In a recent post, I discussed the breakdown of pain and contractions during childbirth, as written by Nancy Bardacke from her book Mindful Birthing.
There's a little more I want to discuss, and it's the importance of fostering a strong mind-body connection and connectedness to calm. This is necessary regardless of how you plan on delivering your baby - medication or not - a mindfulness practice can help with anxiousness and fear before delivery, and help you create the most positive birth experience possible for yourself.
Pain and Suffering
Let's begin with the difference and distinction between pain and suffering. Because they are often used interchangeably, I believe it's important to note that during labor the woman will experience pain but does not have to experience suffering.
"Pain - an unpleasant physical sensation that may or may not be associated with suffering (1)." Example: The pain you feel when working out is not associated with suffering.
"Suffering - a distressing psychological state that may include feelings of helplessness, anguish, remorse, fear, panic, etc. and that may or may not be associated with pain (1)."
Example: The losing a loved one may cause suffering without the physical sensation of pain.
Most women express a fear of not being in control during labor, not being able to "handle" the pain, or of feeling overwhelmed or helpless. This is actually a fear of suffering.
While suffering can occur from lack of support, birth wishes being dismissed, having medical staff perform procedures without consent, I want to focus on the mind in this blog post. Because often times, we cause ourselves the most suffering.
I want to note here, that suffering from past trauma is not the same thing. Survivors of trauma can be triggered, and when done so, lose the ability to utilize the thinking or rational brain. In these instances, we approach resolution a little differently. More on that in my next blog post.
Person A and Person B
Here's an example of how we can sometimes cause ourselves to suffer during birth simply through our thoughts.
As contractions intensify with the natural progression of labor, Person A begins to experience a higher level of pain. Between contractions, her internal dialogue is the following: “Oh my gosh that was so bad!” “How am I going to do this?” “When will this be over?” "I need a break."
She begins to feel overwhelmed. This feeling triggers a completely different hormonal response in the body, stimulating the stress reaction of fight or flight. Her body's stress response actually opposes the pain-relieving effects of endorphins and oxytocin, adding to her pain, and therefore her suffering as well.
Person A may be able to carry on through her labor in this manner, or she may require the use of medical interventions. However, how she views her birth afterward may be altered by the level of suffering she is feeling.
As contractions intensify with the natural progression of labor, Person B begins to experience a higher level of pain. She continues to breathe through her contractions, and control the inner dialogue of her mind by using her breath to anchor her to the present moment and perhaps mantras that connect her to the power of each contraction.
Her internal dialogue is the following: "I feel myself inhaling, I feel myself exhaling." "I feel the ground beneath my feet." "I relax into my body." "One contraction at a time." "We are safe."
Person B is experiencing pain, but not suffering. She reaps the full benefits of the "feel good" hormones between contractions. She has trained her mind go to a place of ease and relief between the waves. She does not think about what happened before or what is to come, only the moment at hand. She has taught her mind to garner strength for the body to handle each contraction by relaxing between contractions and refueling.
The way a person practices mindfulness and calmness may differ from person to person, but finding your center (whatever that is for you) is vital in order to better cope with the physical demands of childbirth and find peace and pleasure between contractions.
1. Tension Checks: For tension checks, lay in a comfortable position and then try to create as much tension in your body as possible. Have your partner notice where you're holding your tension and what your face looks like. This is give your partner an idea of what to look for during labor.
When tension becomes present, gentle reminders to release, or physically press the shoulders down, touching the forehead, loosening the grip of the hands can encourage relaxation and connection.
2. Meditation: Meditation is being able to be with your body and your thoughts, but without allowing your thoughts to permeate your present moment by taking you into the past or future. You can't turn your brain off, but you can choose to stay present instead of going with each thought.
3. Mantras: Mantras are words or phrases that are repeated. They are great to use to stay present. "I am inhaling, I am exhaling." "Open." "Release." "Breathe."
4. 5-4-3-2-1: Name 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell or your favorite smells, and 1 thing you taste or your favorite taste.
Lastly, commit to letting yourself off the hook. Notice when you are causing yourself undo suffering simply with your thoughts, and use this awareness to address this suffering quicker. No one is perfect and we all will go there from time to time, but practice and awareness can pull us out of these thoughts faster.