Trauma and Perception of Pain in Labour

June 11, 2018

The following is a response to a recent email I received (with her consent). 


Based on the limited information provided I understood that this mother is pregnant with her 4th child, has a history of satisfied births and deliveries.  However, during her third pregnancy she experienced an emotional trauma that impacted her early labor experience, resulting in increased pain with contractions. 


She reached out because she is noticing that she is a. reliving this emotional trauma and b. afraid of the onset of labor because of a perceived notion that it will be painful or perhaps, more painful.  


The questions were as follows: 


  1. I'm looking for information on the connection between experiencing OTHER trauma and going into labour / giving birthand the effect it can have on your pain perception / pain threshold DURING labour. 

  2. I found out that going through trauma can in fact lower your pain threshold (with other pain, not the pain from the trauma) and cause the pain you experience to be more intense. Is there any information on thisthat will help to prepare myself and to help myself be less scared of what is to come?

  3. I also feel like I'm going through the same trauma again- just not as intense as when it happened. Is there anything I can do to work through this?


First Theme: History of previous trauma not related to birth and the impact it can have on labor and delivery


Trauma is pervasive, period. The symptoms of a traumatic stress response can yield its ugly head at any point, especially if we are engaged in stressful or vulnerable events. That said, I want to highlight the resilience and grit factors that humans demonstrate over and over again– bottom line is that we can tolerate an enormous amount of adversity and continue to thrive. Truly, this is amazing.


Let’s unpack trauma for a moment. 


A traumatic event is an experience that threatenedyour sense of safety, was horrific, and you felt powerlessto change the circumstance. This threat could have been perceived or actual. Meaning, the risk of harm was present, regardless if the event resulted in actual harm. 


Trauma equates toxic stress load and most often, remains trapped within the nervous system and the psyche. It is akin to the engine on your car running full throttle, but the car is in neutral (it is not going anywhere).  All that energy but nothing is moving. 


We can experience Big T traumas (abuse, rape, war, accidents, NDE, severe injury, environmental catastrophe, adverse childhood experiences, childbirth, terminal illness, historical oppression, racism) or little t traumas (divorce, loss of job, relocation, childhood bullying, loss of friendships, financial insecurity) to name a few. The key is to focus on any event or experience that results in the accumulation of toxic stress.  


We all have a tipping point.  As humans we can tolerate a lot, however, all of a sudden one adverse experience can tip the scale and we present with symptoms of posttraumatic stress response (notice the change in language – response vs disorder).  Although the above list is incomplete it highlights some examples of the kinds of experiences that can result in ‘mental injury’ i.e., trauma.