For the first in a series of interview blog posts I invited Alex Heath founder of the three step program for traumatic birth recovery to talk to me about the impact of birth trauma and what can be done to recover, heal or start on the journey towards healing. This is such an important issue and one that I have been impacted by myself, I did not know where to turn or where to start. If I had been able to access what Alex, and her trained practitioners are doing, the five years in between my sons birth and discovering hypnobirthing would have been very different.
I want every woman to birth feeling empowered, and many are helping women to do so but even then I know that this is not always the case. I meet many women in their second pregnancies seeking a different experience second time round. The work that Alex is doing is changing lives, knowing where to seek support or help to heal is vital. This subject is an important thing to talk about both for birthing women and the people who support them. So thank you Alex for your time!
Could you share with those reading what the three step program for traumatic birth recovery is?
It is a safe and gentle step by step approach that guides someone towards their own natural healing state.
Simply broken down the steps are:
Step 1: Listening to someones story should they wish to share it. Understanding how it continues to impact on their day to day life, their relationships and their sense of self. Understanding how they would like things to be without the feelings, ways of responding and beliefs holding them back. Practicing relaxation to lower arousal levels.
Step 2: Using relaxation to guide someone to remember their event in a very calm state, asking them to watch and rewind it several times. Guiding someone to imagine their life without the symptoms they have been experiencing.
Step 3: Checking back and re-scaling.
What you do is so important! How did you come to work with birth trauma recovery?
I am a clinical hypnotherapist by trade who was lucky enough to have 2 peaceful home births using hypnosis, so I was pretty clueless about birth trauma, however I did have quite a traumatic pregnancy and a very traumatic post natal period, so I knew things could be tough there. When my first baby was older I started teaching hypnobirthing to groups of couples and very soon I started to attract couples who had a difficult first birth and wanted to use hypnosis to have a better birth experience 2nd time around. But I very quickly noticed that these parents, although they really wanted to believe that birth could be different, they kept being re-triggered by the very mention of birth. Even positive birth stories would be re-triggering and I could see that this fear was a barrier to hearing anything else. It was like it was so strong it was over riding every other desire. So I had to come up with way of working that neutralised their fear so they could get on with planning for a better birth. At around the same time I started to see parents who had taken my course, after their birth, at reunions and I was finding that quite a few had not had great experiences. And I was a bit stumped. Remember I had only had two homebirths so I really didn't get it - why wasn't the hypnobirthing working!?! And then when my youngest was older I trained to be a birth doula and started attending hospital births. Then I got it. Big time! It was like the missing piece of the puzzle for me. Unfortunately in that first year as a doula I experienced two very traumatic births vicariously and was traumatised by them. I then saw the need to begin teaching what I know about birth trauma to as many birth professionals as possible. So far I have trained 160 doulas, midwives, breastfeeding consultants, antenatal teachers and psychologists too. My programme is taught in 6 NHS hospitals and one of those has just published it's data on the results, which were phenomenal.
When you are deep in a very raw dark place it can seem that there is no way out. Is it possible to heal birth trauma?
I would like to hope that healing is possible for anyone who desires it. Anyone who is sick and tired of experiencing the same heavy feelings and dark place can, with the right guidance move out of there. The first step is for a person to acknowledge how much it still affects them, understanding the day to day impact on their life and then considering what they would like to be different. I skilled and trained practitioner can help guide parents through that process gently and at their own pace.
We often do not know what to say to those who are suffering from grief or loss. I hear so often the wrong things being said, things that could create more sadness rather than ease it. How do you talk to a woman struggling with birth trauma?
It's a really difficult area and there is a lot of misunderstanding and alot of gaslighting that goes on around trauma. I think the main thing is not to talk but to offer a listening and compassionate ear, if you feel able to, or to signpost to someone who is confident in doing that if not. I would only recommend a hospital debrief if the person was clear about what they want from the session and if you are confident that the hospital debrief wont be re-traumatising (unfortunately it often is).
I remember feeling a huge amount of guilt and anger directed at myself for making certain decisions and not having been ‘stronger’. My personal journey since then has meant that I understand more of what happened and that it was in no way my fault. That in fact I was so strong to experience something like this. Reflecting on these huge and destructive feelings they often resulted in me pushing my loved ones away. How can loved ones support and have more understanding for a mother who is experiencing this?
It's really good to hear your journey Sophie and how you moved through those feelings to become stronger. It's so important for others to know that these feelings are completely normal, given what is often a scary and out of control experience. It's a really good question about how partners can support because often they experience the same event very differently. I think giving a person time and space to process what has happened is a good idea and to be mindful of them in the first few months. Encourage them to take time for themselves when they need it and draught in help if necessary to allow this to happen for new mums or dads. Reassure your partner that what they are experiencing is normal given what they have gone through but also suggest that if it continues beyond a certain number of months (3 months) then encourage them to seek specialist help.
When is a good time to seek professional help? I still find my son’s birthday quite hard. I find I reflect hugely and feel the guilt I used to feel well up again. I love my son fiercely and feel so so proud of him. Feeling these mixed emotions on this day that should be purely joy creates guilt for me also. Is this normal to experience?
Yes, birthdays are so often triggering for parents. It is completely normal BUT very unhelpful and confusing when you want to celebrate and feel joyful. The 3 Steps could help lift those feelings if you ever felt that you would prefer to feel free of them.
Can we talk for a moment about birth partners? My partner struggled hugely and actually in very different ways to me as he tried to deal with his own birth trauma. Can birth partners (whether partners, mothers, siblings or friends) access the three step program?
Yes, absolutely and as a hypnobirthing teacher I loved using the 3 Steps with couples together. It provided a really neutral space and time for them both to be heard and to heal together. It was lovely. They could then be on the same page as they looked ahead to their next birth or even to just to begin enjoying their parenting experience more.
And lastly but no means least could you share a message from you to those reading this blog suffering from birth trauma?
I would just encourage anyone who has experienced a birth trauma or any other perinatal trauma to practice self compassion and relaxation (mindfulness, yoga, hypnosis or journalling) as a way of immediately reducing some of the strongest feelings. Be patient with your own healing process but agree with yourself or your partner that if you don't feel better by a certain time you will invest in treatment to help with recovery. The job of parenting is so important but also tough enough as it is without battling trauma symptoms every day too.