Childbirth with its myriad unknowns, and expectation of pain, can create fear and anxiety, adding another obstacle to the existing challenges of labor. For those women who are already prone to allowing fearful, anxious, or awfulizing thoughts to hold sway, anticipation of labor and birth can be even more challenging. Giving in to negative or fearful thinking often, causes it to become a habit, and an automatic default response, due to deeply entrenched neuronal pathways that have formed in the brain to reinforce it. The good news is, you have the power to reprogram this response. You can cut the ties of old, deeply entrenched neuronal pathways which have been formed by this awfulizing habit, and build new pathways, based on healthier, more mindful, positive, and supportive responses, and thought patterns. You are not interminably and irretrievably chained to negative thoughts, you have merely grown used to your unconscious, kneejerk habit of mindlessly reacting in the same old way. Mindfulness meditation, expressive arts, and other supportive techniques used in our Mindful Birth and Beyond Childbirth Education Playshops, can teach you to pause, investigate, and consciously respond, rather than reacting on autopilot. You just need to learn how to say stop and let go, to the habitual stories your anxious, ever chattering mind is used to spinning, and begin to rehearse and replace them with a new, consistent focus on more positive and healthy stories, thought patterns, and habits.
Very often I hear birth clients say things like, I can’t handle pain, I know I will lose control, I’m not good in new situations, I am sure this or that scenario will cause me to spiral into anxiety and fear, I just don’t have what it takes, I’m not strong enough, and etc. etc. These statements are coming directly from the mouth of the thought habit jailer, who you have created in your mind, and who you are willingly giving all your power away to. Mindfulness meditation can help to free the prisoner within. You don’t have to remain a helpless captive, enslaved by fearful and anxious stories that your continually jabbering mind likes to rehearse in your head. You have a choice to break free of this self imposed prison, and mindfulness meditation is the key that can assist you to open the prison door.
Mindfulness meditation, also known as Vipassana, or Insight meditation, was introduced by the Buddha 2500 years ago, and is a process of focused concentration and attention to help quiet the conscious mind. Mindfulness is present moment awareness that allows for more awake, aware, and conscious living. Rather than becoming caught in a net of our habitual, mindless ruminations and thought streams, mindfulness allows us to observe and recognize our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as simply transient mind events, and forego the need to embellish, categorize, label, criticize, cling to, or become ensnared in them. Mindfulness meditation begins with a conscious choice to sit and meditate, and then our attention on the breath focuses our awareness in order to allow us to carry our intention out.
“A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realize that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not… In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.” Mark Williams and Danny Penman
So how exactly can mindfulness meditation help you to stop awfulizing thoughts, and set you on a mindfully awake, aware, and positive, present moment pathway? The secret is brain plasticity.
When your baby is born, his brain already has millions of synaptic connections, and many more will be formed over the next three years of his life. This is why we are told that it is very important to talk and read to our baby, starting as early as possible, and as often as possible. Regular, consistent exposure to language allows your baby’s brain to lay down heavily branched dendritic connections and strong neuronal pathways in the language centers of the brain. The opposite is also true, that babies who are neglected, or not spoken to often by their caregivers, will not develop strong language skills. This is due to the principle of use it or lose it, meaning that those areas of the brain which are accessed often, will be strengthened , and those which are not accessed will be pruned away as unnecessary. This is neuroplasticity, and this same principal is also at work, and beneficial in the adult brain as well. Neuroplasticity is what allows us to learn new knowledge and skills. The malleable state of the brain also allows us to form new habits, and to change or let go of old ones.
Brain plasticity allows neuronal connections to be turned on or off, to be weakened or strengthened, based on the quality, consistency, and substance of input, focus, attention, and intention. Every new experience or stimulus creates new neuronal connections in the brain. Just as muscles are strengthened by repeated exercise and workouts, new skills, habits and avenues of thought can also be strengthened or weakened in the brain, based on how often they are accessed and repeated.
Through the molding and adaptability of brain cells and neuronal networks, our life experiences are imprinted on our brains. The more often a particular behavior is repeated, the stronger the connection that is built in the brain. A behavior that is repeated often will eventually become a habit, and the strong neuronal network formed around the particular habit will eventually allow the behavior to be performed with very little thought, rather like being on autopilot. Once you have learned how to drive a car, you don’t have to consciously remember which foot to place on the gas pedal, or how to put the car into gear, where the various controls are in the car, or the basic rules of the road. You just do it, almost without thinking. The same thing happens with experts in a particular field. Think of a dancer, or a dance teacher, she does not have to count and think about the placement of her feet, ( three, four, cha cha cha) or how to move her body. The movements simply flow from long hours of repetition and practice, which has served to build strong neuronal connections in the brain, and their subsequent ease of access each time she dances again.
