Birthing and The Mind / Body Relationship

The interest and inquiry into the mind / body relationship has been with me for some time. This is my main lens I see the world through as a psychotherapist. When I apply this question to the birthing world, it becomes even more salient. How do you think of your mind and body? Are they separate entities? Many of us grow up in the United States learning about our mind and our bodies as being two separate things (writing that the body is a thing instead of a living breathing piece that is integral to my whole being feels gross, but I write it for the point). If you grew up knowing your body is a temple and that your thoughts and emotions and sensations all work together and have an impact on one another, congratulations for being a step ahead of the majority.

When something goes “wrong” with our body, our culture teaches us that surgery or medicine may be necessary. I wonder about what’s underneath that, especially in relationship to birth. Physical, emotional, spiritual birth. This is the realm of life and death. We must not simplify this process, even if it feels overwhelming and simplifying it makes it easy. Birth can be beautiful and liberating, and sometimes things do get scary and lives are lost. The key word there is sometimes. It’s not always scary. How have we been taught to believe that it is? This is my disclaimer for this post: to remind myself and everyone else that the birthing space is the place where life and death have a conversation. The relationship between the mind and the body definitely has an impact on this conversation. And let me remember to not expect the worst. To let nature unfold and to make decisions based on healthy and loving care-giving.

Emotions, Thoughts, and the Mind: For a few seconds, read these words, think them, and let yourself believe them: “This is impossible, this hurts, I can’t bear it, I can’t do it. I need something else. This is agony. I’m terrified.”  What do you notice in your body? In your heart? In your muscles? In your face and eyes? I’ve surely had those types of thoughts before. What I notice in my body is a pulling in, a subtle tension, the contraction of my breath and my heart and my muscles. I can’t imagine that giving birth would be any easier if these were my thoughts and this is how my physical body responds to them. Part of releasing these charged emotions can be to speak the fear, to tell your caregiver or partner what the fear is, and to let them soothe it and to reassure you “You are so powerful, you are birthing this baby, your cervix is softening and opening (whatever it is that’s needed).”  Eventually, working with my own thoughts helps me to reframe them in a more positive and self-supporting way. I’ve read tons of accounts of women who started thinking “my cervix is opening” and the cervix really began to open! That some women use the image of a flower blossoming and the head of the baby coming out through the middle when they are wanting to have the baby’s head begin crowning (and that the head actually begins to crown as the woman uses this image). The power of the mind is potent, let us be careful not to minimize it.

One story was about a woman who hugged her partner while in labor and expressed feeling exhausted. Her partner told her in her ear “You’re marvelous!”  As he said these words, the woman’s cervix opened more and she felt a progression in her labor that was before at a standstill. She asked him to say the words again. As he repeated the phrase and held her, her cervix dilated (opened) fully and she was able to push her baby out. How’s that for the power of a mind and words!

Environment and Relationships: It was a simultaneous “of course” and “wow, I can’t believe I never considered that” moment when I learned about the ways the environment and the relationships with the people in the room can encourage, pause, or even reverse labor and delivery. Examples that illustrates this are the countless stories of how labors have paused or stalled when someone tense, unwelcomed / unknown, or not trusted enters the room. The labor slows down or even stops, and when the person has left the room, the labor resumes. This shows the extreme intuitive nature of the woman’s body and the ability to pick up on the energetic vibes of the space. If the environment is cold, harsh, sterile, or unsupportive in any way, the mother may unconsciously feel unsafe and therefore her body will not want bring the baby into the environment even if her mind thinks she’s trying.

Examples of an an environment not super friendly to birth:
* Bright fluorescent lights
* Cold temperatures
* Lack of food or drink
* Being forced to lie down when the urge is to move and be up
* Lack of a bathtub (being submerged in warm water is proven to be very influential in easing birthing pain)

