Condition Your Mind To Experience Pleasure During Birth

Pain is a subjective experience.

Stories of pain-free births are still countercultural, but have grown in numbers over the last 15 years. Now there are whole books, websites, social media accounts and testimonies attesting to the very real and accessible natural of being pain free in birth. Aside from the traditional epidural approach to a “pain free birth” (that comes with side effects), how does someone experience it? That’s the topic of this section. Let’s dive in!

Some people think that the nerves in the location where pain is felt, is how you know you’re in pain. Others think it’s brain that controls our experience of pain. These are both partially true. But we’re forgetting one vital part: the heart.

We need to remember the role of the heart in pain modulation. Pain is not only a body-felt experience (body-based), but it’s also heavily influenced by emotional (heart-based), mental (brain-based) and social (environment-based) factors, as this study and this study identify.

Pain in sex vs birth?

Just as sex can be painful if you’re tense, or anxious, or feel like the neighbours might hear you, being in labour is the same. The level of “pain” you feel isn’t just about the way you muscles are contracting in your uterus. There’s a very real interplay between your heart and mind going on.

First we’re going to talk about physical ways pain moves around the body. Then we’ll look at how emotional and external things can change the interpretation of these messages.

Most people assume pain is caused by uterine contractions, cervical dilation and crowning of the baby’s head.
But are these factors enough to actually cause pain?

How pain moves from the body to the mind

Contractions in early labour send signals that are carried by C-type fibres that enter the spinal cord at the mid back. Then, when the baby is coming out, A-delta fibres from the vagina and perineum carry signals from the pelvis to the lower back. (Source)

Here’s where it gets interesting. The ascending nociceptive pathways consist of A delta and C fibres, as mentioned above. These C-type fibres and A-delta fibres travel a variety of paths from the location of the pain (in this case uterus, and vagina and perineum, respectively) and then up the spine, allowing the brain to locate where the discomfort is coming from and presumably assign it as an unpleasant feeling. Nothing about this is unexpected yet—this merely explains how most women experience pain in labour. They feel it in their body, their body said “ouch” my abdomen hurts and they brace for the next wave.

But scientists know that these routes aren’t flawless, and that pain signals from the body don’t always make it to the brain intact. Sometimes they get distorted.

For example, when sportsmen or soldiers are hurt or wounded yet feel almost no pain in the heat of a match or during battle, this indicates that the pain receptors can be strongly stimulated without the person interpreting the stimulus as painful.

Have you ever cut yourself but because your concentration was so focused you didn’t even realise until later? Another example is the placebo effect which often occurs when a person in a research study believes they got the drug being studied, even if they got the sugar pill with no active compounds.

To understand how all of these things happen, we need to look at what’s known as the descending pain-control pathways, that reduce pain signals that go up the ascending routes from the body to the brain.

Though these core structures modulate all human senses to various degrees, the strength of these top-down processes is strongest when it comes to pain management. These descending pain-control systems, as discussed above, can sometimes even entirely remove some types of pain.

As a result, these processes suggest a massive paradigm change. They imply that pain pathways cannot be seen as direct connections between pain sensors in the body and brain “pain centres.” Instead, these pathways are best understood as a symphony of neuronal activity occurring concurrently in both directions, with both ascending (pain) and descending (pain relieving) signals. An individual experiences pain when this delicate balance shifts in favour of the pain receptor signals.

What does this all mean?

Well, pain is more of an “opinion” that the body generates about its physical integrity, rather than a reflexive response to an injury. This opens up new territory for pain therapy researchers because they can now look for ways to optimise the pain-inhibiting pathways, instead of just assuming that signals to the brain are always correct and unchanging. (Learn more about the science here).

