These easy mindset shifts can bring welcome relief
You won’t find this in a pregnancy book! In our new blog series, we’re doing deep dives into sticky subjects about pregnancy, postpartum, and beyond that aren’t discussed often enough.
In the early months of my first pregnancy I floated around my Brooklyn neighborhood like some kind of fertility goddess. After a brief blip of fatigue in the early weeks, I was filled with energy and possibility, and set about annoying my surly New York neighbors with my cheer and positivity. Accessing the good vibes was easy. My body felt strong and capable and when I looked in the mirror I was met with a radiant glow that I’ve yet to experience since. It seemed as if I could gestate a million babies and I wondered if that’s what I was designed to do as my growing belly and I sweated in a vigorous yoga class or sipped a mocktail at a late-night dinner party.
But it would soon fall apart. Deep into my second trimester, while making chicken enchiladas on a Wednesday evening, a strange, shooting pain jolted down my leg from my hip to my calf. A quick google search told me it was sciatica, a searing pain that travels along the sciatic nerve, which stretches from the lower back through each leg. This sharp ache would come to be my stubborn companion, sticking close to me as I hobbled through the remainder of my pregnancy. Though the pain was at times unbearable, I had no interest in flooding my baby’s system with Advil Extra Strength or any other painkillers, so I clenched my teeth and dealt the discomfort, white-knuckling my way through it.
There’s no denying that pregnancy is really hard for some women. Bringing a human being into this world can lead to back pain, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, sciatica, round ligament pain, congestion, constipation, and more—plus any other conditions you were managing before you conceived. Yet after navigating two pregnancies—both uncomfortable, if not downright painful—co-authoring nearly three books for women on the reproductive journey, and meditating for 10 years, I can confidently share that powering through pain during pregnancy is not the only option. Esteemed meditation teacher Tara Brach, Ph.D., sums this up by explaining, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Though the body is hurting, the mind controls the volume at which you receive the pain. A few simple mindset shifts can transform pain from something that dominates your experience into something that becomes a part of your experience. You can learn how to reframe your relationship to pain so you are managing it, and it’s not managing you.
Here’s how to start:
- Notice your resistance to pain
When you resist pain by reacting emotionally (thinking, “This isn’t fair” or “I hate this”), judging (comparing yourself to others, feeling ashamed or weak because you are hurting), or avoiding (checking out by watching TV, eating something unhealthy, working, or doing chores) you deepen its power over you. These methods of dealing with discomfort pit you against the pain, making it the perpetrator and you the victim. By resisting the pain in these ways, discomfort becomes suffering. Tara Brach teaches her meditation students a simple equation for this experience: Pain x Resistance = Suffering.
- Relate to pain with curiosity and kindness
If it’s difficult to walk or sleep or eat, it may seem impossible to view your discomfort as anything other than really frustrating. But with some dedicated practice it’s possible to begin to reframe the way you view pain. Remember, your mind controls your experience, so if you can harness your racing thoughts, and begin to point them in a new direction, a challenging experience can become much more manageable. Instead of steeling yourself against the places you are hurting, experiment with observing the sensations as they roll through your body with a lighthearted curiosity. Notice how they change in each moment, sometimes pulsing with intensity, other times softening and dispersing. Try naming what you’re feeling: heat, vibration, throbbing, sharpness, etc. Approaching this process with a gentle inquiry can help to transform your experience of pain.
- Consider just this moment … and then the next
The pain you are experiencing will intensify (or decrease) in direct relation to the
the stories you tell yourself about the nature of your discomfort. For example, if you tell yourself that this agony will surely last forever, it will be much more challenging to manage your day-to-day experience. But if you practice keeping your mind in the present moment, remaining right where you are without hypothesizing about the future, you will find that you are facing just what’s happening now rather than the enormity of an imagined future. This can be the difference between carrying one stone vs. a sack of bricks. Using the first two tools, you can commit to getting through this moment, and then the next, and then the next—nothing more.
- Know when it’s time to turn away from the pain
Sometimes the pain will be so strong that you’ll need to find strength elsewhere. Rather than distracting yourself from the pain or avoiding it, this method redirects your focus to something in your world that feels good. Tara Brach calls this “resourcing”—where you gain strength and resilience by tapping into something that elicits feelings of positivity. This could be considering a part of your body that feels strong and healthy, or connecting with a treasured friend, family member or pet. You could also take a walk in an inspiring natural landscape or do something creative like drawing or cooking. The key here is to make sure that you are doing something that’s uplifting and fulfilling, rather than simply getting your mind off your discomfort.
Marisa Belger is co-author of The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother and Awakening Fertility: The Essential Art of Preparing for Pregnancy. Along with her co-authors, she is currently working on a third book in the series focusing on the pregnancy experience itself.
For more guidance from meditation and mindfulness teacher Tara Brach, visit tarabrach.com.