My psychiatrist gave me a grade this morning. A B- in fact. It was actually pretty funny and not something she regularly does. Her point was that when I do well, I do very well. When I break down, I really break down.
Example break down: The details aren’t important, but something happened that freaked me out. I cried for two hours. I wanted Nathan to comfort me, and Nathan was not available. Rather than use any of the other tools I have at my disposal, I sort of regressed to toddlerhood and cried until I got what I wanted (Nathan came home). Two hours of tears and hyperventilation? Not fun. Doesn’t feel good.
Example good day: I practice the relaxation techniques I learned in my HypnoBirthing class. My “baseline” anxiety level drops. When something unexpected/unpleasant happens, I talk to someone about it or get some perspective somehow.
There are many more good days than bad. But here’s the brilliant question my psychiatrist asked me about those panic-filled days: “If you encountered an actual two-year-old child who was behaving this way, what would you do?” No hesitation–I would get down to this kid’s level and ask, “Can you take a deep breath with me?” I would then demonstrate until I got the kid’s attention. That’s where I’ve learned to start. Do you know anyone who listens to reason in the middle of a full-on “ugly cry?” I don’t know why on earth we expect toddlers to be able to listen when it seems like the world is falling apart. So the genius idea is to sort of treat myself like that toddler whose world is totally falling apart, to give myself that empathy and that time to breath. Yelling at a toddler throwing a tantrum does no good, so why would beating myself up and telling myself to just be quiet do me any good?
Now, I’ll talk a bit about HypnoBirthing, which is now a huge part of my life. I want to address some misconception about this particular birthing method.
- There is no “going under.” The “hypnosis” consists of relaxing yourself. That’s it. Deep relaxation.
- You can hear what’s going on around you and open your eyes and engage with it if you choose to do so.
- There is some of what feels like craziness to me in the official HypnoBirthing book by Marie Mongan, but the actual basics of HypnoBirthing are very much in line with really standard meditation or relaxation breathing techniques you might learn from someone with a background in psychology.
That said, I highly recommend, if you’re looking into this method, talk to an actual HypnoBirthing instructor before reading the book. We talked to Kate Sullivan, one of the most practical and down-to-earth women I have ever met. She goes into an extremely calm place when she talks about birth and HypnoBirthing. When Nathan and I left our meet-and-greet with her, we both said that she is exactly the kind of person you’d want to have around in a crisis. Honestly, now that I’m reading the book, I can’t say that the founder of HypnoBirthing, Marie Mongan, comes across quite this same way. There’s a lot of stuff, especially in the first half of the book, that seems aimed more at selling this method than explaining what practitioners actually do. Now that I’m in more familiar territory where the text matches what we learned in class, I like it much better.
I love HypnoBirthing because it relies on several basic principles that tap right into some comforting and familiar experience I’ve had with meditation and anti-anxiety relaxation exercises. By now, these principles have thoroughly-researched foundations in both medical and psychological research. Science has no problem agreeing that focusing on breathing and on slowing the breath relaxes both body and mind. No one disagrees that the uterine muscles tense and relax just the way the diagrams in the book shows. Psychology has long understood that the language we use has a powerful impact on our emotions and attitudes. So here’s the good stuff that I love and that my therapist and psychiatrist agree are totally awesome:
- Practicing healthy breathing. There is an unhealthy way to breath, and it’s what we do when we panic: short, shallow breaths. Try a few. Feel lightheaded? That’s because you’re not getting enough oxygen. It’s not comfy. There are several different kinds of breathing techniques that I practice to prepare for giving birth, but they one in particular is nearly identical to a breathing technique I learned at church summer camp to calm the body and mind in preparation for meditation. Bottom line: breath slowly and deeply, don’t force anything, and you’ll feel more relaxed. The book comes with one CD and we received another during our class with Kate, and each has a one sort of guided meditation. I usually pick one and practice one each day.
- A positive attitude towards birth as an experience that is difficult, yes, but not necessarily viciously painful. One CD also has some great affirmations about birth that help me visualize this kind of birth. All of the literature and CDs and, of course, Kate herself, use a different set of language that feels much more comforting to me. At first, it was a little odd. Now, I totally love it. Example: no “contractions.” Instead, “surges” or “waves.” And this is, I am told, a much more accurate descriptor. Yes, the uterine muscles contract or tighten. But any monitor in any birth in any hospital will show that there’s a beginning, a peak and a dropping off in the tensing of those muscles. And what does that mean? It will end! One of the key breakthroughs I had in dealing with my panic attacks was telling myself over and over again that “this will end.” In the middle of panic, it feels like I’m going to die. I am told that some women feel like they will never make it through a contraction/surge/wave when the muscle tension is at its height. For me, calling it a surge is a way of keeping in mind that it will end. The word is also not scary the way “contraction” has become scary after a lifetime of stupid birth scenes on TV and in movies and hearing scary real-life birth stories. Now, what’s this thing about birth not needing to be painful? Well, those uterine muscle surges are so intense because those muscles are pushing a seven pound-ish baby out of your body.
- My body and my baby and my instincts will get this baby out of me; I just need to get out the way by not tensing up and by paying attention. One set of muscles in the uterus that contract during a surge, as I just said, push down on the baby. Another set opens up. What do muscles working very hard need in order to keep going? Any athlete will tell you that oxygen is pretty important. So the way I’m learning to breath during labor and birth is helping me get out of the way of my body and my baby and will give me a) something to do and b) a way to focus on the pretty freaking amazing stuff my body is going to be doing. It is a huge relief to me that I do not have to know what to “do.” Women in comas, I am told, have given birth undetected. This will happen. I can fight it (PAIN) or I can work with it. I’ve seen about eight videos of women using HypnoBirthing techniques who make birthing look like something I want to do. It doesn’t look easy. It looks really intense. But it looks like the most rewarding experience ever. And no one looks like she’s going to die in pain.
There’s a lot more to this, but it’s all copyrighted and I’m not trained to teach it to you anyway. (Yes, I am thinking about learning how to teach this to other women.) If you’re interested, just take the class. Don’t start with the book. And I’m happy to answer questions.
To return to my original point about the good days: practicing the relaxation techniques I’ve learned has been incredibly good for my anxiety. I have fewer high-anxiety days. Things that used to set me off immediately register negative emotions but do not send me over the edge. Whether or not I have the kind of peaceful birth I visualize for myself, I will have this in my life forever. (And yes, mom, I am seeing why meditating every day is really good for us. I understand why they emphasize that so much in church. This counts as a start, right? A start towards meditating the way I learned in church?)