We all know what pain feels like, in varying degrees. But what does pain look like? What do we do with our bodies when we experience something painful? Some of the instinctive responses we use to respond to everyday pain (think stubbing your toe, papercuts, bumping into a piece of furniture, going to the dentist, muscle cramps/pulled muscle, touching a hot pan) include tensing up, shouting/making loud sounds, breathing heavily/quickly, applying pressure to the area, crying, and freezing/not moving or alternatively, moving around wildly. So how does this relate to the intensity and experience of labor?
Pain in labor and childbirth is what so many expectant parents seem to fear the most. They hear things like, "it's worse than breaking a bone" (which is a myth, by the way). The reality is that the pain experienced in labor and birth (and to be fair, there are some who do not experience labor and birth as "painful;" it is not a one-size-fits-all experience) is not like everyday pain. It's not sudden, it's with purpose, it's intermittent, you can prepare for and expect it, and there are many ways to mitigate it.
Sometimes, with labor, our body's natural reponse is not always the most helpful. Often, this is because of the psychological component (our fear/anxiety) and not the physical -- also referred to as the "fear-tension-pain" cycle. So if you find yourself or your partner doing any of the following, take notice and work to choose a more helpful, pain-reducing response. The nice thing about contractions (yes, you read that right) is that you have notification of when it's beginning before it ramps up to the most intense point. It's a small amount of time, yes, but just enough to allow you to begin using your pain relieving ritual.
Tensing up/clenching. One of the most common things I see as a doula when a contraction comes on is when mom bring her shoulders up to her ears, makes a fist or otherwise grabs something and clenches down hard with her hands nearby, tightens her jaw, and furrows her brow. Her body is saying "I'm trying to fight this pain," but the reality is that the increased tension (which is intrinsically painful) will only cause increased sensation of pain. Instead, relax all other parts of your body as much as is possible -- lower your shoulders, let your jaw hang slack, relax the muscles in your face. And, instead of clenching a bedsheet or anything that's hard/plastic, reach for something you can squeeze like a stress ball (throw one in your labor bag) or keep your hands stretched open. The act of squeezing and releasing a stress ball will actually help release stress and tension.
Make high pitched sounds. This tid-bit ties into the information above about releasing tension. Usually, if you're making high pitched sounds during a contraction, you're also tensing up your face and jaw (try it right now and you'll see!). However, making noises during contractions can be very helpful to relieve pain, so instead of high pitched sounds, work to produce lower more gutteral sounds (think "ooohs" and "uhhs" instead of "eees"). This will ensure a relaxed jaw and face.
Lay flat on your back. Not only is lying flat on your back bad for blood flow, but it is also reported to be the most uncomfortable position to experience a contaction. Of course, if the opposite is true for you -- do it! Even during a hospital birth, and even when being on the monitors, lying on your back is rarely necessary. If you have to be monitored, let your nurse know that you first need to sit or lay in a position that's most comfortable for you before wearing the monitor bands.
Breathe too much or too little. I usually tell doula clients that there is no "right" way to breathe but there are "wrong" ways to breathe. Breathing too quickly (which also looks a lot like hyperventilating) as well as holding your breath can increase pain and also cause you to feel lightheaded. Sometimes, long, slow, deep belly breaths are helpful, and other times, patterned or faster breathing (like you would do while running/doing cardio) is helpful. As you move through labor, you'll likely find the kind of breathing that helps you most. It is helpful for someone on your birth team to encourage you to breathe, to breathe slowly, or to focus your breathing as it can be easy to lose track of your breath during the hard work of labor.