Kirsten Stikkel (41) followed EMDR after the birth of her daughter, now four years ago. The baby was breech, but in consultation with the hospital Kirsten decided to give birth ‘normally’. “If at any time it turns out that it wasn’t going well, it would still be an emergency c-section.”
But when the moment came and the delivery went anything but smoothly, Kirsten suddenly had to drink the entire poison cup. The delivery eventually took 14 hours, during which Kirsten indicated several times that she did not have a good feeling about it. “But the resident gynecologist in training waved my comments away, he said it would really be all right.”
She was given remifentanil, a type of morphine, to relieve the pain. “In retrospect, I think that’s why I experienced everything that followed as in a blur. The light was dimmed, I wasn’t completely clear because of that stuff and everything happened that you can experience in a nightmare.”
The moment Kirsten was fully dilated, the doctor told her to start pushing. En passant, he informed her that a breech birth usually involves a cut – “I would have liked to have known that before I opted for such a delivery”.
When making the cut, the doctor hit a blood vessel, after which he had to stitch the wound and then again use the scissors on the other side. Kirsten: “I now look like The Joker from below, I sometimes say jokingly.”
Although she had no contractions and felt everything was not going to fit, the doctor insisted that she persevere. “When I managed to squeeze the baby out with her buttocks and legs, he said casually: no, that’s not going to work. Her head was stuck, it just didn’t fit. And suddenly the room was full of doctors. They took the baby forcibly pulled out of my pelvis with the help of pliers.”
Lifeless and turned blue
And the misery was not over yet. Because once freed from her plight, her daughter was born lifeless and bruised. “She was immediately taken away and is actively breathing for an hour, I later heard. Everyone left, I was still there alone with the gynecologist in training, who stitched me up for two hours. All the while I had no idea how it went with my baby.”
Fortunately, her daughter turned out all right in the end, but the events left their mark on Kirsten. There was certainly no question of a pink cloud. “A few weeks after giving birth I collapsed. I didn’t sleep, I had no zest for life.” Three months later, on the advice of her GP, she started EMDR. “I was skeptical about it beforehand, mainly because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to recall the memory as well and it wouldn’t have any effect.”
In two sessions, she and her psychologist went back to the moments that bothered her the most. “Those turned out to be the moments when I didn’t feel heard, and the blurry moments I experienced like a kind of fever dream.” They devoted another session to the nightmares that haunted her. “I dreamed that the baby actually didn’t come out or that they pulled her head off.”
No more night terrors
Soon after the EMDR, Kirsten was relieved to notice a difference. “After a few weeks, that nightly fear disappeared. I will always be sad about how this birth went, but I can now talk about it perfectly without bursting into tears. And I didn’t have any problems with my second pregnancy of fear. My son was also in a breech position, but they were able to turn it during the pregnancy and he popped out within an hour during the delivery. A dream birth. I felt very supported by that EMDR.”
‘Completely upset I went under anesthesia’
Joyce de Jong (41) sought psychological help after her second delivery, which ended in an emergency c-section, just like the first. The second time Joyce quickly sensed that things would go the same way as the first time, but again action was taken at the very last moment. “My contractions were again so intense that my son Siem’s heart rate kept going down, just like it had happened with Mees, my eldest.”
Once again she ended up in the operating room with full dilatation, and this time, to her dismay, she also had to go under anesthesia. “I was on the operating table and didn’t see my husband. Then the doctor told me that Siem was in distress and they had to operate immediately. As I was brought under sail, I heard them go through a checklist. Someone mentioned a ‘neonatal crash cart’. I went completely upset under anesthesia and that’s how I woke up.”
In the recovery room, she felt left to her own devices. “I had no idea where Siem and his father were. I heard a baby crying; was that mine? There was no one to ask how I was doing and tell me how my child was doing. I lay there mother soul only.”
She had terrible nightmares in the first days after Siem was born, but she felt that there was hardly any attention for her mental well-being. “There was no space to share my feelings with anyone. The message I got was: here’s some paracetamol for the pain, and get back to walking as soon as possible, because it’s good for you. Suck it up. That The whole ‘shoulders down and pretend nothing happened’ didn’t work for me.”
Flashbacks and overly anxious
During her leave she noticed that she slept badly, had flashbacks and was overly anxious that something would happen to Siem. Eventually trauma therapy in combination with EMDR brought relief. “I wrote out my entire order story and we went through it step by step.”
