Many women are afraid of giving birth because they fear they won’t be able to sustain the pain of labor and whatever comes afterwards, as they recover. And who can’t blame them? After all, pain is pain, right? It turns out it may be a little more complicated than we realize. Both our emotions and our culture can actually change our experience of pain. If you are giving birth, recovering from a C-Section, or experiencing chronic pelvic pain, this is quite the revelation.
According to David Linden, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins university, the brain determines the emotion we attach to each painful experience. Positive emotions, like feeling calm and safe, can minimize pain, whereas negative emotions tend to have the opposite effect. “One system determines the pain’s location, intensity and characteristics: stabbing, aching, burning, etc,” Linden explained to NPR. “And then there is a completely separate system for the emotional aspect of pain – the part that makes us say, ‘This is terrible.’” In other words, the descriptive category in which we place our pain actually determines our experience of it.
In my practice as a pelvic floor therapist, I have a number of clients who have gone from one specialist to another looking for answers. They’ve been given rule-outs – it’s not a UTI, it’s not bladder stones, it’s not interstitial cystitis – but they haven’t been given answers. For those of you struggling with any sort of chronic pain, Linden’s research provides a path to taking your experience into your own hands: changing the way you think about your pain may help change the way you perceive it.
This also has powerful implications for women in labor. Just take the cultural influences of your environment: you may have heard from a young age that birth is scary, painful, and risky. Raymond DeVries, medical sociologist and professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, has extensively studied birth in the Netherlands and their approach to maternal healthcare. He describes the way in which many Dutch women and their families see birth as a social, low-tech endeavor that can safely take place at home if the pregnancy is low-risk. This cultural perspective is so deeply rooted that it’s incorporated into the terms used to describe birth: in the Dutch language, “to give birth” also means “to please.” If your cultural script about delivering a baby involves calm and safety, imagine the ways in which it might affect your thoughts about labor pains!
So how can we translate this empowering information into action?
Try to identify automatic negative thought patterns that might come up for you: “I can’t stand this anymore;” “This pain is never going to go away;” “I won’t be able to handle it.” Challenge yourself to come up with healthier, more balanced self-statements. (Need some help? Check out this article about coping statements based on cognitive-behavioral therapy.) Write them down and carry them with you or tape them to your bathroom mirror.
Mindfulness meditation can also be a powerful tool for shaping your brain and your subjective experience; a 2011 study found that mindfulness meditation significantly improved control over brain rhythms that block out pain. If you haven’t checked it out already, Headspace is my go-to app for a mindful escape.
So for those of you out there struggling with (or anticipating) pain, your experience isn’t totally out of your control. Even in the face of the “unexplainable,” the “undiagnosable,” and the inevitable, we have the power to influence our own story.