The Fear-Tension-Pain Cycle
One of the central concepts we explore in Navigating Your Unmedicated Hospital Birth is the Fear-Tension-Pain cycle. This cycle was first described in the 1920s by Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, author of Childbirth Without Fear. Simply put, the cycle describes the positive-feedback cycle that happens in your body when you feel fear: your body responds to feelings of fear by physically tensing your muscles, which increases the pain you feel in your body. Increased feelings of pain lead to increased sensations of fear (which leads to more tension, more pain, more fear....)
This is NOT a cycle you want going on in your body during labor and birth! So how do you break out of it to have a positive birth experience?
Focus on activities, skills, and practices that decrease fear, tension, and/or pain. You can start anywhere in the cycle, but let's first talk about decreasing fear.
When it comes to decreasing fear during childbirth, one of the best things you can do is increase your knowledge! The more you know about the physical process of labor and birth, what to expect at your birth location, positions that are effective and comfortable during labor, and ways your partner can support you (both physically and emotionally), the less fear you'll feel. Fear generally stems from worry about the unknown. The more you can learn about birth, the more you'll know, and the less you'll fear. For an in-depth exploration of all the ways I mentioned to increase knowledge and decrease fear, join me in Navigating Your Unmedicated Hospital Birth! (Not planning an unmedicated hospital birth, or looking for an online class? I also teach the Evidence Based Birth Childbirth Class--another excellent option for increasing your knowledge and decreasing your fear that will prepare you to birth in any location, with or without pain medication.)
What about decreasing tension? As your fear decreases, your tension will naturally decrease as a result. And there are also things you can specifically do to decrease tension during the birth process. I highly recommend hiring a birth doula, who is knowledgeable about counter pressure, massage techniques, and laboring positions that are particularly effective at reducing tension during labor. Listening to your favorite music or smelling a favorite scent can also encourage your body's held tension to release. Ask your partner to watch for tense areas of your body (often the jaw, neck, or shoulders), and have them coach you in releasing them, or give a gentle massage to help them release.
As your fear and tension decrease, your pain will naturally decrease, and you can focus on optimizing comfort during labor. Changing your position throughout labor is a game-changer for being as comfortable as possible. Wearing your own clothes or bringing your own pillow can help. Getting in the tub or shower, using a TENS unit, doing a meditation or visualization exercise, and using a heating pad are all helpful as well. And the more comfortable you are and the less pain you feel, the less fear you'll feel, and the less tension you'll hold in your body, which means that you'll feel less pain... When fear, tension, and pain are each decreasing, the Fear-Tension-Pain cycle will be working for you, helping you to move into the positive birthing cycle of Calm-Confident-Coping, and from there to the transcendent cycle of Trust-Openness-Vulnerability... but you'll have to join me in class to learn more about those!
I hope to see you in the next series of Navigating Your Unmedicated Hospital Birth!
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Hi, I'm Sara. I'm a childbirth educator and birth + postpartum doula serving Utah county. I'm a twin mom (plus one!), natural VBACer, and birth lover!