Quotes from birthing women

Let’s jump back into the real world now with some quotes from women about the process of pushing their baby out:

* “I didn’t push, my body did it for me. It was euphoric and empowering” — Sydney
* “Incredible release of tension” — Romaine
* “Like my body knew what it was doing…I was just along for the ride.” — Zena
* “Like I was made to get that thing outta me hahaha no control” — Shelby
* “Didn’t even hurt! Was easier than contractions” —Zoi
* “Sweet relief” — Sandra
* “Wonderful!!!!! No ring of fire” — Jaryn
* “Like my body was a trash compactor and someone pushed the button “— Lauren
* “Amazing! Everyone warned me about the ‘Ring Of Fire’ but I didn’t feel that. It felt good to feel her head and head
of hair come through. Pressure yes, but no pain.” — Sarah
* “Extreme rectal pressure then sheer relief” — Car
* “Pressure…I felt like a cow. Sounded like one too! Very out of body experience.” — Jamieh
* “The greatest opening and expansions and also like [heaving]. And so exciting” — Jess
* “Just like a large poopie” —Patti
* “Like walking out of the hottest sauna on earth into a cool, clear stream of consciousness.” — Lauren
* “Pure bliss” — Sarah
* “Simply put, it felt good” — Michelle
* “I just gave birth to my second child (my first time doing it naturally). I didn’t have to deliberately push. I was amazed at how my body just sort of took over and did it for me. — Kami

So, why do we assume pain in labour is a given?

Instead of optimising the process, lots of women either…
— have a precautionary epidural “just in case”
— fight through the pain without any preparation and injure themselves (tear etc.) or
— feel so overwhelmed by the “pain” they opt for an epidural.

The whole purpose of UNBLOCKED is to remove any barriers to you having a quicker, easier birth. Some of these barriers are physical, as we’ll cover in ALIGNED. But a lot of them are emotional and mental.

So, we know pain messages can be turned off or reduced under certain circumstances. But we don’t really know which circumstances exactly. Or do we?

One circumstance where we know women report lower pain and therefore less need for an epidural is: 1:1 support. Women who received continuous 1:1 labour care from a known midwife were less likely to request an epidural or report unhappiness in the experience, according to a high-quality analysis, in comparison with women who received either normal hospital care or care from a family member.

Can we hack our system to experience less pain or no pain in labour? We want to get all the pain-relieving benefits of an epidural, with none of the common side effects—nausea, trouble urinating, headache, longer pushing time etc. 

What if we don’t need to hack our system but instead need to stop undercutting its natural ability? 

Our original design is the blueprint we could never have engineered ourselves. It’s elegant and well-orchestrated and I believe we’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

Let’s explore how to use our body’s in-built capabilities to block, transform and transcend pain.

Again, it all starts in the heart. 

A man used a heart-based practice to come out of surgery without pain. I’m going to read his testimony, and as I do, I want you to consider how much more able we are to transcend pain, given that we’re perfectly designed for birth—and men were never designed for knee surgery.

An unexpected testimony

So, here’s Dr Raymond T. Bradley’s story. He had bilateral arthroscopic knee surgery on both legs in 2004. To prepare for the surgery, he had visualisation sessions with his therapist. In the morning and evening, he practised a heart-centring technique (like the one you’re about to learn).

His aim was to “create a safe and secure place in [his] mind and heart”, he reported, “in which to enter for the surgery. [A place in his mind and heart] filled only with love [no fear]—a place in his mind and heart where he could totally surrender himself to the process, whatever the outcome. 

His last memory before wheeled into the operating room, he reports, was of “total peace and calm and a heart filled with unbounded love and appreciation.” The knee surgery went well, and he woke up with “no side effects”, he said. He reported feeling clear-headed, hungry and thirsty and “totally energised and exuberant in spirit” afterwards. He said that his body felt full only of love and appreciation, and he had no pain at all.

If this man can undergo surgery and experience such positive results, then we can definitely go through birth, which we’re designed for, with incredible experiences!

Your hormonal blueprint is part of that God design that helps you adapt to a physiological birth experience. 

A growing body of research suggests that oxytocin may also play a role in pain. Studies have shown that oxytocin can relieve a variety of different types of pain, and a handful of clinical trials have shown that oxytocin can improve pain from back injury, migraine, and irritable bowel syndrome. Experiments also showed that the brain and heart makes pleasure-drugs and releases them into the blood so they can circulate the body. This circulating oxytocin controls pain by influencing the nervous system which is responsible for maintaining the body’s homeostasis. Allowing our body to naturally release oxytocin in higher and higher dosages allows us to ride the intensity of labour with the protection of opiate-like drugs in our bloodstream. These internally produced drug like substances reward us for continually the journey of labour, up to the peak of birth when more than an orgasmic amount of oxytocin floods the system.

In an undisturbed birth, most of us will have a gradual buildup of “pleasure” in proportion to a gradual buildup of “pain”. I believe this explains how some women call childbirth intense but not painful.

