The Fear Tension Pain Cycle
By observing laboring women, Dr. Grantley Dick-Read theorized that the more fear a woman had, the more tense her body was and the more pain she felt during labor. But the muscular tension is not the only side effect of the fear that hinders labor.
When you experience fear, your body produces chemicals that change the way your body works. This response is generally termed the "fight or flight" response, and allows you to escape danger. It works by diverting blood away from the internal organs and out to the limbs to give you extra strength and speed. So right away, your uterus is trying to work with less oxygen.
The chemicals that are released also work to stop labor from happening. This may sound strange, but think about a wild animal laboring in the forest. If the animal senses danger, the "fight or flight" response can stop labor to allow the animal to retreat to a safe place. Once the danger is gone, labor resumes, the baby is born and both mother and baby are safe.
How does the fear tension pain cycle stop labor?
Basically, your uterus is not just one large muscle. It is made from two layers of muscles that run two different directions, one layer runs from the top to the bottom, the other around the sides. During labor the "top to bottom" muscles contract to push the baby down and pull the cervix back. After your baby is born the "around the sides" muscles contract to pull the cervix and uterus back into place.
The addition of the fear chemicals causes the "around the sides" muscles to contract during labor. In effect you have one muscle layer trying to open the cervix while one muscle layer tries to close the cervix. This makes for an extremely long, painful and unproductive labor.
What causes the fear tension pain cycle?
The bad news is that unlike a wild animal, humans do not need a threat to our existence to start the "fight or flight" response. Our highly developed brains allow us to be fearful of what COULD happen, not only what is happening. Many women begin their labors at a high stress level anyway, because they live their every day lives at such a heightened level of stress. Stress, anxiety, worry, fear; it doesn't matter what you call it, it can start the fear tension pain cycle in your labor.
Why makes fear tension pain a cycle?
The pain a woman experiences as a result of the stress, anxiety and fear only serves to confirm her deepest fears, that labor is horribly painful and she becomes more fearful of what lies ahead which leads to more pain - then more fear - then more pain. It is a vicious cycle that can be difficult to get out of.