The good news is if we know this, it can be worked with. Suggestions for creating a more comfortable environment:
* Request for lamps to be used for lighting or turn the lights low
* If there’s no bathtub, try to use some sort of water (shower or foot baths can help)
* If no food or drink is permitted (make sure to ask about this), have someone who’s able to sneak fluids and snacks to keep you energized and hydrated. You can bring these from home and put them in the baby bag.
* Request a room that has a lock on it so you can be assured no unwanted visitors enter and you can be left with your caregivers undisturbed. If there’s no option for a locked room, ask that non-essential people be asked to leave the room (such as students / extra staff)
* If you’re in a hospital, the temperature may be chilly. Bring extra clothes and request or bring a few blankets to have on hand
* Request washcloths to have for cool compresses for when it gets hot
* Consider what to bring to make the mother and the birth partner more comfortable. Pictures, flowers, pillows, extra clothing, pony tail holders, socks and slippers, and anything else that may increase the comfort and familiarity of the environment

Birth is the most primal space we can step into. Whether we are in a supporting role or the one birthing the baby, the big picture of the spiritual event that is happening must be held and considered. When women are in this primal space, their sensititivies are heightened (even if they don’t want them to be).  I’ve read of cervixes actually going “into reverse” due to a rough vaginal exam, negative feelings towards a practitioner, or a lack of trust in the facility and staff. And, in one case when the tension between the mother and partner was worked out and given support to do so, the labor progressed and the woman was able to deliver. Of course the unspoken things were getting in the way of having the stamina that requires 100% of one’s energy.

In the past, most doctors seemed to know that an unwelcome or upsetting presence could stall a labor (multiple documented examples from the 1800’s that I won’t take up space to outline). They knew it the way that farmers knew about the birthing behavior of their animals. Unfortunately this knowledge seems to have dried up and has not been passed along in the majority of the teachings in the United States. Many caregivers seem clueless about their own non-verbal communication. Their tension and hurriedness, the fear they show on their face, the rushing in and out of the room, the asking the mother questions that requires her to think rationally when she is in a deep physical and emotional process and the part of her brain that is rational is not online. These seemingly small aspects of a relationship can make the labor and delivery more challenging.

Belief Systems: These days, the attitude seems to be that something is mysterious and unidentified and wrong about a woman if she is not sticking to the “allotted time” for a birth. I’m unsure anyone is supposed to know how long a labor “should” take. If the mother and baby are not in distress, why is it a problem if it takes awhile longer? Some of the reasons for that problem is cost, time, and convenience.

Women are often told and end up feeling that there is something inadequate about them and their bodies and their ability to successfully labor and deliver from the very beginning of their pregnancy. It’s so heart breaking because this is simply untrue. The most harmful effect is that after being told that they are somehow ill-equipped to do what women have been doing forever, women believe it. This impacts their thoughts and they become fearful. Then the labor and delivery often does become more complicated than it needs to be. Side note: of course there are times when intervention and action is necessary, but this really is not the “norm”.  So, as it so often does, it becomes a snowball effect. Women end up believing that nature made a mistake with their body, they come to believe through unconscious and direct messaging that they cannot birth a baby without pharmaceutical and surgical treatments.

A New Wave of Empowerment and Support: Through all the reading I’ve done, movies I’ve watched, and learning I’ve done, it seems that the essential piece to a positive experience with birth is to have a compassionate and confident support system. Women who have “challenging” birthing stories still feel positive about their experience more often than not when they felt good about the relationship with the caregiver and the space they birthed in. Women who have “normal” births sometimes don’t feel as positive about the birth if they feel unsupported by the caregivers and professionals. It seems simple: what most women need is compassion, encouragement, faith, and companionship. They need a reassuring presence and support more than they need drugs. If medical intervention becomes necessary, the family needs the information so they can be empowered around their choices and to know what is happening. It is so simple that patience and recognition of the health of the woman would, more often than not, lead to more health for the process and their babies.

Another great resource is the book The Birth Partner: A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and Other Labor Companions by Penny Simkin (one of the leading childbirth educators and advocates around).

For the next post, I’ll be writing more about the preparation for birth and the relationship between the mother and the birth partner (whether it’s a professional or family or friend), and then preparing to release more information about the physical process of labor and delivery. If this feels like a lot for you, you may want to check out my first post (A Light Step), which sets the stage for the material. Until next time, with love, Alicia

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About Alicia Patterson

Alicia Patterson is a Psychotherapist / Dance Movement Therapist, Birth Doula, Energy Worker, Dance and Yoga Facilitator in the Boulder / Denver area.
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