Excerps from “The Epidural Express: Real Reasons Not to Jump On Board”
by Nancy Griffin
(Mothering, Spring 1997)
The main cause of pain in a normal childbirth is . . . the ‘Fear-Tension-Pain Syndrome.’ . . . [O]ur biology provides us with powerful instincts during birth. The first is the need to feel safe and protected. All mammals will instinctively seek out a dark, secluded, quiet, and, most of all, safe place in which to give birth. While birthing, mammals give the appearance of sleep and closed eyes to fool would-be predators, and they breathe normally. Some (those who don’t perspire) will pant in order to cool down, but humans will most easily achieve a relaxed state through closed eyes and abdominal breathing. This relaxation slows down the birthing mother’s brain waves into what is called an alpha state, a state in which it is virtually impossible to release adrenaline, the “fight-flight” hormone. Physical comfort becomes critical, along with the need to have a “nest” ready for the baby. Hospital environments often unintentionally disrupt the birthing atmosphere by introducing bright lights, lots of people, noise, and fear-inducing exams and machines.
The uterine muscles are beautifully designed to deal quite effectively with danger, fear, and stress in labor. The uterus is the only muscle in the body that contains within itself two opposing muscle groups–one to induce and continue labor and another to stop labor if the birthing mother is in danger or afraid. Emotional or physical stress will automatically signal danger to a birthing mammal. Her labor will slow down or stop completely so that she can run to safety. In modern times, this goes haywire. We can’t run from our fears–which may include the “horror story” our best friend told us about her birth–or even from our hospital or physician. Instead, we may release adrenaline, which causes the short, circular muscle fibers in the lower third of the uterus to contract. These muscles are responsible for stopping labor by closing and tightening the cervix. The result is that we literally “stew” in our own adrenaline. At the same time that the long, straight muscle fibers of the uterus are contracting to efface and dilate the cervix, the short, circular muscle fibers of the lower uterus are also contracting to keep the cervix closed and “fight” the labor. The result? The very real pain of two powerful muscles pulling in opposite directions each time the birthing mother has a contraction.
By learning to deeply relax mentally, physically, and emotionally; actively dealing with fears about birth; and choosing a birthing environment that feels safe and protective, birthing women will not have to experience the traumatic pain caused by the ‘Fear-Tension-Pain Syndrome.’