcher.
The high figure was reached by Dr. Yeela Tomsis, who conducted the research for her doctoral thesis, and found that the way in which women perceive the post-natal period, combined with personal factors, may be a risk factor for developing the experience of crisis and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms after giving birth.
“The birth of a child is considered to be a positive event. However, many women respond to the birth of their first child and the transition into motherhood with difficult feelings of general distress that can lead to severe emotional symptoms,” said Tomsis.
The phenomenon of PTSD symptoms after giving birth is well-known, and has already been studied more than once in the past, but until now there have been no studies examining the experiences of crisis that women suffer from after giving birth.
An experience of crisis is defined as a psychological imbalance in which normal coping mechanisms fail to the point that the person suffering is incapacitated, and as a result experiences despair, helplessness, stress and fear.
While PTSD is a well-defined syndrome with clear symptoms, the experience of crisis is a much more ambiguous phenomenon that so far has received very little attention, according to Tomsis.
Tomsis examined for the first time to what extent giving birth is perceived as an experience of crisis, and what correlations exist between symptoms of the experience of crisis and those of post-partum PTSD.
The research, which studied 188 women aged 18 to 46 who gave birth for the first time on time to one healthy baby, revealed that about 45 percent of women related to the experience of moderate to severe crisis, while only 23% of women reported experiencing a mild crisis or no crisis at all.
There was no difference in the experience of crisis among Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druse women. On a scale of one to five, the average experience of crisis after giving birth was 2.81, meaning a moderate crisis.
Only 1.1% of the women studied met the full criteria for PTSD, the symptoms of which include recurrent dreams, flashbacks, evasion of memories associated with childbirth and anxiety-causing thoughts of the birth. About 5% had symptoms from two of the categories for PTSD, and another 22% had symptoms from one category. Thus, in total, 28% had suffered varying degrees of post-traumatic symptoms.
The study showed that there are several risk factors for PTSD – feelings of distress during labor, a sense of loss of resources, and a tendency to cope through self-blame and rumination.
The research found that personal factors relating to the experience of crisis following childbirth are a lack of preparedness for parenthood, a sense of loss of resources, and coping strategies characterized by self blame, blaming others and compulsively focusing attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, causes and consequences. The experience of crisis, like PTSD symptoms, causes great emotional distress.
Tomsis also studied for the first time the interrelations between the experience of crisis and PTSD symptoms.
“There were situations in which the experience of crisis appeared first and was so severe that in itself it triggered PTSD symptoms,” she said.