Our wellbeing columnist Erica Chidi Cohen is here to talk about sex, health and overall wellbeing. Today, she’s tackling a big subject: giving birth. More specifically, what do you do when it terrifies you? Here’s her sage advice…
Q. Help! I’m approaching my ninth month of pregnancy and I’m legitimately terrified of birth. I feel crazy because none of the other parents-to-be on the message boards or in my friend group seem THIS scared or panicky. On top of that, I’m now freaking out that my anxiety is harming the baby. Please, I know everyone goes through some version of this, but I think I must be an extreme case. Do you have any tips on preparing myself for birth? Or just chilling the hell out? — Monica
A. Yes, I do. And before we get to that, I just want to start by telling you that this is totally normal. I know it might feel like the furthest thing from it, but rest assured that you’re nowhere near alone. It’s natural and healthy to have a good amount of fear going into this, especially if you’re a first-timer. I wish I could hug you through the computer, but since that isn’t possible, I will offer you as many resources as I can to help you get through it.
It might be helpful to know that there’s actually a clinical term for this: “tocophobia,” which is defined as significant fear of childbirth. Not every expectant parent will experience anxiety to this degree, but know that many do.
My first recommendation is a simple one: Get out a pen and paper and write a list of your specific fears — all of them, no matter how wild or mundane they seem. (This is a great tool for managing anxiety of any kind.) Catastrophic thinking does really well when left to its own devices in your brain, and the simple act of writing a thought onto a piece of paper can help lessen its intensity and give you distance from it. Once you’ve made your list, I’d encourage you to show it to a friend or your partner, if you have one. Discussing your fears with others (rather than ruminating on them yourself) can put things into perspective. Plus, it’s good to know that someone else is in the loop on what you’re dealing with.
Pregnant or not, people often find that breathwork and meditation can ease anxiety. Expectful is an excellent mindfulness meditation app created specifically for pregnancy. And breathwork teacher Ashley Neese recently published a book with simple self-guided breathwork techniques. When you’re practicing deep breathing, listen to your body. Don’t feel like you need to hold your breath for any particular length of time. Just keep your breathing smooth and steady.
My next recommendation is to amp up your resources. Many of us tend to isolate when we’re dealing with anxiety, when, in fact, we need extra support. A childbirth class can also be a helpful for expectant parents. Doing a private class at home with a childbirth educator or doula might be a good option for you, since it creates a safe environment for you ask questions. Another more cost-effective option is an online birth class. Most allow you to take in the material at your own pace, which can prevent overwhelm. Either way, educating yourself can alleviate so many fears. Often, the root of anxiety is simply the fear of the unknown, and birth education lets you go in knowing you’re as prepared as you can be. (I recently launched an online birth class that is non-judgmental, option-filled and evidence-informed, which could be a helpful addition to your toolkit.)
If the pain of labor is something that’s adding to your fears, don’t forget, pain can be managed on the big day. In fact, I think that one of the most feminist decisions you can make is deciding how you want to feel during labor, and thanks to modern medicine you have options. Whether it’s using nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas) through each contraction or getting an epidural, do what makes you feel comfortable and know that all birth is natural because it’s natural to birth a baby, regardless of what interventions you decide to use.
You might also look into a doula, if you can afford it. Doulas are essentially birth normalizers, there to support and guide you through this experience. Part of what a doula does is reframe the intense or scary things that can happen during labor, and assure you that what you’re feeling and what your body is doing is normal. And if something unusual does happen, your doula will be on the lookout for it. To find a doula in your area, check out the DONA International database.
Finally, I encourage you to consider picking up the book What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, by doctors Alexandra Sacks and Catherine Birndorf. It’s all about the many emotional shifts you may experience during pregnancy and after — which again, are totally normal and unfortunately don’t get talked about as often as they should. And if you’re worried about the much-discussed effects of anxiety during pregnancy, take heart. I spoke with Dr. Sacks about this issue, and she offered these wise words: “Pregnancy has been designed to withstand extraordinary circumstances, including war and famine, so be reassured that your body, and your baby’s, is resilient and that the system has lots of checks and balances. That being said, I also believe that mental health is just as important as physical health in pregnancy (and in general), so if you’re not sure if your worry has reached a level of clinical anxiety, talk to your practitioner or call the hotline at Postpartum Support International.”
At a time like this, I wanted to offer you resources galore — but feel free to take what you need and leave the rest. Just know that you are not alone (back me up here, readers!) and help is there whenever you need it. Last but not least, congratulations! You’re bringing a baby into the world.
Erica Chidi Cohen is a doula, educator and cofounder of LOOM. She is passionate about helping people cultivate body literacy and the tools to advocate for their reproductive health and wellbeing, and has guided thousands of people in their transition from pregnancy to parenthood in her practice and through her book, Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and Early Motherhood.
Thanks so much, Erica! Do you have a sex, health or wellness question for Erica? Let us know in the comments.
(Photo by Anna Malgina/Stocksy.)