One of the most common concerns I hear in prenatal yoga is that women are worried about pain in their labor - especially if they think they have a low pain tolerance. So much of our cultural concept of birth revolves around PAIN - media loves to portray birth as unbearable suffering, and we seem to have a love of sharing horror birth stories (like then the grocery clerk telling you about her great aunt Wilma's 17 pound baby and 422 stitches. Thanks for that!). So let's bring pain into the light and really look at it.
There are two types of pain we need to distinguish between.
Pathological pain is pain that signals to the body that something is wrong - you've burned your finger, broken your leg etc. This type of pain needs to be attended to and often managed by external means.
Functional pain, on the other hand, is pain that is experienced when the body is performing at peak levels. Think of marathon running, or other incredible feats where people push the body to it’s absolute limits. In these type of performances, we wouldn’t dare swoop in at the moment where someone is nearing the end of their race (marathon, iron man etc) and ask if we can save them and eliminate their pain. We all know they have pain, we all know it is normal to have some pain after running 42km, and we all know they will rest and recover when it’s over. Birth is functional pain. Your body is working at peak performance. You will “hit the wall” at some point, or maybe even at several points, in your labor. This does not mean something is necessarily wrong, and it doesn't mean that as, a birth support person, you should rush in to offer to eliminate the pain. You will have discomfort, it is normal to experience discomfort, and you will rest and recover when it is over, just like that marathon runner. It is normal for labor to intensify as your progress through your birth. And it is an opportunity for you to trust your body and move beyond your normal limitations. Being present with this intensity opens you up to a whole new understanding and appreciation of how wildly powerful you actually are.
YOU are the POWER!
(Excerpts from Anna Caria-Barrett's book)
“When you feel the strength and power of your contractions, know this: you are that strength, you are that power. You are birth! The only way your body can contract its muscles with enough power to birth your baby into the world is because you innately carry that much strength within you. You are the one who is powering your birth. Birth shows us that we are stronger than we ever knew. Your own strength and dynamic power may overwhelm you at times. As you are confronted with your own strength, birth encourages you to breathe moment by moment, connecting more deeply with your own power and innate abilities.
Birth is not happening to you. You are not on the outside. You are not the disempowered victim of birth. You are the strength, power and beauty of birth.
… As you feel the awe-inspiring, primal strength of your contractions, allow this to transform into fuel that motivates you to use this same strength to keep pushing, to ask for what you need, to say yes or no, to give birth to yourself and your child."
– Anna Cariad-Barrett
Also, keep in mind that your pain tolerance is not a single set point. Your pain tolerance level moves around depending on several factors. This is where it is important prenatally to really start to tune into things that support you. Your perception of pain will decrease if your environment fully supports you.
While SO many things are out of our control in birth, we can start to put together a plan to own the birth space; to surround yourselves with anything and everything that lifts you up.
Here are a few journal prompts to start exploring what shifts your pain tolerance. Start exploring these questions in your daily life to start understanding what truly puts your mind and body at ease:
How would you like to be touched? By whom? Are there ways or places you do NOT want to be touched?
What sounds do you like to hear? Have you made an upbeat playlist, as well as a mellow chill-out playlist for birth?
Are there words, quotes, phrases that uplift you?
Are there certain scents you would like to have on hand to uplift or calm you? Essential oils?
Sacred images or items you want to have?
Who is invited into the space during labor? Who is welcome in the space after birth? Are students welcome in your room (student nurse/midwife/doula/dr etc).
What kind of lighting would you like? Natural light? Dim light? Fairy lights? Certain colors?
What options would you like for birthing? How do you see yourself birthing? In a bed, bath, on a birth ball, other?
What is the “feel” of the birth space you hope to create?
Are there certain foods and or drinks you may want to have on hand? What foods and drinks does your birth team want?
(Note that in the moment, you may change your mind about all of the above and that’s ok!)
Applying this to your life
So you've got the theory:
Pain tolerance is variable
Labor is functional pain that happens because my body is operating at peak performance levels
It is normal to experience discomfort and it doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong.
I am a total bad-ass Goddess of birth riding the waves of intensity created from the depths of my being. I have totally got this.
NOW - moving from theory to practice. How do we start practicing finding comfort in discomfort.
We can take an intentional practice - like doing wall-sits for 90 seconds, or simply just use our every day life experiences to start being with discomfort and cultivating conscious responses to it. Take notice anytime you start experiencing discomfort - physical or mental. Can you step back and, assuming you aren't in any real danger, can you ALLOW the discomfort to be there (if there is a risk of injury, of course respond appropriately and remove yourself from danger!). Practice being in discomfort without mentally reacting. Drop into a space of curiosity and observation - notice the discomfort, but drop the running commentary. And from this space of allowing, you may start to experiment with finding ease within the discomfort.
Try playing different music and notice how various songs, sounds, beats and voices change the experience.
Vocalize - with your exhales make long low sounds - Ahhhh, Mmmmm, Ooooo.
Try on some power words and drop into mantra - find words that uplift you, inspire you or bring you back to your intention. "Trust and confidence," "Baby, we got this," "Open," "Strength, Power, Beauty, Rejoice!" Find words that speak to your soul and move you beyond the normal confines of your mind. Hypnotize yourself with your carefully crafted intentional messaging!
Movement - can you change the way you move. This may be subtle (changing your breathing pattern) or it may be grand (dancing around the house) and notice the effect of movement on your perception of discomfort.
Connect to others - speak to loved ones, or have them write letters of encouragement you can come back to when you need to be re-affirmed. If you have a birth partner, experiment with touch and connection to see how they might best support you when you need support.
Birth is not comfortable, but you need not suffer. Practice being in discomfort without freaking out. Train your mind to respond to the intensity in ways that reflect your birth vision and your goals for personal and spiritual growth.
Mama, you have totally got this! xo