You probably couldn’t tell by looking at me. I was good at hiding it. But an early miscarriage I experienced in the summer of 2009 triggered one of the most horrendous episodes of panic, anxiety, and PTSD I’d ever experienced.
My first son was two and a half at the time, and my husband and I weren’t really trying to get pregnant … though we probably weren’t doing as well at avoiding it as we should have. So when I experienced pregnancy symptoms and spotting, I went to the doctor for testing. No fetus was visible on the ultrasound, so my doctor told me to “just relax.”
I remember looking at the doctor, tears in my throat, pleading with him to tell me whether I was miscarrying or not. He callously answered that he would give me a blood test to see. Two days later, I was told I had pregnancy hormone in my blood, but not enough to sustain a pregnancy. I was either in the middle of miscarrying a baby or very newly pregnant. I was told to come in one week for most tests.
The week between blood tests sent my anxiety into overdrive. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, my heart was racing, and my bowels were a disaster. I didn’t know whether to prepare for the idea that a baby might be coming, or to guard myself against falling in love with this potential new life growing inside me, because I might be losing it anyway.
I continued bleeding. A week later, I had bloodwork done that showed I had miscarried. I had to call the doctor several times to get the results, and the doctor wouldn’t even speak to me personally to relay the news that I had miscarried.
There was zero empathy, zero follow-up, zero anything. I got the message that my miscarriage—early and uncomplicated as it was—was really nothing. That meant to me that I probably shouldn’t have as many feelings about it as I did.
But I did have feelings—more intense than I expected. I began having daily panic attacks, and symptoms of PTSD such as dissociation and numbness. I don’t think it helped that I hardly told anyone about what was going on. I truly believed—thanks in part to my doctor—that this wasn’t supposed to be a big thing. And I didn’t want to burden anyone with my feelings.
Eventually, I reached a breaking point and went back to my old therapist for help. Just talking things through, having someone validate my feelings, and giving myself time to grieve the loss helped me feel better.
That was over a decade ago now and I often think about how much easier it might have been for me if there was more information and support out there about miscarriages and mental health.
Thankfully, the tide seems to be shifting. I am not the only mom who has shared how devastating miscarriages can be— and the more of us who break the silence, the better.
A study from Belguim, published in American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is adding further credence to the idea that miscarriages can have intensive and long-lasting effects on our mental health.
Researchers from the Imperial College London and KU Leuven in Belgium studied over 650 women who experienced an early pregnancy loss or ectopic pregnancy. Almost a third of the women surveyed—or 29%—experienced PTSD symptoms. 24% experienced anxiety, and 11% experienced depression.
And get this: their symptoms persisted. A whole nine months later, 18% of women still experienced PTSD, 17% had lasting anxiety symptoms, and 6% were still experiencing depression.
The research team concluded that not only are things like PSTD, anxiety, and depression very common among women who experience miscarriage, but we need to make improvements in terms of the care we give women post-miscarriage.
Oh my goodness, this is one million percent true. Looking back, I am certain I would have processed my miscarriage so much better if my doctor had sat me down, looked me in the eyes, and simply said, “It’s normal to grieve after a miscarriage. You are not alone. Take it slow for a while as your hormones return to normal and you process what has happened.”
The study researchers concur.
“The treatment women receive following early pregnancy loss must change to reflect its psychological impact, and recent efforts to encourage people to talk more openly about this very common issue are a step in the right direction,” Tom Bourne, one of the study researchers, told Science Daily.
“Whilst general support and counselling will help many women, those with significant post-traumatic stress symptoms require specific treatment if they are going to recover fully,” Bourne said. “This is not widely available, and we need to consider screening women following an early pregnancy loss so we can identify those who most need help.”
We absolutely do. More programs and resources must be made available to women who have experienced miscarriage. All doctors who treat women after miscarriage should touch base with them about their mental health. And programs tailored to PTSD specifically–which is a frequent symptom after pregnancy loss–are desperately needed.
At the same time, we need to continue breaking the silence on this issue. I really do think that—in addition to the intense impact itself of losing a baby—holding your feelings of grief inside, and not having a safe place to vent, is part of what leads to symptoms of PTSD and anxiety.
“We have made significant progress in recent years in breaking the silence around mental health issues in pregnancy and postnatally, but early pregnancy losses are still shrouded in secrecy, with very little acknowledgement of how distressing and profound an event they are,” Jessica Farren, another researcher who worked on the study, told Science Daily.
“Many women don’t tell colleagues, friends or family they are pregnant before the 12-week scan, leaving them feeling unable to discuss their emotions if they suffer a pregnancy loss.”
Yes, the belief that women are just supposed to grin and bear it, and then move on with their life—as though something life-altering and tremendously painful hasn’t just happened—is so toxic and harmful. And yet, that’s still how many of us operate when it comes to miscarriage and child loss.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Miscarriage itself is painful enough. If you are in the throes of grieving your miscarriage, please give yourself time to heal. Take as much time as you want. Please reach out to a counselor or trusted friend if you need to. You are not overreacting. Your feelings matter. They are valid. And you are going to be okay.