Pain Happens: Suffering Shouldn’t

By Charlene Hamilton ~ Birthing From Within Mentor ~ Heart of Birth

When we hear someone talking about wanting a “pain free” birth, or hear someone describe birth as “orgasmic” or “ecstatic” we may wonder “What in the world are they talking about? How can labor not hurt?” And when we hear someone talking about how wonderful their epidural was, or saying how that can’t imagine why a woman would put herself through that much misery, we might ask ourselves “Yes, why would you go through pain voluntarily?” Pain is a loaded, symbolic word that people naturally shy away from, because pain is, usually, our body telling us something is awry.

But what both sides are really speaking about, what every birth provider wants to eliminate, whether they practice in home, hospital or birth center, is not truly pain, but suffering.

Suffering is when the experience of pain overwhelms us, when we start telling ourselves negative stories about what is happening, and our coping skills are overwhelmed.

We have, all of us, experienced pain without suffering. How many of us have cut ourselves shaving, and it didn’t start hurting until we saw the blood? Or the bruise on some body part that you discover later, but you have no idea when or how it happened? It’s a bruise, pain signals from the damaged area had to go from there to the brain, but you weren’t aware of them. What about smacking your thumb with a hammer? The ‘coping skills’ people use for that (yelling, swearing, hopping up and down, grabbing the affected hand) are so common, they’re used in cartoon and comedy. We’ve gotten through broken bones, bruised shins, cuts, bumps, scrapes, scraps and other painful mayhem by drawing on our own inborn coping skills, and our body’s natural response to pain.

meworkin1Take, for example, getting a tattoo. It hurts, right? Getting little needles poked into your skin at high speed is not going to be without pain. And yet people do it all the time! How? If you watch someone getting a tattoo, you often see the same coping skills that women use in labor; deep or naturally patterned breathing, eyes closed inward focus or eyes focused on a specific point, or external distractions. And if you talk to someone after a tattoo, they may describe feeling “euphoric” or “floaty” or even “orgasmic”. That’s because they were able to use their body’s natural response to pain, endorphins, to get through.

Or what about a marathon runner? Labor is often compared to marathon running- lots of hard physical work, ups and downs and breaks, and an exhausting but exhilarating finish. No one denies that marathon runners go through physical pain when running, and yet no one suggests that they should take medication at the soonest opportunity, or that they are suffering for “no reason” or are “trying to be a hero” or just out to “win a medal”. In fact, their perseverance, focus and drive are often lauded and celebrated.

So how do those runners get through their marathons without suffering? Training and education. They’ve done things to help their body prepare physically for the marathon, they know how their body is going to respond to the challenges of the event, and they’ve learned skills that will help them meet each challenge as it comes. And they, too, rely on endorphins to get up and over the pain.

Both the tattoo recipient and the marathon runner have also been able to overcome fear.

When we experience fear (even when we know we are ‘safe’, like watching a horror movie), our body floods us with hormones that get us ready to either run like heck, or put up a fight. And those hormones override endorphins, because if we’re going to be running or fighting, we need to not be loopy on natural painkillers. During labor, that Fight or Flight response directly interferes with the birth process and can cause increased pain.

So a key element to childbirth preparation is learning how to recognize and face potential fear triggers in labor, learning what your own reflexive, already existing coping skills and resources are, and learning to draw on those coping skills at any point during labor.

By educating women about labor and birth, by validating their concerns and helping them recognize their coping skills and resources, by giving them tools to respond to the pain of labor without fear, by giving them skilled support in labor (and not expecting partners to be professional Coaches, and allowing partners to be supported in what is their birth, too!), we set women up for having a labor and birth without suffering. Then the doorway opens for experiencing the pain of labor as something other than a negative- orgasmic, ecstatic, powerful, intense & amazing.