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While giving birth to a baby is one of the most natural events to happen to a person, it can also become very complicated, very quickly, even in our modern times. When discussing childbirth, it’s important to address topics such as birth options, birth rights, and birth choices, but it’s also crucial to talk about what happens if a woman is utterly terrified of giving birth.

This fear is known under the medical term “tokophobia” and is more widespread than you think. To learn more about it, keep reading our guide.

The fear of childbirth: Tokophobia

It is estimated that between 20% and 78% of pregnant women have mild fears associated with giving birth to a baby, and this is considered rather common. However, around 13% of women report a severe phobia of childbirth. This is called tokophobia, and it can be very debilitating.

Tokophobia may present itself in different circumstances and moments of a woman’s life:

  • Before pregnancy: The fear of childbirth may be so extreme that it prevents a woman from wanting or trying to get pregnant in the first place.
  • During pregnancy: The fear of childbirth can occur at any point during pregnancy, particularly if the affected sufferer has not been pregnant before.
  • After pregnancy loss or a traumatic birth: Also known as “secondary tokophobia”, this happens when a woman develops a severe fear of childbirth following a traumatic episode such as a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or a traumatic living birth.

Signs and symptoms of tokophobia

When looking out for symptoms of tokophobia, the most apparent include:

  • Extreme worry and anxiety thinking about or talking about childbirth
  • Excessive feelings of fear at the idea of giving birth
  • Panic and anxiety attacks
  • Flashbacks to previous and traumatic experiences, such as a pregnancy loss or traumatic birth

What causes tokophobia?

Just like most mental health conditions, several factors can trigger the intense feelings of terror, anxiety, and helplessness generated by tokophobia. Some of these include:

  • An already-existing fear of physical pain
  • A pre-existing diagnosis of another mental health illness, such as anxiety, PTSD, depression, or psychosis
  • A previous pregnancy loss
  • A previous traumatic childbirth
  • A previous traumatic or physically painful medical procedure
  • A previous traumatic event, such as child abuse, rape, and sexual assault
  • A lack of adequate resources, information, and support network

Who is more vulnerable to tokophobia?

Women who are pregnant for the first time may be more prone to developing tokophobia. This happens because the person might already have some biases associated with the potential pain and distress of childbirth, and may have formed negative thoughts and beliefs about it.

As we mentioned earlier, secondary tokophobia is also possible. This occurs in women who have already been pregnant and, sometimes, have already given birth, but the pregnancy and/or the birth have not been successful or positive experiences. This is the case for women losing babies at different stages of gestation, as well as women giving birth to stillborn babies and women giving birth to living babies following traumatic labour and birth.

Differences between tokophobia and pregnancy anxiety

Modest amounts of stress and anxiety are often common, and are to be expected from women who are pregnant for the first time. However, when this anxiety becomes debilitating and becomes perinatal anxiety, then action needs to be taken as soon as possible.

While perinatal anxiety is another serious mood disorder that affects many pregnant women, it’s not the same as suffering from tokophobia. Perinatal anxiety does not normally focus exclusively on fear or anxiety around childbirth. It’s much more pervasive and generalised.

Tokophobia, on the other hand, puts the emphasis on childbirth only.

Help and treatment

If you suffer from tokophobia, be reassured that there is help available out there. Support can come in the form of love and care from your family, friends, and co-workers, as well as yourself. Remember, in fact, that practicing regular self-care activities during pregnancy is a wonderful way to nurture both yourself and your growing baby.

If you feel like you need more specialised help, then you can seek the support of a professional. Talk to your midwife or GP, and find out if they can refer you to a CBT consultant to talk about your fears and worries. Practicing relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and hypnobirthing can all help, too – especially if you create the right environment for it.

Can anxiety and tokophobia affect your child?

You might know already that constant, high levels of stress and anxiety are not beneficial to you or your baby, during pregnancy. This is because such feelings trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which causes your body to switch to the so-called “fight or flight mode”. Once you are in this condition, your muscles will tense up, your levels of oxytocin will plummet, and you will be more likely to have a more difficult birth.

With the right type of support, you can overcome your tokophobia and ensure that you have a happy and healthy pregnancy, birth, and baby.