Fear – a biological reaction to subliminal baggage

posted in: SuffolkUltraMum | 1


By Jo Cresdee


Last Sunday my day started at 4.20am as I got up and organised myself to run 21 miles of the Stour Valley Path between Clare and Bures with John. I was shattered, I’d had a tough week and only 5 hours sleep but I wanted a “good” run!

We parked my car in Bures and drove to Clare Country Park where we had finished our last run. JR confidently informed me he knew this section of the path – If you look at the map below you can see we did a fair bit of back-tracking!

We ran around in circles, I felt terrible, my legs were burning, I couldn’t find the rhythm of this run, my mind was all over the place. After running for an hour and covering 6 miles I then realised that my car keys (my car was parked in Bures at our destination point) were still in John’s van in Clare. We had to run back and get them. At this point I lost my cool.

On the way back to the car, I felt completely desolate. I was tired and unhappy and my heart was pounding and I really had major doubts that I could ever run 10 miles, let alone 63. After I had a good cry, we decided on a fresh start and drove to Long Melford and ran from there. But all the drama of the first 2 hours of Sunday served a purpose: it was in a way cleansing – it humbled me and grounded me again.

What it came down to was fear – we all have it – we all live our lives day to day compartmentalising our fear and putting it away in boxes at the very back of our minds in an attempt not to deal with it. We perceive fear to be a weakness, something to hide and not address. We don’t want anyone to see it. The thing is, this is shortsighted; our bodies are still pretty primitive when we look at the biological reaction to fear and this is a topic I talk about all the time with women who come to antenatal classes.

When humans feel fearful for whatever reason we produce the hormone adrenaline. This hormone sends us into “fight or flight”, where the oxygen in your body is diverted to muscles designed to help you run away from physical danger: your legs, your, brain, your heart and your lungs. You would think this would be useful in a running scenario but it’s not really, as it is unsustainable – it’s exhausting, you can’t run in a state of adrenal response for 63 miles.

There is a further dynamic to adrenal response in women that is interesting – women tend to experience fight, flight or freeze. In evolutionary terms this means that we either turn to fight our attacker (unlikely as we are probably smaller and physically weaker so not  a great tactic), we might run away (again not always so smart if you have children in tow), or we can freeze – we can be quiet and perfectly still. In more complex social groupings the women of a community would take this to the next level where they would attempt to befriend and assimilate the culture of their attackers – this would keep them and their children safe if they did not have the physical strength or the ability to flee danger.

In the modern world we experience this adrenal response not in reaction to being attacked by a group of invaders but because of subliminal fears that we fail to address properly. Fear has a dramatic effect on a labouring woman both mentally and physically. When adrenaline is released into the birthing body all the oxygen that should be fuelling the uterus and keeping the fibres of the cervix supple and elastic is diverted away to the lungs, brain, heart and legs. This causes tension in the uterine muscles, increases discomfort and can slow the rate of dilation. Adrenaline also has an effect on the muscles that surround the pelvis, as the pelvic floor and the psoas are emotional muscles which will tighten and restrict when adrenaline is sensed in the body and when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If a primitive human woman was releasing adrenaline during labour she is obviously not in a physically safe place to birth and the best thing for her body to do would be to slow the progression of the labour so that she can retain mobility and find a safer birthing environment.

The issue is that we are no longer primitive humans; we are modern women who are often birthing in an environment that is not ideal for controlling the flow of adrenaline.  We fail to prepare as much as we should do for birth because we live in a culture that looks on labour as something to be treated. In the same way that I am training for my run and having to address my anxieties, women need to prepare physically and mentally for labour and really delve into the innermost corners of their mind and free themselves of the fear of birth that we all carry.

That was the purpose of this horrible run on Sunday – it made me face up to the fact that I was secretly compartmentalising some huge inner fears that I didn’t want to verbalise – I hadn’t wanted to give those fears the light of day, I just wanted them to disappear and to force my way past them using sheer bloody-mindedness and determination.

The fundamental flaw to this plan of burying fear is that those anxieties become deeply embedded in the subconscious brain. In basic terms we have two parts to our brain:  the conscious brain or neo-cortex which is logical – it thinks things through and works stuff out (it is also where we produce our adrenaline). We also have a subconscious brain – this is where we dream or day dream, where we release feel-good hormones, where we zone out, where we trance. It is better to labour or run spending time in the subconscious mind. We obviously switch between the two, but if we can relax and release and utilise that subconscious bit of the brain we are going to stand a far better chance of getting the best out of our bodies. But when you are in the subconscious you run the risk of those little seeds of self-doubt, those negative words, creeping out and triggering fear and sending you spiralling into an adrenal response.

We all read the inspirational quotes and the memes that tell us that physical challenges are about mental strength (and they really are), but we all have to have the moment of epiphany when this realisation becomes reality to us. That day was not about training my body, it suddenly became about actively training my mind. You don’t need to always verbalise or unload your fears, I personally think it is enough to look at them and be honest with yourself. I found that when I was brave enough to open the lid of a box that contains a big fear and actually think about it, work out how I feel about it and then try and throw that fear away it’s a good way to deal with it. I look on each fear as a stone, which you can throw into a pond and see the ripples disperse as it sinks to the bottom and then the water returns to being perfectly still when the fear has gone.

So Sunday was a cleansing run, a run that served a purpose, a run that taught me a lot more about myself than I thought it would, even though I was an unwilling pupil. Despite its start, it was a run that ended on a huge high.

It dawned on me at some point during my emotional collapse that we all have people we wish to emulate, or who wish we were as strong as or as capable as. Actually, underneath those brash exteriors, these people we aspire to mimic carry the same fears, the same emotions. They just mask them in different ways. Never put yourself down as you might be the person that others look to and take strength and inspiration from and never allow a niggling doubt at the back of your subconscious mind stop you from chasing a goal. Make a plan, do the work, throw the stones away.



P.s – Sunday’s run could have ended with me sobbing into a hillside near Cavendish but instead it ended in some beautiful sunshine running down this hill near Bures – unfamiliar environments trigger the release of adrenaline – if you are nervous about an event go and do a recce – whether that be 63 miles of a footpath (take the map) or a ward tour of the hospital where you intend to birth your baby.

And here’s one of those motivational memes for you!

If you would like to donate to help us increase access to antenatal education for women and their birth partners in Suffolk, you can do so here.



One Response

  1. Jo= inspiration ….nuff said!

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