Two things in particular turned out to have a lot of emotional charge. “The first was the fact that I didn’t feel heard. The fears I already had before giving birth were all pushed aside in my opinion. ‘You can do this Joyce, you were made for this’, was the gist.”
Another aspect that EMDR softened was that she felt enormously abandoned at various times. “I had to wait two hours for that epidural. There was a serious accident, so I understand that I’m not a priority, but when you’re in so much pain and no one cares about you, it does something with you.” The lonely moment in the recovery room also bothered her.
Crying a lot
Joyce can now talk very well about both deliveries and she no longer has nightmares and nasty flashbacks. But the trauma has not completely disappeared. “During my third delivery, a planned cesarean section, I was in the same room where I had been after my second delivery. I had to cry a lot, that room evoked so much sadness. It turned out that there was still something there.”
EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing in full – has been around for almost 25 years, but has gained enormous popularity in recent years, says GZ psychologist Simone van Leipsig-Beekman. She herself specializes in psychological complaints related to pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood and it is also increasingly being used in that area. Much research has been done into the effectiveness of EMDR for childbirth-related PTSD and fear of childbirth. Sometimes clients themselves ask for EMDR, she says. “In any case, attention to psychological complaints is increasing. It is less and less a taboo that women can also be depressed, anxious or traumatized during the supposedly most beautiful period in their lives.”
Never dare to get pregnant again
Psychological complaints during pregnancy and after childbirth are common: 10 to 20 percent of women develop them. 1 in 10 women experience childbirth as traumatic, in a small proportion of them (1 to 3 percent) this leads to a post-traumatic stress disorder. Not everyone who experiences a shocking experience develops PTSD. Most people recover without treatment.
If a woman after childbirth suffers persistently from, for example, nightmares about childbirth, hyperalertness, a gloomy mood and avoids situations that are reminiscent of childbirth, then there may be PTSD. These complaints can have a negative impact on the mother’s self-image, breastfeeding and the interaction between mother and baby. Sometimes women never dare to become pregnant again or are very afraid of giving birth in a subsequent pregnancy. EMDR can also be used safely during pregnancy.
Van Leipsig: “EMDR, often combined with trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, is a treatment that can bring a lot of relief. Women who do not meet all the criteria for PTSD can also benefit from EMDR. Sometimes a short course can be enough.”
This is how it works: “Broadly speaking, a client tells how the traumatic event is still on the retina. That memory is briefly retrieved from the memory as vividly as possible. Memory plays an important role in trauma and EMDR. We consider what is still the worst image in the memory, and what kind of feelings, thoughts and physical tension that evokes.When that comes to the fore very sharply, the therapist offers a distracting task, such as following a fast-moving light with your eyes, in combination with tapping a rhythm or spelling a word.
That distraction ensures that there is no room left in your working memory for the emotional charge of the memory. This saves the event again, but in a more neutral way. Clients then experience the event as something that lies in the past. Gradually, an emotional distance to the memory develops.”
In principle, any traumatic experience that still has meaning and still feels like yesterday can be treated with EMDR. Childbirth does not have to be medically complicated to lead to trauma. “We also see many women who suffer, for example, from losing control of the situation, feeling unsafe or experiencing unbearable pain. Another important factor in the experience is the treatment of the healthcare provider. something I often hear.”
Even if mother and baby are separated for medical reasons shortly after birth, as happened to both Joyce and Kirsten, this is often a profound experience. “Sometimes women think that during EMDR they will end up at the moment they lost a lot of blood and thought they were going to die, but the pain actually turns out to be at the moment their baby was not with them. There is also a lot mourn around it, for a beautiful moment she has been taken away.”
Also traumatized partners
Incidentally, partners can also suffer trauma. That is often forgotten, Van Leipsig notes. “They sometimes have to look on passively as their wife or child is in mortal danger. It is extra difficult for them to ask for care for themselves, because they are supposed to be ‘strong’ – after all, they have not experienced it. But they can also benefit have in EMDR.”
Do you think you need trauma treatment with EMDR? Then make sure that your practitioner is a BIG-registered mental health professional and has completed a thorough EMDR training. Specialist EMDR therapists are affiliated with the EMDR Netherlands Association.
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