Appointments with my doctor make me nervous. That’s highly ironic, because I’m a doctor, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist who regularly deals with high-risk pregnancies. But ever since developing preeclampsia during my first pregnancy eight years ago, the thought of having my blood pressure taken triggers flashbacks and anxiety. The silver lining is that my experience has changed the way that I care for patients.
Preeclampsia affects upward of 10% of pregnant women. Its main signal is high blood pressure, but it can also cause headaches and damage the kidneys. In severe cases, women can have seizures or suffer liver damage. It is also a leading cause of maternal and fetal death.
I was diagnosed with preeclampsia at 32 weeks of pregnancy after my blood pressure rose and I experienced headaches and blurred vision. My daughter was delivered via caesarean section within 24 hours of my diagnosis because our health was at risk. She stayed in the newborn intensive care unit for 5 1/2 weeks. The whole experience was frightening.
Afterward, I was terrified to go to a doctor and have my blood pressure taken. In fact, I avoided seeing a doctor for two years, until I got pregnant with my second daughter — something I would never advise my patients to do.
On the day of my first prenatal care visit for the second pregnancy, I started worrying as soon as I woke up. My anxiety skyrocketed and my pulse shot up to 120 beats a minute — almost double what it should have been. Having my blood pressure measured on that day, and throughout my pregnancy, was especially terrifying.
During my 29th week of pregnancy, I was told that my baby was not growing normally and was once again diagnosed with preeclampsia. I had to stop working, see my doctor twice a week, and take my blood pressure twice a day. By 34 weeks, my preeclampsia had become severe, and I had another C-section to deliver my second daughter. But because I had shared my anxieties from the first C-section with my medical team, they implemented small changes that made the experience better for me.
My daughters are healthy young girls, but to this day having my blood pressure taken is a triggering event. I immediately flash back to my babies staying in the intensive care unit and I relive the first visit to my doctor at the start of my second pregnancy. I always arrive 20 minutes early for doctor’s appointments so I have time to calm myself down. Even writing this article, I can feel my heart rate increase.
It didn’t occur to me until my second daughter was 2 and I was having my blood pressure taken that this was still a problem and that I likely had post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is most commonly associated with the kinds of trauma experienced by survivors of assault, war, or natural disasters. But it can also develop from other types of trauma, such as a traumatic pregnancy or birth event like miscarriage, placental abruption, preterm delivery, or pregnancies that involve complex infant care.
While postpartum depression is more commonly linked with pregnancy, PTSD is being more widely recognized in recent years and has become the subject of research. Nearly 10% of women with a prior pregnancy complication meet the full criteria for PTSD, and approximately 30% meet partial criteria. Symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or flashbacks typically occur within a few months of the traumatic event. And though some women recover within a year, about one-third develop chronic symptoms. I am one of them.
My personal experience has made me more aware of the fears and anxieties my patients may be carrying from previous pregnancies. When I meet a woman who is having another child, I ask her to describe her past pregnancy. Sometimes what appears on paper to have been a normal birth may have been traumatic for her.
Pregnant women with PTSD are more likely to have preterm births. By listening to my patients, I can make adjustments in their care plans such as avoiding situations that may trigger anxiety. When symptoms of PTSD affect their lives, I often share my own experience and can recommend a psychiatrist or support group for help.
Pregnant women should be upfront and honest with their doctors about their past medical experiences. But the onus is really on doctors to try to gauge whether a patient had a traumatic birth experience and may be experiencing PTSD. Women are often reluctant to share fears or anxieties — or may just not realize what they are feeling — and need a physician’s help to uncover these feelings. This is yet one more instance in which a patient’s emotional well-being can play as big a role in care as her physical well-being.
Shivani Patel, M.D., is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She talks about her experience with PTSD in this video.