Labor for a Lifetime

By LeAnn Thieman

There were 100 little babies laying three and four to a cardboard box, strapped in the belly of a gutted cargo jet. It was 1975, Saigon was falling to the Communists, and I was accidentally caught up in the Vietnam Orphan Airlift. It was a stressful situation; if you don’t have coping skills, you learn them fast!

As our plane took off, I was haunted with image of three days before when I stood on the runway and watched as first planeload of orphans crashed after takeoff, killing half of the adults and children board. I clutched our newly adopted baby boy to my chest. Would this plane be blown out of the sky too?  I trembled so hard I could barely hold our son. To cope, I started slow, deep, easy breathing…the kind I’d learned from Lamaze classes several years before. The same breathing that I used to bring our daughters into our family, I was using to bring our son.

Since then, my many years as a childbirth educator have convinced me that those child-birthing techniques are not just labor skills, but life skills. I taught couples laboring tools: breathing, relaxation, positive thinking, and visualization. These are imperative for coping with challenges of labor and are equally applicable in coping with “labors” in our lives.

Breathing: Like similar activities, rhythmic breathing releases endorphins, which act as our body’s own pain medication. We have it to tap every day, but we forget to do activities that release it!  I taught laboring moms that when they are afraid their bodies increase adrenalin production, inhibiting the release of oxytocin, resulting in poorer contractions and a longer labor. Rhythmic breathing decreases stress, thereby decreasing adrenalin production, facilitating a better, shorter labor. If stress and adrenalin do that to labor, what does it do to our everyday lives?

We need to breathe like laboring moms– in 2,3,4 and out 2,3,4. As we breathe in, think the words “I am” and as we breathe out, think “relaxed.” It works. When I was en route to Vietnam, the national officers of our organization met me at the airport with $10,000 to smuggle into Vietnam. So with the most expensive padded bra in world history, I headed through customs. An angry looking Vietnamese guard with a gun barked at me, and I feared he’d take one look at my chest and know this was not an act of God. Trembling with fright, I knew I’d give myself away. So I started that deep breathing– in, $1,000, $2,000, $3000, out $4000…

Relaxation: It’s said relaxation is 90% of a good labor, and that applies to life too. Keeping our bodies relaxed keeps our emotions under control. I told laboring moms we are only as relaxed as our hands and our face. We can’t relax if we’re making a fist or clenching our teeth or the steering wheel.

We schedule so many activities into our days, yet we seldom schedule relaxation. Still, we must allocate at least fifteen minutes every day for relaxation, meditation, or prayer. Ideally, we should set up a “relaxation” place at home where we can listen to guided relaxation exercises or soothing music while doing our slow, rhythmic breathing. Involving all five senses is best, attained perhaps by lighting a scented candle or gliding in a rocker. Once we’ve mastered this relaxation technique, we can utilize it in the break room, the ballpark, or the bedside.

Positive Thinking: I am absolute believer in the power of positive thinking. We get what we expect from life. When we expect positive things, we act accordingly and get positive results in return. When we expect success, we usually succeed; when we expect failure, we usually fail. When we expect health, we make healthy choices; when we expect illness, we are often sick. In childbirth classes, when worried couples doubted their ability to survive labor, I quoted Henry Ford, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right!”

Research shows that emotion– positive or negative– affects human health. There is mounting scientific evidence that hope, faith, love, the will to live, purpose, laughter, and festivity can actually help control disease. These aren’t just mental states but have electromechanical connections that play a large part in the working of immune system.

Positive thinking also affects our performance. The Texas Rangers baseball team years ago lost twenty-one straight games. The manager knew an evangelist was in town and made the team wait in the dugout while he went to have their bats blessed. He came back an hour later with “blessed bats.”  The team won nearly every game after that– and the pennant!  Were the bats blessed?  It doesn’t matter; the team got what they expected.

Positive Visualization: We can take positive thinking one step further by incorporating positive imaging. Positive visualization is a powerful and mysterious force in human nature that is capable of bringing about dramatic improvement in our lives. Einstein said, “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.”

I instructed laboring moms to visualize their baby moving down the birth canal, their cervix opening, and finally holding their baby in their arms. I literally watched their bodies respond. We know the expected response is true in biofeedback, when blood pressure and pulse rates are reduced with imaging techniques.

Cancer patients say they have less nausea and vomiting when visualizing a serene white beach in Maui, cascading waterfalls, and peaceful sunsets. But, it seems that can work in reverse. One cancer patient saw her doctor in the grocery store and it brought back such intense images of nausea with her chemo, she threw up on the spot.

Breathing, relaxation, positive thinking, and positive visualization work for sick people and labor patients, and it will work for you. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be asked to rescue babies in cardboard boxes in war-torn countries, but God knows you rescue people every day in what you do. Remember to use your labor tools to affect not only your happiness, but your health as well.

LeAnn Thieman is a nurse, author, and Speaker Hall of Fame inductee. She is co-author of Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul, as well as Chicken Soup for the Nurses Soul and Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul, Second Dose. To learn more about her books and presentations, call 1-877-THIEMAN.

[From the June/July 2009 issue of AnswerStat magazine]