Today I want to talk about tokophobia for a few reasons…
- It’s the name given to a fear of pregnancy and childbirth… so pretty relevant for my podcast!
- People don’t even know it’s THING.. so I’m here to say it IS a Thing and it’s a pretty BIG thing.
- I want to share more information about it so that if you’re a sufferer of it, you can better understand it, or at least realise that you’re not alone
- If you come across it in your work, say as midwife or a some other kind of birth professional or person who might meet women who suffer with it, then you’re a bit better informed so that you can help them and point them in the right direction
- If your lucky to not be afflicted with it, then to help you realise that you are probably surrounded by women who are and to better understand how they might be feeling about your own pregnancy journey
What is tokophobia?
Tokophobia is a pathological fear of pregnancy and birth that affects around 10% of women worldwide. The word comes from Greek tokos meaning childbirth and phobos which means fear. Now, 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. And we often associate phobias with things like spiders or closed in spaces.
Tokophobia is classed as either primary tokophobia or secondary tokophobia; primary tokophobia is a dread of childbirth that pre-dates pregnancy, whereas secondary tokophobia occurs after a traumatic or distressing delivery. 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.
Apparently, Helen Mirren revealed she has tokophobia in an interview in 2007, saying a birth video she saw as a 13 year old disgusted her so much that she never wanted to have children or anything to do with birth. I can totally relate to this. I saw a birth video at school that traumatised me for years.
How does tokophobia show up?
Well, the physical and psychological symptoms of tokophobia vary but they can include:
- Recurrent nightmares
- Sweating and shaking
- Panic and anxiety attacks
- Crying (triggered by sight or even words)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Thoughts of death or dying
It’s often labelled as an irrational phobia, but in my opinion this is not entirely fair on those who suffer from it. For a start, this isn’t a normal phobia in that sense because for one thing, childbirth can actually be fatal. Unlike being stuck in a closed space, for example. So irrational is probably not the best word to use. Furthermore, its very possible that if you ask a woman who suffers from tokophobia, she might tell you that it’s a rational fear that’s completely understandable.
I don’t need help. It’s a perfectly rational fear.
Of course not all, but many will.
I used to be tokophobic so I have some insight into this, but when I decided that I wanted to do a podcast on this I decided to ask other women about it too, because we’re all different and my experience is unique to me.
My tokophobic experience
For years I was in denial about wanting kids. On some level, I knew I wanted them, but it never went any further than that. Despite being in a serious relationship, I never initiated The Kids conversation and it never came up. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even said that I had anything wrong with me because I wasn’t being faced with the pressure of pregnancy. But, I couldn’t handle kids, especially babies. If anyone brought new babies into work for the usual “here’s my new baby” drop-in session, I would run a mile. Someone tried to hand their baby over to me once and I freaked. I had to escape to the toilet and cry. I had no idea why though. I was in a group of friends that weren’t into babies and I had no family pressure to have babies so I was able to avoid the whole baby thing quite easily to the point that as far as I was concerned I didn’t have a problem. If you’d asked me back then if I had tokophobia I would have said no.
That changed, the minute I discovered that I was pregnant.
Then I FREAKED!! The first month of my first unplanned pregnancy was pretty dark. Adjusting to my newfound pregnant status was hard for me and my emotions were all over the place; all shades of negative. When I miscarried at 8 weeks I was relieved. I was gutted and numb with loss, but I was relieved too. That bit scared me and made me realise that something wasn’t right. It was then that I really started tackling my own head trash. If you’re a regular listener of my podcast, you’ll know that I also have another podcast called The Head Trash Show which helps you to clear your head trash using a powerful new therapeutic technique that I’ve simplified so that anyone can use it without being trained in it. I had just trained in that therapy for my work, but I knew that the first thing I had to do was to start with the inside of my head. I made great progress on my general level of anxiety, but when the time for be to become pregnant again a year later, I still had a huge level of fear around being pregnant. The whole idea of it still completely freaked me out. I couldn’t read about birth without crying… for no reason… In my pregnancy books, I couldn’t even open the pages where it showed pictures of the birth canal. I did it once and felt a panic attack rising so I shut the book… the thought of this thing growing inside me troubled me… I kept thinking of it like a parasite feeding of its host – it was all a bit X-Files or Alien!
I imagine that those who have been listening to this podcast for a while might be surprised at hearing me say that because that’s NOTHING like I am today. I know! But that’s how I felt for the first half of my pregnancy. It started subsiding in correlation to the head trash clearance work I was doing; the more time I spent clearing my fears, the better I felt. By the time I reached my 7th month I was a transformed person. By month 8 I ditched my plan for a hospital birth with a c-section as a back-up and decided for a home birth and by the time my birth came round, I was fearless and excited about the prospect of birth.
My story ends well because I was fortunate to have been introduced to a technique that is, as far as I’m concerned, is the dog’s doobies. But that is not everyone’s story. As I mentioned earlier, I decided to carry out some research to better understand how tokophobia affects women as part of my preparation for this podcast and here are some of the things that those women shared with me.
I have a very intense fear of dying during childbirth.
I don’t want any part of my body ripped, cut or stretched, especially not the most precious and private part of it.
I fear that pregnancy is going to be 9 months of illment and the destruction of my body and skin, with a living thing being inside me and stealing all my energy. I fear that giving birth is going to be pain beyond what I’ve ever felt and that I will not be able to take it and break down and that it will mentally scar me for life. And that the baby will destroy my genitals on the way out and split me from v to a, so that for weeks afterwards I will be in pain and my undercarriage will be ruined forever. ….. It also makes me very frustrated and sad that society and most people in my life are just expecting me to accept pregnancy and birth as a natural part of my life, when it’s literally the worst thing I can imagine ever happening to me. It’s not “beautiful” or “amazing” in any way to me, it’s just unfair and cruel.
