Stillbirth Raises Risk for PTSD, Study Finds
Doctors use the term stillbirth to identify a relatively rare, involuntary loss of pregnancy that occurs more than 20 weeks after gestation. Women who experience this form of pregnancy loss may experience serious forms of psychological distress. In a study published in March 2015 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers from Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom assessed the potential connection between stillbirth and increased risks for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These researchers identified a substantial uptick in short-term risks for PTSD in women affected by stillbirth, and also uncovered some of the factors that make the disorder more likely to occur.
Women and PTSD
Women develop post-traumatic stress disorder roughly 150 percent more often than men, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. Part of this gender disparity is attributable to women’s generally higher level of exposure to rape and other forms of sexual assault; compared to most other forms of trauma exposure, sexual assault produces a clearly elevated degree of PTSD risk. Compared to men, women also generally have higher chances of feeling at fault for their exposure to a traumatic event or situation; in turn, feelings of self-blame in the aftermath of trauma may make PTSD more likely to occur. In women, additional problems associated with the disorder include anxiety-related issues, depression-related issues and declining physical health.
Not all women share the same level of PTSD risk in the aftermath of trauma exposure. In addition to those individuals exposed to sexual assault, groups of women considered especially susceptible to the disorder include those individuals who believed they might die during their traumatic experiences, those individuals who experience physical injuries during trauma exposure, those individuals who experience intense short-term reactions to trauma exposure, those individuals who lack adequate support networks and those individuals who continue to experience significant stress in the weeks or months following trauma exposure.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes several potential causes of stillbirth, all of which are natural and not caused by human intervention. These causes include infections in a developing child, altered function in the placenta, genetics-based disruption of normal fetal development and non-genetic disruption of normal fetal development. Crucially, doctors never determine a clear reason for 50-plus percent of all instances of stillbirth. Some women experience stillbirth between the 21st week of pregnancy and the delivery process. However, other women only experience stillbirth during delivery.
Psychological distress is a common reaction among women affected by stillbirth. Doctors use this term to describe damaging emotional reactions capable of reducing the ability to function normally in daily life. Generally speaking, people affected by psychological distress have substantially increased chances of developing diagnosable mental health problems such as PTSD, various forms of depression and various types of anxiety disorder.
Impact on PTSD Risks
In the study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers from Switzerland’s University Hospital Lausanne, Germany’s Medical School Berlin and the United Kingdom’s Warwick Hospital used a small-scale project involving 65 women to explore the connection between stillbirth and the odds of developing PTSD. All of the women enrolled in the project experienced stillbirth during or after their 24th week of pregnancy. Three months and six months after stillbirth, each participant answered questions designed to detect the presence of PTSD. In addition, each participant underwent two separate assessments designed to identify the risk factors that make PTSD more likely to occur in a woman who experiences stillbirth.
The researchers found significant indications of PTSD in the study participants three months after stillbirth occurred. However, they also concluded that the symptoms of PTSD-related stillbirth typically subside to a meaningful degree by the time a woman reaches the six-month point. Women who ruminate (compulsively rehash bad experiences) have increased PTSD risks in the aftermath of stillbirth, as do women who view themselves negatively, view the world negatively, numb their emotional responses and/or blame themselves for a stillbirth. Other indicators of increased risk include being relatively young, having little prior experience with pregnancy, having a relatively poorly developed social support network (or just believing that a social support network is inadequate) and lacking socioeconomic resources.