Fear-Tension-Pain cycle: it can take over your birth. Learn how to defeat it!

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

Georgia O’Keeffe was an American painter who painted flowers that represented the female form. To me, her flower expressions so vividly resemble the birth canal and beautifully reminds us to let our bodies open and bloom during labor.

Easier said than done, Stephanie! I know, I have been there! Most women, yes, even those who desire an unmedicated birth experience, have felt that “I don’t want to do this anymore” moment during labor. I told my husband and doula when I was 9cm dilated to just have them cut me open. “Just take the baby out, I don’t care” is what I think I said. Of course, that was not an option, but I felt like I was going to, “blow out my butt” (there’s another quote for ya 😉). Read my birth stories here.

This fear of pain and suffering during childbirth that we (men and women) have been taught does NOT have to be our focus point. Is labor painful? Hell yes! Does it have to be the reason I tense my body and elicit more pain which just triggers more fear of that pain? HELL NO!

Let’s talk a little about what this cycle is and what it does to the body.

We start with fear.

Fear of childbirth starts right in the family home. We see it on TV and in movies as this insanely quick event that brings the woman into a state of shock and panic while the husband is completely useless. I get it, it is supposed to be funny. Making fun of a situation that you do not know the truth about until you are actually in it, brings the reality and intensities of birth down to a manageable level. It isn’t our fault that we’ve been fed this even as children. This is our culture. This is the way we have decided to portray birth. But what if all you know about birth is what you have seen on TV and heard from other women who have had scary experiences?

These scary birth stories are passed down through generations and through friendships. They pop up in everyday conversation at bonfires or dinner parties. Don’t get me wrong, we need to express how painful, stressful, and scary birth was for us. It is a way to decompress and cope with what happened during labor and birth. It is necessary and useful, but it should not be the only story you hear, and oftentimes, it is. This is how we have evolved into a misaligned birth culture. We have been told birth is supposed to be like the movies or TV (sometimes very horrific). We have been conditioned to look at only the uncomfortable parts of labor and not the amazing work your body does to bring a baby into the world. And because no birth will ever unfold in the exact same way, we have fear of the unknown to cope with too.

Let me say it again because it’s totally worth a repeat, LABOR HURTS! But there is a difference between feeling pain and feeling anguish or suffering.

“But Stephanie, everyone experiences pain in their own way. You cannot tell them how to feel.” Yes, that is so true! However, instead of only focusing on the pain of childbirth, we could focus on how intense contractions are when squeezing our bodies and how good it feels (if we would let it) when the contraction is over. Or, how breathing low and slow will help focus your attention on relaxation instead of becoming tense. Which will open your cervix…naturally. Better yet, how you don’t even NEED to push for a normal progressing labor. Your body can do that work too (it feels like a big poop)! Lastly and my personal favorite, once the baby is out, the pain completely disappears, and we have a sweet squish to love on. Do you see how that can be incredibly useful and beneficial information for a new mom-to-be? But instead, we see what we have been told to see through media and our loved one’s perception of the media and stories she has heard and so on and so forth forever and ever….or not. 😉

This fear we have been dosed with leads to physical changes within the body that we can see, hear and feel during labor.

When you are scared your body involuntarily tenses your muscles. Your brain then releases chemicals that signal pain. When those muscles stay contracted even when they are trying to relax your body will still feel pain (one could say suffering). FEAR-TENSION-PAIN. No wonder why epidurals are so popular?! No one wants to feel that way!

This mental and physical game leads to maternal exhaustion. This is the NUMBER ONE reason someone would transfer from an out-of-hospital birth to a hospital during labor. Not for an underlying medical issue, not because the baby is “too big” or the mom’s hips are “too small”. Simply because their bodies are tired. Wouldn’t you like to have a better experience? Would you believe me if I said that you can…that almost anyone can?

I had a remarkable redemptive birth with my second. This is not uncommon! A lot of women enter their first births with the above-mentioned notion about birth and leave with the intention to do it differently next time. Knowing that you want things to go differently next time is a wonderful yet overwhelming feeling. It leads you to think that you can control your birth outcome. The truth is that you can’t control the outcome, but you can control how you experience your outcome. And there ARE things you can do to push your labor and birth in the direction toward your desired outcome. “Oh yeah? Tell me more!” Glad you asked!

Where do we go from here?

So we know that fear takes control of the mind which leads to involuntary tensing of the muscles and causes pain. How can we stop this for ourselves and how do we help others right from the get-go? The answer starts where the problem begins. It starts with the way stories are told to peers and the way the media portrays birth. For example, the likelihood of giving birth in the car is unimaginably slim. The likelihood of your water breaking with no other signs of impending labor is very close to 0%. Trauma during birth is truly up to the individual’s interpretation of labor and birth and is not taken lightly.

