Most women experience some anxiety and fear about labor and childbirth. It is a significant event and the pain that women experience during childbirth is no secret. When the fear becomes so severe that it is considered a mental health phobia, it is called tocophobia. Tocophobia is referencing anxiety that is so severe it is considered pathological, meaning it impacts the daily functioning of the person experiencing it.
Tocophobia was originally defined by Anna Roland-Price and Zara Chamberlain in 2000. These midwives provided the following definition, “an intense anxiety or fear of pregnancy and childbirth, with some women avoiding pregnancy and childbirth altogether.” Tocophobia has been defined in two categories, primary and secondary. Women who have not experienced childbirth, yet still have this extreme fear, are considered to have primary tocophobia. According to psychologists, this fear can often come from past traumatic experiences, often related to sexual abuse. It can also develop if a woman has witnessed a traumatic birth resulting in death or other disturbing outcomes. This fear can develop from women watching traumatic scenes about childbirth, as it can create vivid images that they replay. Secondary tokophobia references women who have had a traumatic birth experience themselves, which may have involved severe pain or negative outcome on the child.
It seems occurrences of tocophobia are on the rise. There are a number of hypotheses suggesting why this could be. One being the access of the internet and how with one Google search, thousands of horror stories of childbirth are at one’s fingertips. These stories can often provide gruesome or graphic detail, which will cleary exacerbate anyone’s fear and anxiety.
The statistics on the frequency of tocophobia are inconsistent. Research estimates that between 3-22% of women suffer from tocophobia. Part of the challenge is the range of symptoms and the broad continuum of severity of symptoms women experience. Also, the definition of tocophobia varies, as there is not a universal, standard criteria.
It is difficult to determine risk factors or who is more likely to experience tocophobia. It is noted that women who experience it are more likely to demonstrate general symptoms of anxiety and depression overall.
There is not rigorous research supporting a particular treatment methodology or application. However, there is hopeful anecdotal information in psychological literature. There are various paradigms and approaches to address this challenge. Some therapeutic interventions may involve talk therapy to help process previous traumatic experiences with childbirth or otherwise. Group therapy can be beneficial for women to hear success stories and outcomes from people who have faced similar challenges. Such a setting also provides nurturing and support from women who may not feel understood. Symptoms of anxiety and depression can also be depressed through more general cognitive interventions, non-specific to childbirth.
Researchers suggest that education, awareness, and discussion in a safe, nurturing environment can help women with tocophobia. There is hope that women who experience tocophobia can be helped, supported, and understood as they navigate through the fearful experience of childbirth. If you or someone you know is experiencing such anxiety and fear, please reach out to a mental health professional for intervention.
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.