Mental training can help us get through horrible physical experiences—even childbirth!
This is how my first childbirth experience went. I had chosen to go all natural and without medications. I felt intense pain during all of the contractions. Between contractions, during those breaks with no pain that can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, I was anxious and freaking out about the next contraction. I was experiencing what psychologists call “anticipatory anxiety”—I was wary of the next contraction (it doesn’t help that each one gets progressively more painful), anticipating the worst, and, in my particular case, feeling incredibly sorry for myself and completely alone, cursing like a sailor, calling for my mom, crying, and praying to all the Gods. I was a hot delirious mess. For 17 hours.
Before my second child was born, I learned self-hypnosis for natural childbirth. I still felt pain during the contractions—in fact I felt it intensely. But between contractions I wasn’t cursing or crying. I was in a deep restful state. My husband said it looked like I went into a comatose sleep. Now, these in-between-contraction moments are not long, certainly not long enough to go back to sleep. But my anticipatory anxiety was completely absent. In between contractions, I wasn’t worried about the next one.
During the contractions, instead of experiencing them as an awful pain and myself as a victim of it, I focused on what they were doing in my body—how they were opening up my pelvis and stretching me to make room for the baby to descend and emerge. I was so peaceful and quiet that my experienced midwife decided to take a nap right as my body was actually getting ready to deliver. She told a friend who was there that I wasn’t going to give birth until the next day. I gave birth about 20 minutes later.
This delivery experience solidified my understanding of the power of our mind. We can train our mind to endure discomfort, both emotional and physical. This is easier and has a better outcome than trying to avoid discomfort.
To be alive is to feel. Travis, a veteran of the war in Iraq who was in my research study on yogic breathing for post-traumatic stress, shared with me at the beginning of the study that he was unable to feel emotions. He told me there had been a suicide in his family and that he had felt no emotions during the tragedy. After the study was over and his trauma symptoms eased, he came to visit me with unabashed excitement to tell me: “It’s incredible. I have feelings. I feel good, I feel bad, I feel!”
He was so grateful to have his feelings back. Trauma numbed him from experiencing any feelings at all. He had lived in a sort of dead zone. Alive yet unable to feel.
Yet, we so often prefer not to feel. We desperately attempt to numb ourselves from discomfort, whether it’s through drinking, recreational drugs, impulsive shopping, movies, or digital distractions. Anything to not feel the pain, boredom, sadness, insecurity, or fear. What we forget is that if we don’t feel the pain, we also don’t feel the pleasure. If we don’t feel the sadness, we also have a hard time feeling the happiness. We need that contrast. Without down moments, we won’t feel the up moments. Travis was grateful just to feel at all. Good or bad, it didn’t matter.
By avoiding the negative states, we also never learn the powerful skill of endurance. Life has its ups and downs, and pain is part of the process. We forget that hard times often lead to growth, make us more compassionate and wiser, and help us remember what is important and what is not. Research on post-traumatic growth shows that the hardest times—even extreme life-or-death situations—can lead to powerful growth experiences for people. In particular, they can deepen our relationships, increase our sense of strength, open up new opportunities, increase our appreciation for life, and even deepen our spirituality. The ability to experience our emotions, no matter how uncomfortable, is critical.
If we can increase our endurance and live through the tough times with whole awareness, we will also gain the skills needed to help others going through difficult times. We will gain empathy and perspective. There’s nothing like going through a really rough time to understand how blessed we are in those moments that happen to be smooth, easy, and joyful. The contrast makes us wise.
So how can we build our endurance? The good news is that we all have the tool for it: our minds. And extensive neuroscience research has shown that our minds are highly trainable.
“When you reach the point that you can’t go on, it feels physical, like an immutable limit,” Alex Hutchinson, former long-distance runner, endurance expert, and the author of Endure, told The New York Times. “But your physical limits are actually mediated by your brain. In most instances, dropping out is a decision.”
Similarly, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran going through the Infantry Officer Course distinguished between those men who were able to complete grueling hikes carrying 200-pound backpacks and those who could not. He noticed that some very able-bodied men dropped out or passed out while others who were less fit succeeded. He shared with me: “It’s not the fact that you are the youngest or the biggest or the fittest that makes you successful. What determines the outcome is your mind.”
That is good news. Although our bodies are not equally strong, we can all have strong minds.