Let me jump slightly to the left here and talk about coping with trauma. Please don’t take what I’ve said out of context. It is easy with this topic to read what I’ve said and feel judged. Believe me when I say, there is NO JUDGEMENT when it comes to your birth experience! Sometimes the answer is that nothing could be done to fix, mitigate, change, enhance or otherwise create a peaceful birth situation. I believe our bodies know what to do during labor. Our bodies know how to get a baby out, but sometimes things do go wrong. I also believe that our bodies know when something is wrong and it acts accordingly. Wanting to share this experience with others as a way of coping or connecting is human and welcomed but should be voiced with caution. You can’t choose how your birth will unfold. And you also can’t choose how the person you’re telling your story to, will react to it. You CAN choose what to do with your story once it has happened. Something as simple as saying, “this is my experience and it most likely will not be yours” can help put a mom-to-be at ease instead of rooting her in fear. Lastly, please seek someone you trust to talk deeply about a traumatizing birth experience. It can help so much in understanding what happened and will help you let go of any fear or tension you might still be carrying. It took me 18 months to admit I was still harboring terrible feelings about my first birth. It wasn’t until speaking with a professional therapist that I was able to actually heal emotionally.

To the newly pregnant reading this blog post, please understand that some women have been through trauma and have not yet coped with it. They won’t understand that they are projecting their fears onto you because they have not met them yet. My advice is to listen, ask questions to them and your care provider about their situation and it’s probability. An understanding and supportive care provider will welcome your concerns and help mitigate your worries before they manifest into fear (BTW, if they don’t help you feel better and just shrug off your concerns, come talk with me. As a birth educator and Doula, I’ll help you figure out what to do next). Lastly, seek out uplifting stories from those who have had wonderful births. It is well known that when you surround yourself with a positive atmosphere emotionally you will feel physical benefits. Here’s a pro tip for ya 😉 those feelings will translate to your birth too!!

Okay, back on track.

Do me a favor for just a quick moment and picture this…

You started labor a few hours ago and not much has happened. You went to the hospital as soon as you felt a contraction and have been there for a while. The staff told you they started a Pitocin drip an hour ago and now you are in the middle of labor and it’s getting pretty real, pretty quick. You feel another contraction coming and it already starts to cripple you. You shreak out in terrible pain and your whole body tenses. With what feels like the last breath you’ll ever take you beg for drugs. You get the drugs to help take the edge off, but realize it still hurts…A LOT! But what now? You can’t have any more medication to take the pain away completely. You are bound to bed now because of the epidural and you start to lose yourself. Your husband writhing in emotional pain for you, tries to help but ultimately feels useless and ends up very nervous for your health. The doctor comes in and checks your cervix for dilation and says, “you haven’t progressed much in 12 hours and you’re only 5cm dilated.” He tells you, “time for a c-section” and you’re too tired, scared and emotionally drained to continue, so you agree even though you are 100% against having major surgery.

Okay, that sounds traumatic right? It is a story I know all too well. Part of that was not fabricated. The losing yourself in the crippling pain and begging for drugs part, that was me during my first birth and partially during my second. Now let’s do one more…. it’s not so bad, I promise!

You feel the contractions coming and start to take your first deep breath since labor started a few hours ago. You have been practicing for this moment and you are ready. Deep breath in…aaanndd ooouuuuuttt. Okay, time to rest. You decide to go to the hospital after a nap and contractions are now a few minutes apart. Another one is coming. Oh, no, this one is stronger…..”ooooooooooooooo” you let out a long and deep sigh and let another deep breath in. This one made you cling to your husband. The whole time he’s been right there reminding you to breathe deep and blow out the pain. He’s supporting your body as you hang from his neck. You both are there together ready for another wave to hit. Another and another and another come and go and hanging onto him is where you stay. Swaying side to side gently and kissing each other in between contractions makes you feel connected and safe. The doctor comes in and checks your cervix for dilation and says, “You haven’t progressed much in 12 hours and you’re only 5cm dilated.” He tells you, “Time for a c-section.” You and your husband tell him you need a moment to discuss this because you are 100% against major surgery unless medically necessary. You wait another 90 minutes before he makes his way back around to you (it is a busy night). In that time you focus heavily on relaxing your body. You change positions frequently, go for a walk and relax in the tub. You and your husband reference back to birth class and do all the things! When he gets back into your room, he checks you again and you are completely effaced but haven’t dilated at all. He mentions the c-section again and this time you agree. During his absence, you both had time to think and talk it over. You have decided this is a medical necessity and you trust your care provider.

The outcome of these two stories hasn’t changed. They both ended in surgery, but what was the difference?

Your experience matters.

The way you come to a conclusion matters. Something so life-changing as the process of birth should not be feared but rather embraced and respected by your partner, provider and yourself.

The very last tip I have, and this one is for everyone, get educated! Take the time to understand what normal physiologic birth looks like and sounds like. IT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND how much the media has influenced our perception. Watch some YouTube births, interview with a Midwife or Doula, take a birth class with yours truly 😉. This social change starts with you! It starts with those who have been through trauma to take the next step and seek guidance to help themselves heal so they can be there for another woman in her time of need. It starts with the newly pregnant to surround herself with positive stories and loving care providers who will help break this cycle.

If we could meet our fearful selves and decide to not let that fear, which has been etched in our minds since childhood, be the limiting factor to having the birth experience we want to have and instead imagine our bodies as a blooming flower, a ripening rose, or even just a woman opening herself to let her baby out gently into the world, then we can AND WILL start to change the birth culture in this country. We will help women let go of their fears and anxieties and just birth.

Nothing else would bring me so much joy.

If you want to learn more about coping with pain during childbirth, get in touch with me here.

Fear-Tension-Pain cycle: it can take over your birth. Learn how to defeat it!

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