Childbirth equals pain. This is a common belief but is it true? It’s ingrained in our minds throughout our lives from the movies and family stories. . . “Listen to what I had to go through for you!” It is true that childbirth is not usually easy and we also know that women are more satisfied with their births when they are well informed about all that it entails. But what if we simply hold the birth process in a different light? What would happen if we changed our thoughts and words in order to stop focusing on pain? The sensation that so many people think of as pain in labor comes from a natural function and purpose; our bodies are not broken, they don’t automatically need medication to birth our babies and some women do not experience what they would call pain at all. What if what women really need is just a little more positivity around them?
Meditation, such as guided relaxation and the use of mantras are common strategies used among midwives and birth doulas to help mothers feel more in control of their bodies during labor. When these are practiced prenatally, women often report that they don’t feel the sensations of pain in the way that they had expected. The reason this works is that it helps women change their thoughts and words about birth. Replace the word pain with Waves, Rushes, Intensity, and Power. We can essentially trick our brains; changing the thoughts and patterns that have resided there for so long.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist says that in addition to our cultural bias towards pain in labor, humans in general are evolutionarily wired to focus on negativity. Our brains have evolved to protect ourselves by easily honing in on threat, sometimes when it’s not even really there. Hanson describes our brains like Velcro for negativity, it sticks and causes us to ruminate on fear while our bodies release stress hormones. Too much stress has many health implications but it is especially important to keep stress levels low in labor. Too much can cause labor to stall which often leads to other complications.
With the knowledge that our brains absorbs negative thoughts, we can assume that regularly practicing positivity would be helpful to change our perception of birth. Hanson states that positive experiences must be held in our consciousness for a longer time in order to sink in. But HOW does changing our thoughts change the physical feeling of pain or suffering? It’s pretty common to hear the phrase “Don’t think about it!” in reference to pain. Well, studies of the brain through MRI have shown that just seeing the word “No” elicits a sudden release of stress inducing hormones, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication. Actually speaking words out loud puts even more emphasis on them and perpetuates rumination, making it harder to stop the cycle.
Positive words and thoughts have the opposite effect when used repeatedly; they help us build resilience when we are faced with life’s problems. Anxiety about contractions and labor are exactly those kind of life problems! It’s also important to note that a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that mindfulness training such as meditation and yoga is usually more effective in treating pain than standard medical treatments! When people are uncomfortable for long periods of time they become afraid, stressed, and irritable. Learning to mindfully change from repetitive negative thoughts to positive ones changes the way our brains interpret the uncomfortable feelings. Get those birth mantras ready!
In his book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, David Linden, a professor of neuroscience says that the brain is able to determine the emotions that we attach to each painful experience because it uses two different systems to process information coming from our nerve endings. He confirms what the JAMA study showed, that positive emotions like feeling calm, safe, and connected to others reduces pain. Another study, in the Journal of Neuroscience proved that patients are able to filter out and decrease the pain felt with the focusing power of the brain. I’ve been lucky enough to witness the success of these techniques many times over the years yet it’s still so inspiring to see scientific proof!
How can you use mindfulness in your pregnancy and birth?
Relaxation is already a big part of natural birth, in fact Penny Simkin, birth guru, author, and founder of DONA (Doulas of North America), has been teaching women and their care providers to remember “The 3 R’s of Childbirth: Relaxation, Rhythm, and Ritual” since 1968. This technique is used widely and mantra meditation is one way to apply all 3 R’s at the same time. In Sanskrit mantra can be broken down to “mana” meaning mind and “tra” meaning tool. A perfect birthing brain tool!
Thinking of using meditation in labor may seem silly at first if you imagine sitting calmly, quietly and OMing. But using mantras in birth is usually a little different. One mom may be leaning over the bed swaying back and forth, moaning her mantra out. Another may be in the birth tub not making much noise but repeating her mantra in her head over and over. Another may be roaring “I am STRONG” to get through each contraction. It’s impossible to know beforehand which mom you will be so it’s best to simply practice using mantras and meditation during pregnancy. Plus you’ll squeeze in lots of prenatal positivity!!
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that teaches you to relax different parts of your body on cue and is ideal for birth. This video guides you through the process with calming voices and music. With practice you will be able to remind yourself to relax each different muscle during labor and your partner can help out too. Meditation about your birth is also helpful. Try it while laying down before you fall asleep at night; think about your baby being born in the way that you desire and imagine seeing it actually happen. If you wish to have a vaginal birth try to picture your vagina stretching, opening, and your baby coming out. Mindfulness is important for the less than ideal situations too. Remind yourself of all the positives moments if things don’t go exactly as you had hoped.
To choose mantras for your birth, find short and simple phrases that speak to you personally. It’s best to have a few since you won’t know which you’ll want to use in the moment. Make sure the language is positive; instead of saying “I won’t be weak!” use “I will be so strong!” Many birth workers use decorated index cards or paintings with mantras written on them at birth to remind women to use the. There are printables available online, or you can easily make unique pictures of your own with some basic art supplies. It can be a good bonding opportunity to share with your partner or doula too!
These are some of my favorite phrases to use as mantras:
- Ride the Waves
- I Can do Anything for a Minute!
- I Love You
- Open, Open, Open
- Relax, Release, Peace
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