How Difficult Birth Experiences Impact Your Postpartum Experience (and function)

By Ellen Meisner, DPT

(edited by Dr. Sheri DeSchaaf, DPT)

You know that birth changes the body. But did you know it almost always changes your nervous system as well? The autonomic nervous system (ANS) helps regulate the AUTOMATIC functions of your body in response to your experiences and environment. (Remember high school Biology? 😆) 

There are two ANS “modes”. One is parasympathetic, or “rest, digest, and heal” mode. The other is sympathetic, or “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. In a healthy nervous system, your body is able to naturally access both modes and have a balance between each mode.

So how does birth impact this system?

The same nervous system that controls your body’s physical function also controls your brain and emotions. Surrounding an event like birth the physical is intimately intertwined with the emotional and psychological processes.

Birth is a huge event for your nervous system to facilitate, and a huge event for your nervous system to process. Difficulty or stress during birth can make it harder for your autonomic nervous system to regulate itself postpartum.

Even when you think you’ve “gotten over” how your birth played out, the nervous system can hang onto those emotions and experiences for a LONG time.

Often new mothers tell me ” I’m fine, the baby’s healthy and that’s all that matters,” but in reality their ANS is still in constant or heightened sympathetic mode. And guess what? That often results in pelvic floor dysfunction and heightened pain responses.

What qualifies as a “difficult birth experience”?

Regardless of the birth outcome, difficult birth experiences may impact your physical, mental, and/or emotional wellbeing. Many women don’t recognize the events of birth as being traumatic, even though they were! You don’t have to have an emergency C-section, a massive hemorrhage, or a 4th degree tear to experience “trauma” during labor.

What are some qualities of a difficult birth experience that may not be acknowledged postpartum?:

  • Sudden: did you feel rushed? Did your care team take time to explain what they were doing? Did your birth plan have to change suddenly? Were you given time to ask questions?
  • Overwhelming: Did you feel like you were in control? Were you given too many instructions at once? Were there too many people in the room? Were the people present in the room displaying heightened emotion? Were you over or under-medicated?
  • Dangerous: Did you or the baby experience complications? Did your delivery evolve into an emergency surgery? Did you lose a lot of blood? Did you worry about the life of your baby or yourself?

The body’s response to difficult events during or after birth often leads to a persistent increase in sympathetic drive in the autonomic nervous system. This means the body more easily deviates towards its “fight, flight, or freeze” response too quickly or too often even when there is no real danger or threat. 

Moreover, certain activities or stimuli may trigger your body to return to that state, even though your brain knows there is no current danger.

While this can be a subconscious response, it is not “all in your head,” as many women are told, or tell themselves. This is a real physiological response that contributes to pain, weakness, muscle spasm, and your emotional health postpartum!

Even when you think you have mentally processed what happened during your birth experience, your deeper psyche and your ANS may not have.

Recovery means acknowledging the trauma in all body systems, and starting to gently ease out of the state of hyper sensitive responses and autonomic/sympathetic overdrive.

From the pelvic floor perspective, we are here to help! TOUCHING your scars, RECONNECTING with your abdomen and perineum, and relearning to love, control, and fully experience your body postpartum in light of your ENTIRE birth experience is the first step. (book an evaluation to find out more!)

The body’s response to a difficult birth

After a difficult birth experience, the body often initiates a protective response: an increase in sympathetic drive in the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Increased sympathetic drive leads to changes in:

  • Breathing patterns
  • Muscle tone & tension 
  • Pain levels
  • Visceral mobility (organs like your bladder, uterus and bowel!)

These changes can impact pelvic floor health as well as overall health by creating excess muscular tension and systematic stress. Your tight upper traps and shoulders, tailbone pain, pain with sex, back pain, or irritable bladder may be fall-out from the events of birth vs physical damage! Of course, physical damage can cause problems too, but that is for another post… 😉

(click here for Dr. Sheri’s video on perineal tears)

If you are experiencing pain in the abdomen, pelvis, back or hips, increased tension anywhere in the body, or changes in bowel, bladder, and/or gastrointestinal function after your delivery, it may be time to see a pelvic floor physical therapist to help your body heal and recover! 

How can physical therapy help?

  • Specific movements in clinic and at home to optimize breathing patterns, strength, and mobility (this could include postural adjustments, breath training, stretches, strength movements, motor planning and coordination training)
  • Techniques to improve nervous system balance and stress response (relaxation techniques, visualization and breathing techniques, education and referral to other providers)
  • Massage/bodywork to reduce muscle tension, increase scar tissue mobility, and increase visceral mobility (massage, myofascial release, cupping, trigger point release, joint mobilizations, stretching, etc.)
  • Extensive education to empower you in your body and give you the tools you need to heal  (education about your body, what happened, what it’s doing, how it works, and how to move forward!)

If you or someone you know has had a difficult birth experience and is ready to move toward recovery, we can help! Give us a call or schedule below.

Schedule now!