What is the difference between pain and suffering?
This is a question I usually lead with when we begin pain coping practices in my prenatal classes. The answer sheds some light on what some of the real challenges of labour are. Pain, in itself is a sensation. Albeit an uncomfortable one, but very simply it’s a sensation. Suffering comes into play with the inner narration that dictates how we feel about this sensation, anticipates how the sensation might change and (this is the important one) what we feel it means about ourselves that we are feeling this sensation.
So pain and suffering are different. They often accompany each other but they are not one in the same and don’t have to come together.
How does suffering influence our experience of an uncomfortable sensation?
Well, let’s think of an example. If you’re stuck in rush hour traffic, you are likely uncomfortable already. It’s not an ideal situation is it? But it’s manageable. Then the suffering narrator is activated and you start thinking things like “Come on, let’s go already! *beep* *beep* If only I left work 10 min earlier……if this guy would just move up one foot I could turn and get off this street! Ugh!! I just want to get home!” And suddenly, this uncomfortable, but manageable situation becomes much more intense, your heart races, you feel stressed and you just want it to end.
How is this similar to labour?
When we talk about pain coping in Birthing From Within, we’re not talking about making the sensation or pain of labour go away. Pain is a very real experience for a lot of women in labour and is there because your body is opening very quickly with muscles its never used before. Instead, our pain coping practices have to do with appeasing that suffering narrator so the sensation feels more manageable for you.
In labour, that suffering narrator might say “This is not what I thought it would be like. If it gets much worse than this I won’t do it. I’m scared. Is this normal??” Just like the rush-hour traffic example, this self-talk can intensify the sensation or situation such that it feels more difficult than it might actually be.
Our pain coping practices are meant to help change the habit of indulging the suffering narrator when physically challenged and strengthen your habit of accessing coping tools when physically challenged.
What does coping mean?
Now this is an interesting question! A lot of us have very particular ideas about what coping would mean for us. Some feel that coping is being calm and quiet. Others feel that it’s making sounds and rocking, or some associate coping with the feeling of being comfortable. However, coping can take on many different faces and you might find yourself doing exactly the opposite thing you thought you would do to cope in labour, or you might cycle through all of the possibilities of coping listed here.
Coping, in it’s basic definition is working through difficulty. As we’ve already mentioned, sometimes the most difficult thing to overcome in birth is the negative self-talk we have around how well we’re doing. So whatever it is you need to do to let go of that suffering narrator is coping!
In class one of the concepts we explore in our pain coping practices is the idea of accepting the sensation. Upon doing something you’ve never done before, it makes sense that there would be moments of fear and resistance, however practicing an acceptance to an unknown or intense sensation can influence how we experience it and can likely make it feel more manageable.
I recently came across an article that outlined this concept in greater detail. They summarize the findings of a study where one group was instructed to put their hand in a bucket of ice. The other group was instructed to put their hand in a bucket of and were guided to accept the sensation as it is and let go of resistance. What they found was that the second group reported feeling much more capable of tolerating the ice and did not feel as overwhelmed with the experience.
The author of the article offers some helpful ideas for your personal practice in developing a pain coping mindset that includes developing an acceptance of the sensation and the situation. The key is practice.
I read somewhere that ‘we are in labour the way we are in daily life.’ In order to be more accepting of our sensations in labour, we need to practice acceptance in our daily life. Practicing acceptance during an uncomfortable sensation (such as holding ice) can help to develop acceptance for those more physcially challenging moments (like labour).
Take a look at this article and see if you resonate with it. Either way, I invite you to give the practice of acceptance a try.
Experient: Pick two times this week where it would be realistic for you to sit down with some ice and do this pain coping practice.
-Hold one piece of ice in one hand for one minute (set a timer so you don’t have to watch the time)
-As you hold it immediately soften your breath around the sensation.
-With your exhale picture yourself letting go of any resistance you’re holding in your body
-Invite the sensation to come into your body and explore (move around) while it’s there
-Be curious about where it wants to go
-What did you notice during this practice?
-Remember, this practice isn’t about making the sensation of ice go away. Even though you might have still felt the ice, what worked when you practiced acceptance of it?
-If you were to add/change something you did to make this practice work better for you what would it be?
-Try this practice again with that change.