The Effects of Trauma
Many parents report feeling anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed by the experience of having a child hospitalized in the NICU. The culmination of these feelings can have a profound and, sometimes, lasting affect on parents' ability to function and to thrive, even long after a child is released from the hospital. It is not uncommon for parents to have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder that haunt them, preventing them from experiencing parenthood in a way that feels meaningful and free of anxiety and stress. Sometimes, the stress and anxiety induced by this trauma can have an effect on parents' relationship with their babies.
As a NICU parent, have you struggled with:
- feelings of guilt or shame regarding the birth of your baby; or feeling like it's your fault that your baby is hospitalized
- anger or sadness over the loss of the last weeks or months of the pregnancy
- mourning the loss of the parenting experience that you were prepared for
- anxiety over your baby's health, even after they have been released from the hospital and stabilized
- feeling cut-off from friends and family, or feeling emotionally "shut-down"
- experiencing nightmares about the hospital or other details of the NICU experience
- being triggered by the sight of pregnant women or by hearing positive stories of friends' or family members' pregnancies/birth experiences
- having intrusive thoughts regarding your birth experience or your baby's hospitalization
- feeling a flood of the emotions that you held at bay while your baby was in the hospital, months after their discharge home
- finding ways of coping with the immense amount of stress that you face day to day in the NICU
- feeling anxious, sometimes obsessively, over your baby's development and physical health
- utilizing negative coping mechanisms like drinking or drugs to avoid thinking about the NICU experience
- feeling disassociated from your experience, or like it's "not really happening"
Do these experiences resonate with you? For many parents, these feelings are the reality of having gone through the NICU experience. In some ways, these feelings are a normative response to the traumatic events that most individuals will never have to face in their lives. In other ways, they are issues that can come to haunt and harm parents of NICU babies for some time to come. Try to remember that, even according to the American Center for Disease Control (CDC):
"Even if a woman does everything 'right' during pregnancy, she still can have a premature baby."
Studies have shown that therapeutic interventions executed early on in the NICU experience significantly reduce the rate of the development of PTSD symptoms in parents with babies in the NICU.
In working together, we can uncover some of your unique strengths as parents, individuals and as partners, while at the same time, you can process the pain you are going through in a safe and contained therapeutic environment. In therapy, you can work on restoring your sense of self and your values that may have been called into question by the trauma you've experienced. You can also sort out some of the less useful practices of anxiety that may be negatively affecting your parenting experience.