tokophobia

What is tokophobia?

Tokophobia is a pathological fear of pregnancy and birth. The word comes from Greek ‘tokos’ meaning childbirth and ‘phobos’ which means fear. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder that typically involve an intensely irrational fear of an object or situation that poses little or no danger. We often associate phobias with things like spiders or closed in spaces so it can come as quite a surprise to many that there is one for birth and pregnancy.

Tokophobia is linked to the avoidance of pregnancy, pregnancy termination or requests for c-section for non-medical reasons. But it doesn’t stop there. Depending on how severe it is, it can spillover into day-to-day life;

Relationship problems. The pressure for a woman to have children from her partner, friends and family can take its toll on her relationships.

Intimacy. Some women find it difficult to have sex because of the risk of becoming pregnant. This is despite using birth control, which for them, doesn’t offer a sufficient level pf guarantee in terms of protection.

Easily triggered. For some, the sight of a pregnant woman (especially her bump), or scenes of labour or childbirth can bring on panic attacks or strong feelings of revulsion or nausea. This makes it hard to be out and about or to watch TV or films. They never know when they might be triggered.

The different types of tokophobia

A distinction is made between the two types of tokophobia, primary or secondary tokophobia;

Primary tokophobia

Primary tokophobia occurs in a first time mother who has no experience of being pregnant or has not given birth before. This fear may begin well before she has reached childbearing age, perhaps when she is a child or teenager.

Secondary tokophobia

Secondary tokophobia usually occurs in women who have had previous traumatic pregnancy or birth experiences. This trauma may relate to negative experience with hospital staff, feeling they or their baby was going to die, stillbirth, late-term miscarriage, pregnancy termination, or hyperemesis gravidarum (a debilitating form of morning sickness).

Another way to think about the difference between primary and secondary tokophobia is this; one is a fear arising from a direct experience of birth. Whereas the other comes from indirect birth-related experiences; seeing them in films, hearing about them, medical or sexual experiences.

How common is it?

It’s more common than you think.

Some recent research estimated that around 14% of women suffer from tokophobia. The truth is that this could be much higher. The difficulty comes from the lack of a clear definition of tokophobia because it makes it hard to measure. It is also stated that around 35% of women experience a high fear of childbirth. As opposed to the ‘severe’ fear that is considered to be tokophobia.

What makes this a difficult condition to measure is that many women simply don’t realise they have it. It can take them years to find out that what they’re experiencing has a name. This was my experience and I’ve heard many of my clients say the same.

The causes of tokophobia

It’s difficult to say what causes tokophobia, but most phobias tend to have a trauma at their root. This does’t necessarily make it easier for us to identify a cause for tokophobia, because a traumatic incident isn’t always the big dramatic incident we assume it to be. It could also be that the person experienced the trauma as a very young child or baby and so they don’t have a conscious recollection of the trauma.

We know a bit more about what causes a fear of birth and pregnancy though, the difficulty comes from understanding what makes a fear become a phobia for someone.

Symptoms of tokophobia

The physical and psychological symptoms of tokophobia vary but can include:

  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Hyperventilating
  • Sweating and shaking
  • Panic and anxiety attacks
  • Crying (triggered by sight or even words)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Thoughts of death or dying

These are quite general symptoms and can affect many people who don’t have tokophobia. I’ve written about the 7 signs of a woman with tokophobia which might be helpful to read if you think you have it.

Seeking help for tokophobia

Women who suffer with tokophobia don’t find it easy to obtain the support they need with many feeling that people simply don’t understand what they’re going through. This leads to women feeling isolated or alone in experiencing this fear.

Unfortunately due to the lack of awareness of this condition, many doctors and GPs aren’t able to sign-post women onto sources of support. They simply don’t realise that a phobia of childbirth exists and that help is available for it. Many women report that doctors don’t take their fears seriously. This makes it hard for women to find support for how they’re feeling.

Some women approach therapists or psychologists for help and a similar story is common. Again, due to the lack of awareness of the condition, many women find that their fears aren’t being understood or taken seriously. From my work in helping women who suffer from tokophobia, they’ve told me that being able to work with someone who understands how they’re feeling is monumental for them.

Treatment for tokophobia

Treatment for tokophobia will very much depend on where you are in the world. Here in the UK, some NHS trusts have very good perinatal care departments which can support sufferers in overcoming it. But these are not consistent across the UK and they’re not always accessible to those who aren’t yet pregnant. A good resource on the UK options around tokophobia can be found in the Tokophobia best practice toolkit.

It is also possible to seek out private support for tokophobia. This is usually via psychologists and therapists. I believe it’s important to find a professional who is familiar with the condition and who understands it. Beyond that, I believe it’s important that they are using techniques and methods that have a good success rate with tokophobia.

Here are some techniques and therapies that are worth considering in overcoming tokophobia

Different approaches will work on different people, so if one thing doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean it cannot be achieved with something else.

Overcoming Tokophobia

Overcoming it is possible and women don’t need to live with this for ever. Here are two women sharing what they did to overcome it.

This lady used cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help her;

“I switched to a psychologist specialised in cognitive-behavioural therapy. I knew it was proven to be the most effective approach.

It was the best decision I’ve ever taken, got totally into it, worked extremely hard, followed the instructions to the letter and got fantastic results.

As I didn’t want to have children, the goal about tokophobia was to be able to read about it or hear women talking about their childbirth without having a massive panic attack and faint. I’ve reached this goal.”

This lady used EMDR;

“I was referred by my GP for counselling and they focused on EMDR therapy. This really did help but they also did some work on bereavement issues that I had. They said this was the root cause of my phobia.

Once I’d had my quota on the NHS I sought out private counselling. So far I have had hypnotherapy and NLP, which has really helped me but still got some issues to work through.”

Personally, I was able to overcome it using a combination of Head Trash Clearance Method and Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT). I help my clients to overcome tokophobia using a combination of the Head Trash Clearance Method, Psy-Tap, Havening and TAT.

Find out more about tokophobia

Here are some other blog posts and podcast episodes that you might find interesting;

Podcast episode on tokophobia

Overcoming tokophobia – listen to one woman describe her experience of overcoming it

A positive tokophobia birth story – listen to one woman’s positive birth story

Childfree – a positive choice or fear-based choice

What next?

If you would like us to work together on your tokophobia, then take a look at my Tokophobia Support Program. In this online program I teach you to clear your fears and work alongside you to support you in the way that you need. There are three options depending on how much support you would like: group support, one-to-one support and therapeutic support. You can find out more here.

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Alexia Leachman

Alexia is the host of the Fear Free Childbirth podcast and the author of Fearless Birthing, Childbirth, Midwifery & the Media, and Clear Your Head Trash.

Alexia supports families planning pregnancy and birth. She helps them to overcome their fears and feel calm and confident about birth and pregnancy.

Alexia also trains birth professionals in the Fearless Birthing, a unique approach to birth preparation that is ideal for those who have fears around birth.
Alexia Leachman
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