Friday, August 04, 2006

How Fear Affects Labor and Birth

The emotional state of fear on the part of the birthing woman can have a negative impact on the progress of her labor and her overall experience of birth…. Slowing down or arrest of labor [is a] physiological phenomenon observable in animals, whose bodies instinctively cease to labor when a threat is perceived. …The same [response is] noted in women upon arrival at the hospital…. Emotional changes are shown to affect the physiological state of the birthing woman…. This is a difficult concept to accept and integrate into current US culture, where the separation of mind and body has been universally accepted under the tenets of Cartesian Dualism…. Modern US biomedicine is deeply entrenched in this concept and rarely focuses its care on the mental side of medical situations.

…Scientific studies, however, indicate that certain hormonal changes take place in the presence of fear, stress and anxiety…. Adrenaline has been referred to as the antithesis of oxytocin, the naturally produced hormone that stimulates uterine contractions.(Gaskin 2003) Another category of hormones (catecholamines, which include epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine) is indicated by other studies as one of the causative factors in fetal distress as well as problematic labor. Catecholamines…circulate when the pregnant mother is anxious or afraid [and pass through the placenta to the baby, affecting] the baby's environment. [Under these conditions, the risks of fetal distress during labor are increased, and medical intervention ensues.]
The level of fear experienced by women today may be in part due to the removal of birth from the natural feminine realm…. The medicalization of birth in part causes fear, which causes the rising hormone levels, which in turn causes complications that lead to medical intervention. The resulting circular logic normalizes birth as a medical event.

— Colleen Bak, excerpted and paraphrased from "The Role of Fear in the US Birthing Process," Midwifery Today Issue 67

Kitzinger, S. 2000. Rediscovering Birth. New York: Pocket Books.
Klaus, M., J. Kennel and P. Klaus. 1993. Mothering the Mother: How a Doula Can Help You Have a shorter, Easier, and Healthier Birth. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

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