Friday, June 11, 2010

The Fear Problem

Fear of the Unknown

It is normal to fear the unknown. For most first time pregnant women, birth is a huge unknown. Not only have we never done it, we may not even have ever seen it done. In North America today, I think it's highly unlikely that the average woman has ever been at a birth before giving birth. She also won't see uncensored images of vaginal birth in any public media. So, unless her school showed birth films in health class (mine didn't) or she takes a childbirth education class, seeks out birth videos on the internet, or watches a birth documentary such as The Business of Being Born, she may not even have seen a baby birthed before she is expected to do it. As I discussed in a prior post, some women seem to think that viewing a birth would disturb them, so they don't seek out any birth videos.

Add this that the fact that virtually every pregnant woman reaches a point in her pregnancy where, looking at her much-changed body, she realizes her baby is going to have to come out, but to her it just seems impossible that it could. It really is an unbelievable thing, even for those who have seen it and done it. That's kind of the miracle of it. Much of the medical system, however, seems to believe that it really is impossible without their help, and they are also afraid of the rare and very scary things they've seen or heard of going wrong, and they pass that fear on to women to add to their fear of never having done it and thinking there is no way her body can do something that seems impossible. Medicalization of birth also increases the "unknown" factor--it is something for educated doctors and nurses to know about, not average women.

Fear of Pain

It is also normal to fear pain, because pain is usually an indication that something is wrong, and we find it unpleasant. Our young pregnant women has heard others talk about how birth was painful for them and that they would never think about doing it without medication (or they did and it was a bad experience), and this just compounds the fear. She has probably seen birth shows on cable TV, which edit birth footage in ways that focus on the dramatic, because they are in the business of making exciting television, not of educating women about what birth is and can be. She probably has also heard a few stories of births where there were complications--maybe a vacuum delivery or an unplanned cesarean. She may fear something going wrong or having something strange done to her. Many women also feel fearful when they are in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers, as is often the case with birth today.

Effects of Fear on Birth

We know that fear causes the body to release chemicals that can stop the birth process. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective--a tribal woman wouldn't want to give birth if a tiger was chasing her, but as is explained in the book Birthing From Within (not a hypno-friendly book, by the way), the body doesn't know how to distinguish between real and imaginary tigers, it only knows fear. Fear also increases our perception of pain and prevents us from enjoying birth.

So, what is our average (and now thoroughly terrified) first-time pregnant woman to do?

Most likely, she'll figure that she has a highly-skilled doctor and well-equipped hospital that will keep her and her baby safe because they're the experts, and she'll decide she will get an epidural, so she won't need to worry about pain. It is likely that her preparation won't go much beyond this. She will still have other fears to deal with, though. For example, what if she's afraid of needles?

Fear of Needles

Fear of needles is pretty common. I see nothing unreasonable about having a fear about a sharp object penetrating one's skin to introduce foreign substances into one's body. I realize that needles do a lot of good in medicine, but the idea of them is just disturbing to me. It is sometimes fear of needles that leads women to seek out natural childbirth.

My Answer?

The best answer to the fear problem is childbirth education. And by childbirth education I don't mean most hospital-sponsored classes where the woman learns a little (but usually not enough) about what is going on in her body, what routine medical procedures to expect (without letting her know she has the right to refuse all of them), and that epidurals are usually safe and not anything to worry about. I mean childbirth education that is free to tell you what the hospital doesn't want you to know.

Most natural childbirth classes address fear in two ways. They tell women that they can give birth without medication, just like women did before medication existed, and teach them pain coping techniques which helps increase their confidence and overcome their fears about pain. Some of these techniques rely on freedom of movement, so these classes usually encourage women to consider declining unnecessary routine medical procedures that interfere with movement (such as IV fluids and continuous monitoring). They also address fear of the unknown by teaching about the natural process of birth, as well as explaining how medical interventions might affect the process and giving information about the risks and benefits of these procedures and encouraging women to choose for themselves whether to accept them or not. Feeling like they are involved in decisions about birth helps women feel less afraid.

Fear of Medical Interventions

However, the downside to teaching about medical interventions (both in classes and other places such as books/films/internet groups) is that sometimes this education has the unfortunate side effect of creating fear of medical interventions. So, fear of pain, birth, and the unknown, are replaced by fear of hospitals, pitocin, and iatrogenic complications. Remember, fear interferes with birth, no matter what the source or intention. Going into birthing with any kind of fear is not healthy. And there is always a possibility that a woman will need medical intervention in her birth, and if that happens, we don't want her to be afraid of it. I recognize that fear of pitocin had negative effects in my own first birth.

I want women to be able to make birth decisions without fear. The presence of fear makes it difficult to use the other things we need to make decisions--our logic and our intuition. Sometimes natural childbirth sources are guilty of some of the same fallacies as the medical side of things. Those who believe in liberal use of medical technology in birth will focus on a few rare complications as reason why a woman shouldn't choose a homebirth, a VBAC, minimal monitoring, no IV or heplock, etc, while ignoring the majority of births that go right. Natural birth advocates sometimes focus on the rare scary complications of epidurals and cesareans, without mentioning that the majority of women who choose an epidural or need a cesarean have no major problems. It is important for women to understand the risks of interventions, while at the same time understanding that there are times when the benefits of these interventions clearly outweigh the risks.

Overcoming Fear

I feel that the best type of childbirth education would present information in a way that doesn't scare women, but provides them with unbiased information that allows them to make informed, and not fearful, choices. Good childbirth education also has ways of helping women overcome their fears. Hypnobabies includes a fear-clearing exercise that works very well for this. Some other ideas can be found in this post by Felice at The Gift of Giving Life.

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