Let’s be honest – the concept of childbirth is a little bit scary. Yes, all women know it’s a natural thing that their bodies were meant to do – but at the same time, it still involves pushing a literal baby out of a part of your body that doesn’t seem to be able to fit something that large. You get a wonderful infant out of the experience, but going into it, it can be a little bit nerve-wracking.
While most women experience a little bit of jitters prior to having a baby, women with tokophobia have an entirely different level of fear. The phobia gets its name from the Greek word tokos, which means childbirth – and it’s exactly what it sounds like. If you have arachnaphobia, the sight of a spider skittering across your floor might lead to panic, tears, screaming, and more – tokophobia is the same type of thing. Tokophobes exhibit symptoms including crying, shaking, panic and anxiety attacks, hyperventilating, and even vomiting or nausea at the mere idea of childbirth or the idea of something growing inside them.
Since many, many women experience some degree of trepidation surrounding the whole childbirth thing, it can be easy to assume that tokophobes are just being a bit overdramatic – but it’s a real phobia, and needs to be treated in order for the women to be able to have children, if that’s what they want.
Here are 15 facts about tokophobia that you might not have known.
15 It was first documented in 2000
Many phobias and illnesses have been around for years and years, and if you trace the documentation, you can see the first diagnosed cases hundreds of years ago. That’s not the case with tokophobia. While it may have been around for quite awhile, the first time it was documented was in 2000 – less than 20 years ago! In the medical world, that’s quite new. It was documented by the British Journal of Psychiatry, and it seems that the exposure has been a really useful thing, as more tokophobes are beginning to come forth and confess their fears now that they know it’s a real illness that their doctor should consider. We’re not sure exactly why it took so long to decide to document it, and why the British Journal of Psychiatry opted to do so in 2000, but either way – plenty of tokophobes are probably thankful they chose to do so.
14 Helen Mirren is a tokophobe
Celebrities are just regular people, so amongst all your favourite celebrities, you’re sure to find several suffering from various ailments and diseases and phobias – and tokophobia is no different. Everyone knows of legendary actress Helen Mirren, and while she has remained fabulous and youthful over the years, marrying a talented man and living a great life, she has never had children – and there’s a reason for that. While Mirren has previously stated that she doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct, the real reason for her lack of children is her tokophobia. Hers stems from an incident in her early teens, when her class was required to watch a film about childbirth. Apparently, the film was so traumatic and disgusting to Mirren that it led her to never want to have anything to do with childbirth. As you’ll soon read, the whole incident in your younger years triggering tokophobia happens more often than you’d think.
13 It can be secondary or primary
Okay, let us explain – tokophobia is a bit of a unique phobia in that the medical community recognizes two versions. The first, primary tokophobia, happens in women who have not had children before, and really have no experience with childbirth – it usually occurs from some type of incident, like Helen Mirren’s watching the video in school, a history of abuse, rape, etc. It is often developed earlier in life, far before most women think of having children, and persists throughout a woman’s life unless treated. Secondary tokophobia, on the other hand, occurs in people who have had a pregnancy and had it go wrong, in some way. This could involve something like a miscarriage or incident before the baby was delivered, or some type of trauma during delivery that scares the woman off of ever having another child. Both involve the same feelings – it’s just a matter of what triggers the phobia.
12 6 to 7% of women worldwide suffer
Given how many children there are in the world, you might assume that tokophobia affects a very, very small population of women in the world, right? Well, not quite. While statistics vary a bit, it’s generally believed that approximately 6 to 7% of women suffer from tokophobia. For some, it’s a fear that exists from an early age and leads them to never even get close to becoming pregnant. For others, because they may not know much about tokophobia, it’s something that they don’t discuss with their partner or doctor until far later in the pregnancy because they assume it’s just normal pregnancy-related jitters. And, thankfully, the option for caesarian deliveries can often help tokophobes who opt to carry a baby to full term and deliver it. Regardless – though a single digit percentage might seem small, when you really think about it, that number represents thousands and thousands of women.
