Before many people are even pregnant, the pain of labor and childbirth looms large in their imaginations, and it's not surprising. We talk about it, albeit obliquely and inaccurately, kind of a lot, from TV to our moms reminding us exactly how long they suffered to bring us into the world. Some of us worry we won't be able to "handle it." But here are some signs you have a high pain tolerance, so labor will be... well, not a cakewalk, but doable.
It's not that labor and delivery can't be dramatic, because it absolutely can be, but the way we talk about childbirth is far more dramatic than it usually is, in one way or another. Like, countless sitcoms have the hysterical woman writing in agony, making wisecracks about wanting to kill her partner. And countless dramas depict labors that are super high-risk, from beginning to end, for no actually articulated reason other than a baby is coming out of a person's body and that's scary and dangerous. The one constant in these depictions (neither typical, by the way), funny or dramatic, is intense physical pain on the part of the laboring person.
But pain is so subjective, particularly since pain has physical and psychological components. Different factors will affect the intensity of pain, too. For example, if your water breaks before labor, your contractions are likely going to be more painful than they would be otherwise... but that also brings us back to the "subjective" component. Different things are going to affect whether or not we perceive something as being super painful and, moreover, how we react to those stimuli. That said, I don't know too many people who have been through labor who've call it "pleasant" or liken it to a tickle fight.
And let's be crystal clear on a particular point: you can have a high tolerance for pain and still opt for medical pain management. I actually have a really high tolerance for pain, and I got an epidural. Twice. I'm extremely positive I could have managed labor without it, but I really and truly didn't want to and didn't see much point to continue tolerating all the pain I was experiencing. To date, I consider getting an epidural among my best parenting and personal medical decisions. Other people I know wouldn't trade their unmedicated labor and delivery experiences for the world and, to be honest, some of them claim high pain tolerance while others don't. Again #subjectiveAF.
No one can really know how they're going to respond to the pain of labor before you, you know, go through it, but here are some indicators that you might be more tolerant:
You Won The Genetic Lottery
Researchers aren't exactly sure why, but studies have shown that pain tolerance (like so much else, it seems) is in part rooted in one's genetics. Like, for example, there is evidence to show that redheads are more sensitive to pain than, say, their tow-headed or brunette comrades. We can't (yet) identify the genes that make some people more stalwart and Spartan than others, so until we can just hope we're among the lucky (non-redheads) who were genetically blessed.
You've Been Tested For It
Believe it or not there are actually different tests one can undergo to see just how tolerant (or intolerant) one is to painful stimuli. These tests are not conclusive and some people don't put much stock in them, but others believe they can give doctors some idea as to what an individual can endure. They include using an instrument called a "dolorimeter," the cold pressor test, and a number of different questionnaires (these are generally used to track pain and pain tolerance over time).
You Handle Stress Well
Remember when I said pain is psychological? Stress, perhaps unsurprisingly, can make a person experience pain more intensely. I can absolutely anecdotally attest to this! The first time around, stress was really jacking up my pain levels. Second time around? Look, it wasn't pleasant, but it was more manageable because I'd been through it before and I knew (or at least my body knew) what to expect.
You Vocalize Pain
Apparently, people who actually vocally express pain manage it better than people who keep it in, according research published in the Journal of Pain. In the study, people who vocalized an "Ow!" while conducting a cold pressor test demonstrated higher pain tolerance than those who stayed silent.
You're Used To Pain
If you're someone who, unfortunately, is used to dealing with pain on a regular basis due, for instance, to chronic illness, then your body becomes accustomed to it. While this isn't anything anyone should be wishing for by any stretch of the imagination, because they are used to dealing with ongoing, unabated pain, a finite moment of pain, such as labor, is more tolerable.
You Have Coping Strategies
It's not always a question of mind over matter, but to deny that the mind can play an important role in pain tolerance and management would be dismissive, to say the least. These can be both coping mechanisms learned throughout your life —how you deal with pain in general is a pretty good indicator about how you'll deal with pain in childbirth — and also specifically learned for the purpose of childbirth. Neither is foolproof, and neither means you will forgo the desire to go for medical pain relief, but they can (and for many people, do) certainly help.