This same principle can work against us, as when we habitually learn to focus on negatives, to give in to fearful and anxious thoughts, or to engage in awfulizing and negative self talk. After awhile the habits are strengthened as neural pathways become so deeply entrenched that we just flip into an automatic awfulizing response without even conscious awareness that we are doing it again. We can develop really effective habits that lead us naturally and easily into dwelling on all the anxious, fearful, doubting, negative scenarios, our runaway, storytelling mind can conjure. We may have a habit of walking around dumping on and berating ourselves for every mistake we think we have made, or will probally make in the future. We can develop habits of feeling instant fear or anxiety every time we have to try something new, afraid we will fail again, or be inadequate to the task.
Childbirth is one of those events in the life of a woman that is surrounded by mystery, and shrouded by an interminable cloud of unknowns hanging over our heads. It is also crowned by all the fearful and naysaying stories that can possibly be recounted by “well meaning” friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and even strangers, who by virtue of having seen our wonderfully blossoming tummy, think it gives them the right to spew scarey stories all over us.
In my fifteen to sixteen years of working as a birth doula, I have met and worked with many expectant mothers whose greatest challenge in preparing for birth was learning to take charge of the runaway stallion of fear and anxiety in their minds. I have always believed that our bodies know exactly what to do to give birth to our babies. Our body knew how to become pregnant, and how to grow and form our baby, and we did not have to consciously think about or direct it, in order to be sure it happened just right. Likewise, our body knows how to give birth to our baby, without our directing how it occurs or plays out. Our job is not to direct and control our birth, but rather to take hold of and get our overthinking, over worrying, over anxious mind out of the way, so our body can do what it knows how to do. This may sound simple, as in, just stop worrying, just think positive, but it is much easier said than done, especially for those women who are used to being in control , and who are worriers.
If we have created a pattern of constantly dwelling on fear, anxiety, negatives, or self abasement, we have lain down strong neuronal tracks and systems of dendritic connections in the brain. Once this happens, we no longer even consciously choose to react fearfully, or negatively, it is just an automatic response, our usual default mode of operation. In order to change these habits we need to take action to build new pathways, and to let go of the old.
This is where mindfulness meditation can be very helpful, as it allows us to be curious about our thoughts, to investigate, and to recognize when we are having those same old negative thoughts, and to just let them be, and then choose not to attach to them. We can learn to see our mind as a clear pond. Birds fly over the pond, animals come for a drink, clouds float above it. The pond makes note of their presence, their coming and going, but it does not hold onto them. The clouds float over the pond, and the pond recognizes, mirrors, and reflects their image, but then it lets go, and allows them to go on their way. Just so, we can make note of the thoughts arising and passing away in our mind, but not take them captive, analyze or cling to them. We just let them be as they are, coming and going, arising and passing away again, as we return to the present moment and focusing on our breath. We can begin to recognize when we are having fearful or anxious thoughts, memories of past challenges or trials, or when we are rehearsing future, scarey, what if scenarios, that may never come to be, or habitually berating or condemning ourselves. As we continue to practice, we will get better at catching ourselves automatically falling into habits of fear and negativity. Once we can see we are doing this, we can say to ourselves, oh yes, fear thoughts, or negative thoughts, or awfulizing again, and stop this habit in its tracks, and simply return to breathing once again, in the present moment. Regular practice will reveal the truth of these automatic negative thoughts for what they are, simply habitual fearful stories our mind is making up, which we have the choice of believing or of ruminating and obsessing on, or just saying STOP, or LET GO, cutting of these hurtful thoughts, and focusing on our breathing again instead. We can also add loving kindness metta meditations and affirmations, which will help to strengthen positives, creating new neuronal pathways, and weakening the old, negative ones through disuse. In time, with regular practice you will find the negative habit has been broken, and the new positive one will then hold sway, due to reinforcing its more healthy neuronal pathways instead.
If mindfulness meditation is practiced throughout pregnancy, it is absolutely possible to see fears and doubts just drop away, as old unbeneficial connections in the brain are dampened and pruned away. With an intention then to cultivate and perfect a more positive, mindful, present moment awareness and attention, you will create an entirely new and more healthy focus that will be your greatest tool to carry with you into labor, to help you toward the peaceful, gentle birth you dream of.