In addition to this gradual buildup of pleasure, some women report orgasm-like symptoms upon birthing their baby. Others say, “I have a photo of me smiling kissing my husband as my baby’s head was fully crowning”, or “after the intensity of the contractions the pushing surges were a huge relief”. 

Let’s talk strategy…

What if you could either:
1. Straight-up experience labour feelings as pain-free or pleasurable, OR
2. Experience labour feelings as painful but then change the interpretation to pleasurable, OR
3. Stop the brain from receiving pain signals entirely (ie. no pain).

Let’s think of our first option as “Supernatural Childbirth”. This represents the hypothesis that our experience can go “unfelt” or supernaturally not painful, and even actively pleasurable, with no ducking and weaving necessary.

Let’s think of our second option as “Google Translate”. This represents the idea that we can change the language of the message from pain to pleasant or neutral inside the brain, and thus change the way it feels in our body.

Let’s think of our third option as “Highway Closure”. This represents the concept that epidurals use whereby the pathway that pain signals try to use to get to the brain is shutdown temporarily.

Supernatural Childbirth

If you prefer to understand this option as divine intervention, then I think that’s just as well. Miracles happen everyday. I also have a more scientific look at what could be going on inside the bodies of women who experience no pain during labour. Either way, it’s designed perfectly by God. Whatever way you like to interpret it, it’s an elegant system. We’re not designed to feel pain during labour. But how does this work? Our bodies block pain messages in times of intense physical activity. This is no surprise to long-distance runners. Bursts of intense exercise release lactic acid. This acid irritates pain receptors and sends messages to the brain. These signals feel like burning in the legs, compelling the runner to stop. But when the runner doesn’t stop something powerful happens. Proteins bind to opioid receptors in the brain and prevent the release of chemicals involved in the relaying of pain signals. Next, the hippocampus kicks in. It calls for the productions of endorphins. Endorphin is a general term describing endogenous peptides. There are at least 20 known types of endorphins in the brain. So, these endorphins create a rush similar to the high of morphine or heroin. Plus, intense exercise also causes another of the body’s painkillers, anandamide, to be produced. This chemical binds to receptors in the brain and blocks pain signals; also inducing a warm and pleasurable feeling similar to consuming marijuana. As we trust that we’re safe in the process of birth, I believe this process of trust can allow us to settle down into the process and let our body help us with a hormonal cocktail to help us through.

Google Translate

What if your body was technically saying, “this hurts” but you could change the interpretation of this message once it reaches the brain? Well, maybe you can. There’s a fascinating link between pleasure and pain. Art, literature and poetry comment on this relationship. But what’s to be said about it? Saints throughout the centuries have known about transcending circumstances. In a spiritual trance, St Teresa of Avila recalls a vision where pain and pleasure were intertwined. “I saw in (the angel’s) hands a long golden spear … This, he plunged into my heart several times… it penetrated to my entrails… [it] left me utterly consumed by the great love of God…The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans, and yet such pain was so exceedingly sweet that one cannot possibly desire it to cease” (St Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582). This type of experience is indeed still experienced today. “I go into ecstasy whenever I connect to God through prayer or meditation. The sensation is so powerful and so overwhelming, that it completely takes away even severe pain and leaves me feeling euphoric. I honestly think I could have surgery without anesthetic and not feel a thing if I was in such a state. I don’t even have the words to describe it. It’s like Divine Love is pouring into you, until you feel as if you’re glowing with an ethereal light. It’s a state of physical, emotional, and spiritual bliss, like being at one with God. It’s very powerful and life changing, and I just wonder why people don’t talk about it. I know I’m not the only one!”  — Nightsong* Your beliefs control the reaction your physical body has. Women who have fear around labour have measurably increased plasma concentrations of catecholamines. This means that living in a state of fear releases hormones into the bloodstream in response to the perceived physical or emotional stress and these hormones cause the physical experience of pain in the body. People experience less pain when they interpret the pain as more positive or productive, and they experience more pain when they perceive it as threatening or serving no purpose.

An Australian study did face-to-face interviews and written surveys with women to uncover whether there’s a link between a labouring woman’s state of mind and her level of experienced pain (reference). They found that women experience two states of mind during labour—mindful acceptance and/or distracted distraught—and that based on their mindset they experience pain differently.