11 There’s a third form (although it’s not recognized medically)
Okay, we’ve talked about primary and secondary tokophobia, the two medically recognized types that are distinguished by the triggering events, but did you know there’s actually a third form called social tokophobia? Now, this third type isn’t medically recognized – it’s a concept conceived by a doula and lactation consultant by the name of Brian Salmon, and it involves all that pregnancy gossip that women frequently engage in. You see, pregnancy is a thing that many women experience and have an opinion on, and while all mothers adore their baby once he or she is born, they’re less likely to share the heart-warming moment of when they first held their child in their arms. Instead, they dish about how they were in labour for hours and hours and hours and thought they would never make it. They talk about the embarrassing moment that happened in the hospital, or the gnarly complications they had to deal with after the baby. So, women who are childless listening to that sort of talk get absolutely terrified – hence, social tokophobia.
10 It goes by many other names
Since tokophobia is a bit more of a complex phobia than other fears relating to a specific type of creature or situation, it goes by more than one name. There is obviously the most common one, tokophobia, from the Greek tokos. It can also be referred to as maleusiophobia, which is thought to stem from the Greek maieusis, which means “delivery of a woman in childbirth” and is often related to midwifery. And finally, there is parturiphobia, coming from the Latin parturire, which translates to “to be pregnant.” It’s understandable that tokophobia became the one that was most commonly known – not only is it far easier to say and spell than the other variants, it’s also a bit more general and better applicable to the various fears that women experience under the category of childbirth. However, it’s still interesting to note how many alternate names it has – not many other phobias go by several names.
9 Many tokophobes beg for an elective caesarian
For some women with extremely severe tokophobia, the mere idea of childbirth, or even just seeing a pregnant woman, can cause extreme distress and discomfort. They just can’t picture themselves giving birth in any way, shape or form. However, for others, it’s really just the actual moment of childbirth that fills them with terror – the act of having to push the baby out. So, there are many women with tokophobia who ask for an elective caesarian section. Now, there’s been a lot of debate in recent years about natural childbirth versus caesarean sections, and many doctors prefer natural childbirth provided there are no complications requiring an emergency caesarian section. However, elective caesarian sections are slowly rising in popularity, and it’s likely because of women fearing the whole pushing part – while caesarians are a lot more invasive and require actual surgery, they eliminate some of the fears related to the pushing part of the experience.
8 It’s a serious mental block
There are many issues surrounding women’s reproductive organs and reproductive health that might hinder a pregnancy or make it difficult for a woman to conceive – and that’s an entirely different story. When it comes to tokophobia, as the name clearly indicates, it’s a phobia – it’s a mental block that sufferers have which has absolutely nothing to do with their physical body. Tokophobes are often physically capable of having children – it’s the mental aspect that causes the complications. If a woman has decided that she simply doesn’t want to have children, ever, then it doesn’t really become much of an issue – it’s not a situation she’ll be faced with herself, so she doesn’t need to worry about overcoming the fear. For tokophobes who do want to someday become mothers, though, and just can’t bring themselves to face their fears, it’s a huge mental block that needs to be overcome through some type of treatment.
7 It doesn’t mean you can never have children
As we just explained, while tokophobia can have many physical symptoms such as nausea, sweating, hyperventilating, etc., most tokophobes don’t actually have physical difficulties with conceiving or delivering a child – it’s all a mental block. So, tokophobes who desire children can opt for alternatives such as adoption that don’t require them to actually bear children, or, if carrying their own child is something that’s very important to them, they can work on overcoming the fear through some type of treatment. Tokophobia certainly doesn’t block the possibility of having a child – it’s just a little roadblock to overcome on the way. Most people who are trying to have children experience some type of stress, whether physical or financial, so tokophobes really aren’t that different from the rest of us – their stress is just manifested in a particular area of the birthing process and a bit more severe than the average parent-to-bes.
6 It’s associated with many other disorders
The mind is a tricky thing, and things are often more interconnected than you might initially realize. Take tokophobia, for example. For individuals suffering from this particular phobia, there are often other disorders that might accompany it. For example, primary tokophobics in particular might also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the event that occurred to trigger their tokophobia. Others might suffer from anxiety or depression, something that only exacerbates their fears and issues around childbirth. And finally, perhaps the most tragic for a new mother, bonding disorders. You see, many think that once a tokophobic manages to get through the terror that they feel surrounding childbirth and actually have their new bundle of joy in their arms, they’ll be totally fine – but that’s not always the case. Because of all that fear and anxiety coursing through their body, and all the negativity they associate with childbirth, some tokophobics can have troubles bonding with their new baby as well.
