Pain vs. Suffering
Updated: Aug 23
It is well known that labor and giving birth is not a comfortable experience. We have all seen the movies of women screaming and swearing at their partners through each contraction, it creates a pretty terrifying view. I remember when I was newly pregnant with my first child, I was so anxious and terrified of the pain of childbirth and from the beginning of the pregnancy determined to get an epidural. I just knew that I was not strong enough to handle what was coming my way. My husband even suggested that I try it naturally, because his mother had all of hers that way, that conversation did not go well for him to say the least. When I finally went into labor, I was so excited to be meeting my baby and no longer be pregnant, that I just accepted the pain and stopped fearing it. I did get an epidural and I don't regret it, but looking back I wish that I had educated myself a little more and not been so scared of pain.
Since then, I have felt pain and I have suffered through many child birthing situations of my own. I have learned that I am strong and capable and that there is a HUGE difference between pain and suffering. In childbirth you can feel both, but you don't necessarily have to. I explain this difference to all of my clients during our prenatal appointments and now I want to share it with you.
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. Pain is not just a physical sensation. ... Acute pain lasts for a short time and occurs following surgery or trauma or other condition". The definition is basic and barely touches on the complexities of pain, but my purpose in sharing it is the base definition that sensory receptors and emotions are interconnected to determine our understanding and response to a situation. Our bodies know what they are doing, we have a natural instinct that will take over if we allow and accept the pain that comes with bringing a child into the world.
In 2016 a team of doctors conducted a controlled study in Australia "In order to develop a more complete understanding of labor pain, this study aimed to examine women’s experiences within the perspective of modern pain science." They found that "A determining factor in a woman’s experience of pain during labor is its perceived meaning which can then influence how the woman responds to the pain. The meaning of the pain is shaped by the social environment and other contextual factors within which it is experienced. Focused promotion of labor pain as a productive and purposeful pain and efforts to empower women to utilize their inner capacity to cope, as well as careful attention to women’s cognitions and the social environment around them may improve women’s experiences of labor pain and decrease their need for pain interventions."
Simply, if the birthing person is able to focus on the idea that the pain they are feeling is productive and serves the purpose of bringing their baby into the world, then they are empowered having a stronger ability to cope. The environment in the room plays a big factor in this as well. A support team (doctor, midwife, nurse, partner and doula) that allows the birthing person to feel safe and protected ensures that they laboring parent can let go of their anxieties and fear.
I really like the picture at the beginning of this post because this woman is working through the contraction utilizing the tools of breath and touch. She is in control of her emotional response, only focusing on the current moment. There are a variety of tools that you can learn in childbirth education classes that will allow this acceptance of the contractions. If you have a Doula, they can also guide you through a variety of coping techniques that speed up labor and bring you closer to meeting your little one. Such as: breath, aroma therapy, massage and positional changes. The key to progressing in labor is relaxing the pelvic floor muscles, which allows the cervix to dilate and baby to descend. It takes concerted mental effort to not fight the pain and allow the body to relax. If there is fear there will inevitably be suffering as well.
Often times labor can be long and cause the birthing person to be exhausted, with this exhaustion you may lose the ability to focus on relaxing through the pain. If you are close to delivery your doula or nurse can typically use the "take charge routine" to bring you back to focus, but if you are still a good ways from delivery, then you may begin to suffer.
Suffering occurs when the pain of the contraction is unproductive and a negative emotional response occurs. My goal as a doula is that the overall perception of my clients birth experience is a positive one and that no feelings of trauma exist. When I begin to see consistent suffering and am unable to bring the laboring person back to focus, it is time to have a discussion on pain, suffering and options. It is easy to spot when this shift happens. I can see the panic in their eyes, high pitch noises are coming from them and they are talking about wanting the epidural in between the contractions. This is when I see where the entertainment industry got their idea of child birth.
I have seen many clients give birth naturally and many that have received an epidural. I am proud of them all. It is not my journey, but theirs. The more educated and prepared a client is, the more likely she is to have the birth experience she is hoping for. Birth is unpredictable and there are numerous factors that go into it, but the more prepared you are for pain, the less you will suffer through birth.