Overcoming mental barriers

Whether training for a marathon or childbirth, don't neglect the psychological aspects of preparation.

Overcoming mental barriers
Overcoming mental barriers

A few weeks ago, I ran a half marathon. Due to the brutal winter in the Northeast, my training was not what it should have been. The weather that day was cold, windy, and rainy. I reluctantly showed up at the start line with a friend who had promised to run the entire race by my side. 

The first few miles were tolerable. We kept the pace easy, and the rain was more of a light mist. But by mile eight, I was miserable. The rain was pouring down, we ran through unavoidable puddles, and my hands were freezing.

Every inch of my body was soaked, and even walk breaks offered no relief. I've never quit a race, but that day I thought about quitting more times that I'd like to admit.

As I ran, I examined my reasons for wanting to quit. I realized that I was not in any real pain. My legs felt strong, my breathing and my heart rate were well controlled. I was in no true physical distress, besides being wet and cold. My misery was purely mental, and I had little belief in my ability to finish because my training was so poor.

I have often compared distance running to labor and childbirth. Both usually consist of hours of hard work and require physical and mental training beforehand if you want to succeed. This run reminded me that in both running and labor, despite some extreme physical discomfort, the mind usually gives up long before the body does.

Our minds convince us that the work is only going to get more difficult. We believe that there is no way to keep going and that we should quit.

I often see moms doing quite well during labor – breathing through contractions, staying calm and controlled, but their fear of what lies ahead stops them and makes them panic or want to quit. They cannot see the finish line, and unlike in running, they don't know how much longer they will have to be physically and mentally strong.

I am convinced that preparation for labor and childbirth is as much, if not more, about mental training and toughness than about physical strength or pain tolerance. I have seen women who have no fear of childbirth sail through their labors with hardly a whimper. I have also seen women with strong epidurals who are screaming and crying throughout the process – not from pain as much from fear and panic.

Labor and childbirth require great mental strength and the ability to keep going when there is no end in sight. I encourage women to examine their fears about birth during pregnancy and to try to release those fears though discussion, meditation or even counseling in extreme cases. I also remind women that their bodies were designed to birth, and that the mind will want to give up long before their body will.

Reading books about birth, watching videos and honest discussions with providers can help women mentally prepare for labor and childbirth.

Women who believe in themselves and come into labor with little fear are often the most successful in overcoming the mental barriers to childbirth.

Robyn Carlisle, MSN, CNM, WHNP, works as a full-scope midwife at University Doctors and Kennedy University Hospital in Sewell, N.J.

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