Flirting with the uncomfortable

There can be no doubt that each woman ‘feels’ birth differently. The pain of childbirth is talked about often and loudly; pain-free labour is considered by many to be a rarity and, by others, a myth. But, as a midwife, I can confirm that comfortable birth really does exist. And that women have tremendous resources when it comes to dealing with the uncomfortable! I still remember one young mum I looked after several years ago - between each expulsive surge, and even as her baby's head was being born, she kept saying (with apparent glee), ‘Now this is interesting!’

Hypnobirthing proposes that when you prepare the mind in advance of the birth, and release fear, you move yourself closer to the comfortable end of the birthing spectrum. However, as Nancy Bardacke (author of Mindful Birthing) reminds us, ‘A preference not to have an epidural or pain medication means that, in fact, your preference is to experience the strong sensations of childbirth...’  If we accept this, then we have a strong incentive to prepare the mind and body for these sensations, so that we can experience them without feeling overwhelmed at the time of the birth.

Recent research suggests that the minds of people who use mindful meditation techniques work differently when they encounter painful stimuli: by paying attention to pain, without fear or judgement, it seems we can effectively ease it. This makes sense, as mindful meditation encourages us to be curious about the sensations of the body while avoiding unhelpful, emotional reactions to them (you can read more about this research here).

Now I am not a Zen master, and I assume you’re not either (otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading my blog about hypnobirthing in Sheffield). But since starting meditating, and using certain hypnobirthing techniques (in non-birthing situations), I have been pleasantly surprised by my ability to take a step back from daily discomforts and alter my response to them.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve been flirting, and dealing, with discomfort in my daily life:

  1. Cold water - letting warm skin come into contact with chilly aqua is always a good way to test your mettle; a number of birth preparation courses invite women to hold ice cubes so that they can practice 'being with' discomfort for an increasing length of time. I was recently in Spain and determined to go into the sea (for context, there was not a single Spanish person anywhere near the water, as, by local standards, it was still effectively Spring). The first time I went in, I performed all my usual antics - hopped around, hunched my shoulders, chattered my teeth, turned round to check my boyfriend was watching the whole pantomime from the beach… The second time, inspired by Nancy’s Mindful Birthing (my holiday reading), I made sure I did none of those things. Instead, I focussed on exactly what I was feeling as I moved step-by-step into the water. By doing this, I was able to establish that, step-by-step, I was actually quite comfortable. My histrionics, it turned out, were far less about what I was feeling ‘now’ and much more about what I imagined I would be feeling ‘then’, when the rest of my body was plunged into the water.
  2. Traffic - today, I had to drive my boyfriend to Meadowhall so he could get a bus to London. What should have been a forty minute round trip took me one hour and 50 minutes. Fun! As the traffic built up, my immediate reaction was to huff and puff and think, ‘This is AWFUL.’ Then, I took a mental step back and asked, ‘But, is it really?’ And it turned out, it wasn’t. After all, I had nothing in particular I needed to do when I got home, and, once I’d succeeded in directing my brain away from pissy thoughts, I found I had some useful thinking time to plan this blog.
  3. Itches - when one next happens to you, try, instead of scratching it straight away, to really feel it. See what happens, it might well go away on its own. To scratch an itch is, in fact, a choice. Who knew?
  4. Spin classes (or whatever your uncomfortable exercise of choice is) - increasingly, I’ve been using mind ‘tricks’ to get me through the tougher stretches. When my fearful brain says, ‘Can’t,’ I prompt my subjective brain to say, ‘Can.’ When my panicking brain starts screaming, ‘My legs are about to fall off,’ my calm, know-it-all brain says, ’But how’s the tip of your nose, bet that’s well rested!’ In this way, I can make it through the whole hour; occasionally, I even enjoy myself. 

I mention these examples because, for me, they represent small steps towards much bigger change. If you’re browsing hypnobirthing websites, chances are you’re pregnant (or thinking about it) and keen to do hypnobirhing (or thinking about it). If that’s the case, then now is a great time to start flirting with the moderately uncomfortable. Because whatever kind of pregnancy and birth you have, your body is going to be doing some pretty 'out there' stuff over the next few months - trust me, you are going to feel like you’ve never felt before. By engaging with harmless discomforts now, turning them over in your mind and observing your reactions to them, you can start to understand what strategies might work for you at the time of the birth. And when you’re ready, sign up to a hypnobirthing course. Because it works!