Anyone who has given birth before can agree that it is one of the most transformational journeys of a person’s life. The intensity of contractions, the roller coaster of emotions, finding strength you never knew you had… it’s all so incredible and life-changing! However, those reading this who have experienced trauma during their births would not necessarily agree with the incredible part - more like incredibly terrifying. Something that many people don’t realize is that whether you had an empowering birth or a traumatic one (or a combo of each), this is the product of an intelligence within our bodies called the Central Nervous System. This system is highly influenced by our birth setting and responds in an attempt to keep us safe. Our CNS is an extremely important facet of birth, and so I thought it is definitely worth explaining to anyone who is about to give birth.
Our Central Nervous System is a complex system that regulates various hormones in our body to respond to stimuli from our environment. Everything we experience or perceive in the outside world will stimulate us (by physically affecting our nerve endings or by creating emotional responses in our brains), and these stimuli can either be painful or pleasurable. Once our brains receive stimuli, it is the job of the CNS to imprint these experiences into our cellular memory so that if the same scenario were to happen again, our system can prepare to either run away or fight the threat or invite more of the experience in to receive more pleasure. We have two sides to our CNS that handle painful and pleasurable experiences - Sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze or fawn) and Parasympathetic (rest, digest and reproduce). When our Sympathetic Nervous System has been engaged, it’s like the gas pedal of a car - it causes a release of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine which will send blood to the parts of our body that will mobilize us to “fight” or “flee” the threat we are faced with. People in an engaged Sympathetic response will notice an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, body shakes, and a general sense of urgency. On the other side of things when our Parasympathetic Nervous System is engaged we can think of this as the brakes of a car - it causes a release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin which will make us feel good as well as tell our brain that we are safe which will engage recovery processes in our body like our immune system and reproductive function. The two sides of our CNS work in opposition, meaning we can’t be in fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest at the same time.
But what does that have to do with birth?
As you probably read here, reproduction is a function of the Parasympathetic nervous system. What this means is that in order to both reproduce and give birth, our body and brain needs to feel like it is safe to do so. This is a primitive function that all of us mammals have - it ensures that we don’t give birth when we are being attacked (think back to our caveman days, how on Earth could we keep the species alive if we birthed our babies while fleeing a wolf attack?). Now the difference between us and other mammals is our advanced prefrontal cortexes. This part of our brains is where we get our logic and much of our “book smart” intelligence from… but this high intelligence comes with a consequence, and that consequence is that we perceive a larger variety of threatening situations. Yes, our CNS would shut down labour and birth if we were being chased by a bear, but it also does the same when we are being yelled at, coerced, ridiculed, or talked down to as most of us have a very mammalian reaction to any of these behaviours. Our bodies tell us that these behaviours are threatening and it will start to mobilize us to flee the situation or fight against it. And if you don’t know, now you know… these behaviours are quite common within hospitals and with certain care providers. So let’s take for an example something as simple as someone rushing you through your birth. Perhaps you’re in the hospital and the doctor caring for you has told you that if you don’t have your baby in 4 more hours they are going to suggest a C-section. You really don’t want a C-section because open abdominal surgery is scary and recovery time is extended. So your CNS will take in that information and based on your perceptions of C-sections and being on a time crunch, your body decides it’s no longer safe to birth and starts to release stress hormones. With the presence of stress hormones, your oxytocin (the contraction-causing hormone) cannot flow freely anymore and you stop having contractions (or they slow down significantly). 4 hours later progress has stalled and you end up in the OR. All it took was one sentence from the doctor to shut down the process!
All it took was one sentence from the doctor to shut down the process!
How do I protect my CNS
Now that we know what we know, how do we avoid going into fight-or-flight during our births? Unfortunately we cannot guarantee that this function will not be engaged at all in your labour. Sometimes threats happen regardless of how much we prepare. That being said, there are small steps you can take to increase the likelihood of you feeling safe during your birth:
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