Hormones and How Fear Affects Labour - Preparing For Birth Manual

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It’s important to acknowledge the effects of fear on the body, and during labour in particular, and to understand how staying calm actually helps labour progress. This way, we can master our breathing and focus to maintain calm.

So let’s have a look at this.

Elements of birth can be frightening, particularly the unknown. The surge of a contraction could be frightening for a mother who did not understand it because she hadn’t done any birth preparation. And sometimes something can occur during labour which changes things. In these situations it would be natural to react with shock or fear.

When we feel fear, the body responds in a particular way. It releases the hormone adrenalin in order to produce the fight, flight or freeze response. This is a safeguarding response, designed to protect us when we feel threatened. Crucial in the face of a real threat or danger, but not quite so helpful during birth these days, in our culture.

When adrenalin is released many things begin to happen in the body, affecting our circulatory, respiratory, genital-urinary, gastro and skeletal systems. This results in increased blood sugar levels, increased heart rate, raised blood pressure and slower digestion. We can become agitated, and blood is redirected to the arms and legs, to nourish the muscles there to prepare them to fight or take flight. And so the blood (and the oxygen it carries) has been directed away from the uterus; stopping it from working so effectively. When this happens labour can be stalled. As a muscle the uterus needs oxygen to work properly while contracting itself smaller. Otherwise, lactic acid builds up and the experience of pain will increase, while the progress of labour will be slowed. The breath becomes short, shallow and higher in the chest - limiting the amount of oxygen around the body as well.

Adrenalin and the birthing hormone oxytocin are antagonistic, meaning you can only have one or the other: essentially, adrenalin inhibits oxytocin (and vice versa).

So, how can we master this?

In order to reign in any thoughts or feelings of panic or fear, it is important that a birthing woman and her birth support partner create a space where she feels as relaxed, comfortable, warm, safe and secure as possible. She needs to be happy in her environment and with the right people supporting her. Any deep fears or worries she may have been harbouring need to have been addressed.

The quickest and most effective way of reversing the release of adrenalin and send calming signals around the body is to practice the Birth Breathing techniques we teach you, as described here. This will deepen the breath into the belly, which affects stress receptors at the bottom of the lungs around the diaphragm, signalling to the nervous system and the brain that you are calm, you are fine. This is relayed around the body; keeping you more relaxed and in your birthing zone, with your mind quietly focused inward, so the body can get on with the job at hand, once more.

When we are calm and working with the body and our breath, increasing oxytocin levels and the effect of the birth progressing, allows the body to produce endorphins. These are the body’s natural pain relief (and can be stronger than morphine). They help to alter your perceptions of time and space, and encourage a natural sense of well-being. Once labour begins endorphin levels rise to help you to cope. Keep working with your body, by staying as calm and focused on deep, slow breaths and you will increase the amount of endorphins in the body. This is a good thing!