5 The most common treatments are counselling and anti-depressants
Since tokophobia is a mental condition rather than a physical one, the treatments are a little bit trickier – it isn’t like a broken arm where you can repair the damage and have everything fall back into place. For tokophobics one of the most common methods of treatment is counselling, where a skilled professional can take you through your fears and try to identify some of the causes and see if you can work through them. Another common treatment is anti-depressants, although some would prefer to try counseling before introducing medication into the mix. Either way, it can be extremely comforting for many tokophobics to know that there are a few treatment options, and they don’t have to live with being utterly terrified of childbirth their entire lives. And, as we learn more and more about reproductive health and the possibilities in that sphere, who knows – perhaps one day there will be even easier solutions for those who are frightened of the actual pushing part of childbirth.
4 Sometimes, even seeing pregnancy depicted (ex. in movies, etc.) causes distress
The majority of tokophobes’ fear is limited to personal pregnancy issues – things like carrying a baby themselves, giving birth themselves, etc. It’s often not even the pregnancy that causes them fear but just the actual delivery portion of things. However, there are some tokophobes whose fear surrounding anything involving birth and pregnancy is so great that even seeing pregnancy or childbirth can make them uneasy. For example, seeing a pregnancy woman on the street, or seeing a birth scene in a movie like Knocked Up. It might not seem like such a big deal, but just stop to think about it – if you’re out in the world, you’re bound to run into either media materials depicting pregnancy or actual individuals who are pregnant, and since tokophobia isn’t as well known as arachnophobia or something like that, individuals likely feel uncomfortable sharing that they’re terrified of the pregnant belly they’re seeing.
3 Secondary tokophobia is more common than primary
According to a consultant midwife by the name of Kathryn Gutteridge, of the type medically recognized types of tokophobia, secondary is far more common. In fact, about 75% of tokophobia sufferers suffer from secondary tokophobia, while only 25% suffer from primary tokophobia. It’s somewhat understandable, if you think about it. Many individuals who experience some type of trauma in their younger years manage to grow up without becoming tokophobics as a result, so only a select few of that bunch will end up suffering from the fear. On the other hand, if you yourself experience some type of traumatic situation while pregnant or delivering your child? It’s very easy to believe that would lead you to fear the process – after all, it’s no longer a fear of the unknown, it’s a fear of something terrible that you know might very well happen again. As Gutteridge says, “these are the women who expected everything to be OK but in some way, their body didn’t behave as they felt it should in birth and they believe it let them down, or they were mistreated in some way.”
2 Suffers have different levels of severity
All phobias, to a certain degree, have levels of severity. For example, some individuals with a fear of heights might not want to climb to the top of the world’s tallest buildings. Other individuals who fear heights might have a phobia so severe that they can’t even handle standing on bridges or other structures that the majority of people wouldn’t deem very high at all. That’s another reason tokophobia can be tough to diagnose – while very, very severe sufferers might be clearly tokophobic, individuals who have slightly less severe tokophobia may easily be confused with women who are just naturally a bit nervous about childbirth. Hopefully, as more and more becomes known about the phobia, people will be better able to identify normal fear from tokophobia, whatever the severity – particularly since some women don’t always feel comfortable speaking up and pushing their doctor, particularly when all those crazy pregnancy hormones are swirling around.
1 Severe tokophobics might avoid intimacy completely
This is an example that would apply only to severe tokophobics, but it occurs nonetheless. For many tokophobics, they’re terrified of pregnancy and will likely go to certain lengths to ensure that doesn’t occur – for example, making sure to always, always use protection when getting intimate with their partner. However, some tokophobics might be so terrified of potentially getting pregnant that they completely refuse to engage in any behaviours that might result in pregnancy – including intercourse with protection. Sure, they know that there’s only a very, very small percentage that a pregnancy could occur in that type of a situation – but it’s a percentage nonetheless, and that’s just not a risk they’re willing to take. They would rather avoid it completely than risk having to confront their phobia. Other severe cases include women who have terminated pregnancies because they absolutely cannot bear the thought of carrying a child and eventually giving birth – it just terrifies them too much.