The Power of the Mind/Body Connection

mindbody

Okay… Here’s the deal. It’s probably going to take you a long time to have your baby. Hours and hours and hours. Longer than you hope it will take. Way longer than you expect it will take. Way, way longer than you think it should take.

Don’t kill the messenger – I’m just trying to help you realize something: Giving birth is a B.F.D. It’s a once (maybe more) in a lifetime opportunity where you get to bring a brand new human into being. Through your body. When I put it into those terms, does it start to make sense how it might take a little while?

We live in an age where if our download from Netflix is not complete in less than three minutes, we’re either screaming at our screens, or switching to another TV show! Information – all of it – is available at the touch of a button! We’ve become accustomed to life happening at the speed of Now! and we just don’t have much collective patience anymore for the things that really count. And when anything – even giving birth – takes longer than we think it should, we freak out!

And therein lies the problem: not that birth might take a long time, but that we freak out when it does.

When we’re in freak out mode over something that we cannot control (like birth, for instance) we take a process that is physical in nature and exquisitely designed to work just about every single time, and move it out of our body and up into our brain. I hate to state the obvious here, but babies don’t come out of our brains – they come out of our bodies. The brain needs to stay out of the whole process. But that’s not how the brain likes to do business.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the brain! I love how it acts like it knows everything! I love how it interacts and reacts to outside stimuli. I love how it tries to tell our bodies a story that may or may not even be true. I love to watch how our bodies respond to that story. I really do love the complex interconnectedness of the brain and the body. The mind/body connection is endlessly fascinating to me!

Had I held this same fascination when I was pregnant 7+ years ago I would have offered myself up to the neurobiological study of the pregnancy brain and its effects on the body from conception through the end of the 4th Trimester! What happens during this time is incredible and we know very little about it, really. But here’s what we know about how it works when we’re giving birth.

The uterus is made of smooth muscle tissue, the same kind of muscle tissue that comes in other pre-programmed organs like the esophagus and the stomach. These are two organs that don’t ever need to be told what to do. When you eat a sandwich, you don’t have to tell your esophagus to begin to contract and break down the bites of food into smaller bits and then move them down into your stomach. Once there, you’re not required to tell your stomach to release acid and begin to further break down food into the nutrients that are kept for your body and the waste products that are to be expelled.

Your body just does it – BECAUSE IT ALREADY KNOWS HOW.

The same is true for your uterus. It’s designed to hold your growing baby – up to a point. Then it’s designed to begin to contract and bring your baby down the birth canal and into this world. Without a whole lot of input from your brain, I might add.

When a Momma is calm, cool and collected – meaning her brain has been lulled into a state where it’s either pleasantly neutral or otherwise distracted and decidedly not in freak out mode – she creates the perfect environment for two hormones called Oxytocin and Endorphins to work their magic during birth. Together, they are unstoppable! Oxytocin fuels the contractions and keeps the contractions going, while the body’s natural pain killers, Endorphins, increase over time to help the birthing woman meet the challenges of her labor. They’re like two gorgeous dance partners, stepping in perfect unison with each other, anticipating each other’s next move.

When our birth doesn’t go according to plan: labor is too early or too late, too long or too short, too complicated, too painful – basically, not what our brain expected it to be… Our brain starts to tell our body a story. And it’s usually not a good one:

“Attention body! Listen up! This is not a drill! This is an emergency! There’s no way I’m ever going to survive birth! Somebody needs to make it stop! And stop now! I’m scared! I’m not in complete control! And I don’t know what’s happening to me!”

Such a negative story! And, unfortunately, the body listens to every single word. The body starts to buy into this story. It starts to believe what the brain is saying. And the body starts to react.

When our brain stages a birth coup, our body pays the price because everything we wish was moving faster can’t help but begin to slow down. When the brain is in freak out mode, there’s another hormone, called Adrenalin, that starts to seriously screw up the love fest going on between those two other hormones – Oxytocin & Endorphins.

When the body reacts to the negative story our brain is telling, a ton of Adrenalin gets released into our bloodstream. Adrenalin is like the drunk guy at a frat party who jumps in between Oxytocin and Endorphins and whisper-shout-slurs: “Hey, ken I dance with u guys? I like to dance! Watch my muufs – I’m umblieve, unbelief… I’m rilly, rilly good.”

