If you can learn to a) recognize when you’re tensing up, and then b) release the tension, you can reduce the amount of overall pain and stress you feel. Of course, this applies to any situation you face, but for now, I’m talking about releasing muscle tension in labor. Because if you can be proactive about reducing your pain and discomfort in labor, why wouldn’t you??
First let’s look at how to recognize tension in your body. Right now, wherever you are, do an internal scan of your body. What areas are you “holding”? Check your shoulders: are they raised and tensed? Check your stomach: are you holding it in? Check muscles in your thighs: are they flexed? Check your face: are you holding your jaw tight; are you squinting; are you furrowing your brow? If you answered yes to any of these, you’re holding tension in your body. And it’s likely that you weren’t even aware of it.
When trying to recognize tension in your own body, it helps to scan the most common areas that tense up: face (eyes, brow), jaw, mouth, neck, shoulders, hands (ie, clenched fists), core/abdomen, thighs, and buttocks. If you’re trying to recognize tension in your partner, look for things like raised shoulders, furrowed brow, tight lips, clenched teeth/jaw, clenched or fisted hands, raised up (as on tiptoes) or tensed up legs.
If you’re having difficulty recognizing tension by scanning your body, try artificially creating tension to identify it. For example, tense up and raise your shoulders close to your ears. Then release, relax, and drop them. Or, try flexing your fist and forearm. Feel the tightness internally and with your other hand from the outside. Notice how your arm looks and feels. Now, release, relax, and let your arm go completely limp. Notice the difference? When it comes to releasing tension, aim for “loose, limp, and low.”
Releasing tension begins with awareness. You can’t release what you don’t notice. Once you’ve scanned and identified tension, practice releasing those areas. For example:
- Drop your shoulders, roll them to help loosen
- Gently roll your head from side to side
- Relax your face
- Slightly open your mouth to relax your jaw and mouth
- Allow your tongue to sit relaxed in your mouth
- Soften your eye gaze
- Breathe deeply into your belly and release your stomach muscles
- Unclench your fingers – instead, relax your hand or find a tennis ball or stress ball to squeeze
- Release muscles in your thighs, glutes, and calves
- Allow your feet and toes lay flat on the ground or flop to the side
In labor, tension tends to appear most when a contraction begins and remains throughout the contraction. It can be difficult to let go of tension during a contraction, but doing so helps lessen the feeling of pain during a contraction and helps you conserve muscle energy for labor. If you cannot release tension during a contraction, at the very least, let go of all tension in between contractions to allow your body to fully rest.
Your partner(s) in birth (significant other, family member, spouse, doula) can help you recognize and release tension in labor by monitoring your body tension and either verbally reminding you to “release your shoulders,” for example, or by placing a hand on an area you’re holding and saying words like “soften,” “let go,” or “relax.”
Practicing recognizing and releasing tension during everyday moments in pregnancy will allow you to more readily access this skill during labor. Practicing during moments of stress or pain in pregnancy has the added benefit of actively teaching you how release tension to reduce stress and perception of pain. Try scanning and releasing at least once a day in pregnancy. You’ll probably start to notice just how nice letting go can feel! If, instead, “letting go” feels uncomfortable or even scary for you, it may help to work with a therapist to identify the causes of these feelings.
It helps to start recognizing and releasing body tension in early labor when contractions and pain are more mild. Try to scan and release tension during contractions as well as in between contractions. Doing this will help conserve your body’s energy for the length of labor and it will also get you into a good rhythm/habit of releasing tension so that you can more easily continue the practice as contractions become more intense.
Invoke the help of your partner and/or doula to help you remember to release tension. Discuss this technique well before labor begins so they’re familiar and understand its importance.
Many lifelong skills come from the process of preparing for and giving birth. The ability to recognize and release your body’s tension is one such skill. You may find yourself using it to relieve pain and stress years into the future — at the dentist’s office, when parenting, while working a stressful job, etc. The more you understand your body’s natural instincts, the more you can work with it to help you through all of life’s moments!