In the Netherlands, epidural use may be as low as about 2 out of 10 mothers, compared with 8 out of 10 women in Australia who opt for an epidural. The study found that these Dutch women share a few common beliefs: 

They believed their body is made to give birth
They knew birth to be a natural process
They interpret that the sensations of birth are part of the birth process
They believed epidurals take away some control over the birth process so should be avoided
Feeling in control while labouring and giving birth were very important to them

Highway Closure

Our spine is a message highway. But what if the highway isn’t delivering pleasurable messages? When women report that labour is painful, this is exactly what’s happening. Their body part (usually abdomen or lower back) is delivering a message from that body part, up the spine and into the brain. Then, the brain categorises the feeling as ‘painful’ and sends a message back to the body part telling it to clench to protect itself. But what if you could close this highway. None of the pain messages could reach the brain if the highway was closed. This “highway closure” tactic has been proven in birthing women with spinal cord injuries. Oftentimes, with no other complications, birthing women with spinal cord injuries above T10 have naturally pain-free vaginal births. They experience birth as pain-free because, due to an accident, their message highway is closed. To think that women who cannot walk and cannot feel their groin can give birth naturally just shows the capacity and resilience of our design. This example reveals how effortless natural birth should be…you don’t even need to be able to consciously control your muscles and ‘push’ to get a baby out! Your body and muscles work together, with the right support, to do it. So, can we create a spinal highway closure in women without a spinal injury? Yes, of course. An obvious example of “highway closure” is an epidural. With an epidural, medication (usually a local anaesthetic and a narcotic) is delivered into the spinal cord. The local anaesthetics block sensations of pain, touch, movement, and temperature, and the narcotics blunt pain without affecting leg movement. We have a solution. Case closed right? Why even discuss other options? Yes, an epidural removed pain messages for 98% of women who choose one. This solution, however, comes with major trade offs. Tearing is more common in women who have epidurals. An indwelling urinary catheter is usually required. Birthing women with epidurals have significantly longer “pushing” times compared to those without epidurals and have a higher rate of instrumental delivery (forceps, vacuum, or cesareans). These are not what we are designed to experience birth as! 

There are other non-pharmaceutical methods that stop pain messages to the brain. A Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) machine sends little electrical pulses, through external sticky pads, to the skin. Usually placed on the lower back, these electrical messages flood the nervous system and impair its ability to transmit the previously felt labour pain signals to the brain. Sterile water injections in the lower back also cause a “highway closure”. Upon injecting the water, the injection site stings like a bee sting. This stimulation of skin is thought to flood the nervous system and impair its ability to transmit the other pain signals of labour to the brain. Additionally, sterile water injections stimulate the endogenous opioid system which creates a naturally-pain relieving sensation. For example, if you stub your toe, endorphins rush to help you feel better and not so much in pain.

“So, is it wrong to interfere with the pain of childbirth?” 

This is what one pregnant woman silently searched online. The question tries to understand whether the pain of childbirth is necessary and therefore shouldn’t be bypassed. This question reveals just how confused some of us are! There’s an underlying assumption that God inflicts or purposefully allows us to experience pain for our benefit. It assumes pain is God’s will. It is not. Pain is never God’s will.

So, is it wrong to interfere with the pain? Truthfully, our pain has already been fully interfered with…by Him! “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” (John 10:10, NLT). God has prepared an excessively wonderful life for each of us. Birth is another opportunity for each of us to discover this. We are not bound by a curse, so birth does not have to be full of pain and suffering for some cosmic reason. Childbirth is an ecstatic experience—outside (ec) our normal experience (statis)—but does not have to be painful. It can be pleasurable!

The overarching reason for the question is the morality of pain relief. This woman is asking whether she’ll be condemned for getting an epidural. Of course, it is not wrong to have pain relief. God never changes His mind about us based on our actions. Depending on the context, it can be useful to use an epidural. The bigger issue is not whether you can or can’t. Or even whether you should or shouldn’t. The bigger question is: if you could see God’s original design for birth would you still need or want pain relief?

There’s no condemnation if you do feel pain and then want pain relief. Feeling pain doesn’t mean you lack faith, trust or resilience. Painful birth or pleasurable birth—they say nothing about your capacity, spirituality or identity.