Oxytocin and Endorphins want absolutely nothing to do with this guy, Adrenalin. They run away in opposite directions, leaving the confused body to wonder, “What the hell?” That awesome blood flow and oxygen that had been pumping into the uterus to help it do its thing, seems to shut down almost completely – to the point of the uterus not being able to function very well.

And then, what story does the brain try to tell the body?

“See what I told you? You can’t do this thing… Nobody can. It’s too hard, it’s too long, it’s too dangerous, it’s too – whatever.” The body doesn’t want to believe, but…

I don’t want any of you to be unconscious while you’re having your babies! I want just the opposite: I want you to be superconscious of what’s happening at all times in that brain of yours. And I want you to be ready to interrupt that overbearing and all-too controlling 3-pound organ that’s attempting to run the show. But how?

Learn to calm the beast within before labor even begins.

Anytime you feel anxious, worried or frightened – check in with your body and try to gauge whether or not the situation really, sincerely calls for an Adrenalin dump. Here’s a hint to figuring this out: If you’re not actively being chased down by a deadly predator, then the answer is most likely “Not really in need of much Adrenalin at this time. But thanks for the offer, brain. Catcha later.”

Then see if you can calm yourself through breathing. Close your eyes if you have to, and take in nice, deep belly breaths through your nose to a slow count of four “In – 2,3,4” and then exhale through your mouth, “Out – 2,3,4” and do this for a couple of minutes just to see what happens. The body sometimes forgets it’s ability to reverse the effects of a brain takeover. Once the brain settles down and realizes that it’s not actually in any real danger, the body can continue to go about its business without interruption.

Our brain is like a toddler in full tantrum when it’s in freak out mode. Logic very rarely works to calm a screaming toddler. In fact, sometimes it only makes the screaming louder! The same is true with your brain. But holding a calm, quiet space while breathing can really help. It settles the brain and cuts off that flood of Adrenalin to just a slight trickle.

There’s good reason for Adrenalin to be hanging around. When it spikes right before the actual birth of the baby, it’s ends up being really beneficial. It helps to heighten awareness and can assist in initial bonding between Mommas and babies. Adrenalin isn’t bad – it’s all about timing and striking the right balance between these three hormones: Oxytocin, Endorphins & Adrenalin.

It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it sure is simple:

Calm the brain and watch what the body can do!

Have you ever noticed how your brain wants to be in control all the time? What kinds of stories does your brain tell you? Are they negative, stress-inducing stories? What other ways have you tried to settle your brain so that your body can do its thing?

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5 thoughts on “The Power of the Mind/Body Connection

    • I am endlessly fascinated by neurobiology. That’s another thing I want to be when I grow up: a neurobiologist. Right after author and rock star. Easy list to try and tackle, eh? Thanks for reading and commenting, Brenna. You know how much I love to hear from folks who are reading my posts.

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  1. What you’ve written here was really the key for me in my labor experiences. As a champion overthinker, it was a challenge to not analyze, judge, worry, react to contractions, but I managed it by sliding into the patterns I was comfortable with as an athlete doing a tough workout. You sprint when the coach blows the whistle. You stop when you reach the end of your sprint, and then you breathe and recover and float in a timeless space because the next interval is coming, but there is nothing you need to do to prepare for it except breathe. That time, when all you can think about is breathing and stillness because you are using your body to the utmost and the need to breathe drives out any and all fretting about big and little matters in your life . . . that time is magical. And that’s what I had in between contractions.

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  2. This is awesome, Janice! I might have to steal this (with permission, of course) as a way to describe that time in between contractions. I’m about to start up my Boot Camp classes tomorrow morning (6 am – pray for me!) and we always do intervals at the beginning of the term and then at the end to see if there’s been any improvement, And the way you describe it here is perfect… Recover, breathe, think of nothing else. Enjoy the magic between the contractions. YES! Love it. I’ll be trying to hang onto this idea when the intervals begin (probably next week). Thanks for reading and leaving this comment. It matters a lot to me!

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