I always found the thought of being pregnant and giving birth disgusting. …I think having a foetus grow inside you is like having a parasite feeding off you. I’m afraid of birth. I’m afraid of the pain, the damage to my body, the changes to my body and my life after – I really don’t believe it’s worth it.
You see? This isn’t “nothing” or something that will disappear over time.
The role of healthcare professionals
Now, there are some troubling aspects to this fear, because some of them are driven by how women perceive they will be treated by doctors and medical staff. For example,
I can’t imagine being so helpless and having strangers looking at my genitals and touching me like a steak, like I’m not there. It’s like you’re not a person anymore. I’m also scared that if I lost consciousness during pregnancy and something was wrong with me then there’s a possibility that some doctor would decide to “sacrifice” me to save the foetus.
Our ‘modern’ birth process, where you are treated as a piece of meat, where hospital workers can do to you whatever they want. Women being forced to give birth laying on their backs. For me this is torturing and the only worst position could be handstand! ….. I also have difficulties dealing with the fact that most intimate part of the body is so highly exposed to unknown people in the delivery room, especially men.
This aspect of this fear is quite depressing for me, because this is something that can be helped. How women are treated within medical environments is perpetuating this fear and if health care professionals acted more mindfully and realised how their behaviour affects women in their care, then we could go a long way in reducing these kinds of fears in women.
It’s all consuming
It would be all too easy to imagine that a fear of pregnancy and birth is no big deal, and in fact, many people think that way, imagining that it’s just a phase, or saying things like “don’t worry, you’ll get over it once your maternal instincts kick in”. Nothing could be further from the truth. For those women who have to live with this, it’s a major freakin’ deal. They are faced with all-sorts in day-to-day life that can trigger them: pregnant women (real and in pictures), medical environments and hospital scenes in TV shows are just a few.
Here’s how one lady puts it…
This phobia has ruined my life. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and PTSD and everyday is a struggle. I have constant nightmares and flashes. Even seeing pregnant women makes me disgusted and sick. It is almost inescapable in everyday life to avoid “triggers” that send me into a suicidal tailspin. TV shows and movies are no consolation either. I feel almost everyone seems to be getting pregnant and childbirth scenes are all over the place. This is an extremely isolating phobia too. I believe it is the most taboo subject today. Makes sufferers like me feel very lonely, depressed and worthless.
Some women decide to be childless because of this fear, with one lady sharing with me that she’s had repeated abortions to avoid having to go through with birth. And yet there are others who are desperate to be mums and want nothing more than to have kids, but the thought of having to endure 9 months of pregnancy hell and then go through with the birth is just too much to cope with and so they keep it at arms length, never daring to let it get too close a reality. But this can have a really huge impact on relationships, especially if their partner doesn’t understand what they’re going through and/or really wants kids.
My husband of 4 years recently made me move out because he thinks I don’t want kids at all. He doesn’t understand my complicated feelings and fear of pregnancy.
So you see, this fear is not to be laughed at or dismissed. It’s a major thing that’s affecting a lot of women today and yet they’re facing a huge lack of support and understanding. When I was on BBC Radio with the producers of One Born Every Minute, one caller suggested that if women are fearful of birth then they are clearly not mother material (you can listen to that here). For me, this is a shocking statement that typifies how many people see this fear. And yet, do we think that people who are fearful of flying aren’t fit to go on holiday? Of course, we don’t. Being petrified of the journey doesn’t mean you can’t deal with being at the destination.
If you’re a sufferer of tokophobia what can you do?
First of all, find some support and people who understand. There’s a great Facebook group Tokophobia Support Network that is worth joining. It’s a safe place for you to express your fears and thoughts among people who get you.
Next, it depends on whether you want to get rid of your fear. Some women are OK with having this fear and don’t see any reason why they should get rid of it. If that’s you, then I would urge you to simply make peace with your fear, so that it’s no longer a THING or a big deal so that you can be OK with seeing pregnant women and hearing or seeing birth on TV or in the movies.
If you want to overcome it, seek professional help
If you decide that you do want to tackle it then I would urge you to seek professional support. The kind of professional will depend on whether your fear is isolated or part of broader set of anxiety challenges that you might be facing. The kind of therapists that I would recommend include those who are expert practitioners at Reflective Repatterning (RR), Havening, PsyTap, Thought Field Therapy (TFT), Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Clinical Hypnotherapy and EMDR. Many of these modern therapies are incredibly effective and fast-acting. Personally, I used a combination of the Head Trash Clearance Method (which is derived from Reflective Repatterning) and the Tapas Acupressure Technique to help me overcome my tokophobia, but now with my clients, I use a combination of many of the techniques I’ve just mentioned. Different people respond to different approaches, which is why I don’t want to recommend one particular technique or approach.
Are you a birthing professional?
If you’re a professional who comes across women who are tokophobic as part of your work, perhaps a midwife, a childbirth educator or a therapist, then I have created a free download, Understanding Tokophobia, which I pulled together to help healthcare professionals better understand the condition. I created it based on a survey I carried out earlier this year in which I asked women who suffer from tokophobia some questions to help me better understand what their experience is. I’ve then reviewed and compiled their responses into a document that sheds light onto how they’re feeling and what they’re struggling with.
If you would like a copy of my PDF What is Tokophobia, then you can get that here.
If you’re professional who supports women with tokophobia, please let me know so that I can add you to a list of people they can turn to for support.
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.