Last week I attended the birth of a very special little girl as her mother’s doula. As soon as I entered the home I was welcomed by the familiar and gentle ambience of early labour. I have experienced this very special atmosphere at many births, and while many things contribute to it, hormonally the main player is the hormone oxytocin. As our bodies can release oxytocin in response to touch, it can be thought of as massage therapy’s invisible tool.
You may know of it as our love hormone, involved in love making and hugs. It is also responsible for helping create uterine contractions (or ‘surges’ in the natural birth world). Oxytocin is a very shy hormone; it doesn’t like loud noises, bright lights, changes of environment or too many people. It needs privacy, safety and most importantly, quiet. This was very obvious in last week’s birth. In the peace left by the exit of the extended family labour came full swing. Her husband and I took turns giving her massage and whispering gentle words of support. The baby was born into her father’s arms in hospital (just!) shortly after.
Only the next day I found myself attending the other end of life. I also work as a massage therapist one day a week in a hospice.. It is humbling, inspiring, sad, thought provoking, life enhancing and of course has brought on some existential issues. This work has made me more aware than ever of the parallels between the beginning and end of life: Oxytocin is also released as our end nears. A dying person has the same needs for privacy, reassurance, and familiarity. Touch is just as important as in birth. It can create the feelings of safety and protection so important in these last days.
The pain relief techniques I was showing to the father-to-be also find their place in the hospice. Encouraging loved ones to take part by massaging feet swollen by days of bed rest or holding calming acupressure points, family members can help, using simple tools to provide relief. Where they might feel helpless they become empowered.
Whether at the beginning or end of our lives or anywhere in between our needs are the same: shifting focus from our heads to our bodies and making friends with them, particularly if we have suffered invasive intervention. I truly believe that massage and touch are invaluable in smoothing away anxieties, relieving our bodies and giving us the reassurance that we are supported and safe wherever we are on our journey.