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What psychological research has found about coping after negative events
Research has found that adverse life events can lead to the search for meaning
(Taylor, 1983) and that finding meaning after a negative experience can be important
in reducing distress (Baumeister, 1991). Baumeister argues that suffering and
unhappiness are often characterised by a lack, or loss, of meaning. He states that
this is because having meaning is a fundamental human need because meaning
al ows people to have purpose, value and justification, efficacy and self-worth. He
argues that after a negative event, the construction of positive assumptions about the
self (e.g. ‘I am a worthwhile person’) and the world (e.g. ‘The world is a good place’)
al ow these needs for meaning to be met and this is what al ows recovery to take
Distress after miscarriage and childbirth
The experiences of miscarriage and childbirth, while less difficult for some women,
can result in significant psychological distress for others. This can be marked by
symptoms of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress. After a miscarriage,
depressive symptoms have been found in 20-50% of women and 22-40%
experienced anxiety symptoms (Athey & Spielvogel, 2000; Slade, 1994). Around
25% may suffer symptoms of post traumatic stress (Englehard et al, 2001). After
childbirth, 10-15% of women may develop postnatal depression (Wessely, 1998) and
10% may develop anxiety symptoms (Stuart et al, 1998). Between 2.8 and 5.6% of
women showed a post traumatic stress profile after birth (Ayers and Pickering, 2001)
and up to 30% have some post traumatic stress symptoms (Creedy et al, 2000; Soet
Particular ways of thinking have been linked to more distress (e.g. wishful thinking)
and less distress (e.g. trying to think of some positive aspects of the experience)
(James & Krishansen, 1995). Maker & Ogden (2003) proposed that women go
through three stages, turmoil, adjustment
. During the adjustment
stage they found that women searched for meaning and a minority of women did not
find a satisfactory explanation. Simmons et al (2006) found that women often linked
their miscarriage to their moral deservedness as mothers (e.g. some women felt that
they had a miscarriage because they did not deserve to be a mother) if they could
not find a medical explanation. This highlights the tension between the medical and
lay explanations of miscarriage. One woman said; ‘Most people treat miscarriage as
not very important ‘everybody has them’ etc. But it was very traumatic for me
1942). The behaviour of professionals was reported to be a key factor in the
accounts of women experiencing a miscarriage.
Expectation may be important in the experience of childbirth. Levy and McGee
(1975) found that women who rated their childbirth favourably tended to indicate that
their experience was better than expected and those who reported an unfavourable
birth tended to see it as worse than expected. Conflicting research has shown that
pain is related to adjustment (Soet et al, 2003) and is not related to adjustment
(Lemola et al, 2007). Having control, having expectations met and having support
from family and staff have been found to be crucial to satisfaction with the childbirth
experience (Goodman et al, 2004; Hodnett, 2002). In general these factors are more
important than the influences of pain, medical interventions and birth environment.
The search for meaning and finding meaning fol owing childbirth has been linked to
adjustment. Important features of these processes are prior expectations, staff
support, cultural attitudes, and having a sense of control.
The present study looked at the experiences of women who had a first miscarriage
within the last twelve months and women who had experienced a first childbirth
within the last three years. The aim was to develop a picture of the processes of
constructing meaning fol owing the potential y adverse events of miscarriage and
childbirth. Two questions were proposed:
1. How do the miscarriage and childbirth groups differ in respect to their levels of
distress, and differ in their search for and finding of meaning?
2. What are the relationships between searching for meaning, finding meaning,
positive affect and distress across the groups?
Findings across al the (191) women who participated in the study
• Women who were searching for meaning had less positive mood and more
symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress than
• Women who had found more meaning had more positive mood than women
• Having a purpose to daily life was related to positive mood. • Believing the world to be more benevolent and meaningful was related to
• Having self-worth was linked to positive mood and decreased distress.
Findings from women who had experienced a miscarriage
• In general*, women who had experienced a miscarriage were moderately
anxious and were mild to moderately depressed.
• In general* women who experienced a miscarriage had raised symptoms of
Findings from women who had experienced childbirth
• In general*, women who had experienced childbirth were mildly anxious and
• No differences were found between women who experienced childbirth in the
last year and women who experienced childbirth 1-3 years ago in respect to
symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress.
• No differences were found between women 0-1 years and 1-3 years since
childbirth in their search for meaning.
• No differences were found between women 0-1 years and 1-3 years since
(*’In general’ means the average score across al participants)
Comparing the participants who experienced a miscarriage to participants who
• Women who experienced a miscarriage were significantly more distressed
than women who experienced childbirth.
• Women who experienced childbirth had significantly more positive mood than
women who experienced a miscarriage.
• Women who experienced a miscarriage were searching for meaning more
than women who experienced childbirth.
• Women who experienced childbirth had found more meaning than women
• Experiencing a miscarriage can be a significantly distressing event and this
research found that experiencing a miscarriage was general y more
distressing than experiencing childbirth.
• Not al women after childbirth are distressed. For example, one participant
wrote, ‘I loved it!!.after a few pushes (& a double decker choc bar) my
beautiful baby boy arrived in just over an hour and a half!!!’
• However, childbirth can also be a significantly distressing event for some
women. For example, one participant wrote, ‘I have never been more
frightened or alone in my life in a room ful of strangers tel ing me what to do,
al I wanted was my husband! I got post traumatic stress disorder and didn’t
bond with my baby. It has put me off having any more children’.
• Women who found childbirth difficult and struggled afterwards may not get
better over time. They may continue to search for meaning and may not find
meaning, or they may find meaning but this does not lead to recovery. One
participant wrote, ‘My healthy daughter was born vaginal y that evening
without complications, but she is nearly two and I stil feel I failed at giving
How this research may help women who experience miscarriage or childbirth as
• This research has provided evidence to suggest that the development of
therapies are needed to support women who experience distress after
• This research also has provided some evidence that distress after childbirth
may become chronic. Therefore therapies may need to address the issue of
women experiencing distress after childbirth for up to three years.
• Promoting the finding of meaning may be a useful issue to address in therapy
for women experiencing difficulties fol owing childbirth or miscarriage.
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Baumeister, R.F. (1991). Meanings of Life.
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Maker, C., & Ogden, J. (2003). The miscarriage experience: more than just a trigger to psychological morbidity? Psychology and Health
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Taylor, S.E. (1983). Adjustment to threatening events: A theory of cognitive adaption. American Psychologist
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Simmons, R.K., Singh, G., Maconochie, N., Doyle, P., & Green, J. (2006). Experience of miscarriage in the UK: Qualitative findings from the National Women’s Health Study. Social Science and Medicine
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Slade, P. (1994). Predicting the psychological impact of miscarriage. Journal of Reproduction and Infant Psychology,
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