Fear can profoundly affect childbirth. Fear causes the body to release the fight-or-flight hormones, catecholamines. These hormones are in direct conflict with those that cause labor to progress smoothly, including endorphins, the body’s natural pain-reducing hormones, and oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract in a smooth, powerful, and coordinated way, urging the baby into the world.
But don’t panic! Before you add the “fear of having fear slow down your upcoming labor” to the list of things you are already afraid of, know that it is really the inability to express fear that is the problem. Feeling fear is completely normal. In fact, the good news is that even women who are extremely fearful and nervous often have totally normal births, perhaps because they have been honest about their worries.
You don’t need to completely resolve all your concerns. No one enters the experience of pregnancy and childbirth fear-free. What is important is to try to understand yourself as best you can and find ways to give your feelings of fear legitimate outlets.
Holding in fear
Women harbor secret fears about childbirth and don’t express them for a number of reasons:
- They feel an almost superstitious concern that naming their fears out loud will make them come true.
- They don’t want to worry their partners or friends.
- They may not know exactly what they are afraid of and don’t know how to put it into words.
- They think that allowing their fear to come out might somehow harm the baby growing inside them.
Although it might seem as though voicing your fears will give them greater strength, it’s holding fear in that gives it such tremendous power. Acknowledging fear is very hard, but once done it can provide relief from anxiety and this will help send you down a smoother path toward labor.
Ultimately, no one is successful at trying to keep feelings inside. They have a way of coming out, albeit indirectly. You may find yourself having nightmares or strange, troubling dreams. Or you may wake up feeling disoriented or troubled, but unable to remember any specific dreams. Perhaps you are tired all the time, or grouchy. People have hundreds of ways of expressing emotions indirectly. Think about your own ways of doing this and see if something feels off to you.
Put a name on it
The first thing to do is to try to get as clear as possible about what frightens you. You want to be as precise as you can and avoid generalizing. Talking to a trusted companion and writing about it are good ways to start out. The Birth Inventory, below, helps to uncover ideas you may have about pregnancy and birth that you are not even consciously aware of by exploring influences from your past.
Do a birth inventory
Answer each question as truthfully as you can. You need not be concerned about accuracy. Remember, there are no right answers – only what is true for you. Give three answers for each question. It may be helpful to do this exercise with your partner, or with another friend who is pregnant.
- What do you believe about your own personal birth (not your child’s)?
- What does your mother believe about your birth?
- What does your father believe about your birth?
- What do you believe about women?
- What does your mother believe about women?
- What does your father believe about women?
- How would the women from your family answer this: The women in our family are:
- How would the women from your family fill in this statement: Childbirth is:
- What did you believe about sex at age 16?
- What does your mother believe about sex?
- What does your father believe about sex?
- What do you believe about pregnancy?
- What does your mother believe about pregnancy?
- What does your father believe about pregnancy?
- How do you feel when talking to a midwife or physician?
- What have your friends told you about pregnancy?
- What have your friends told you about childbirth?
- What three words do you associate with “pain”?
- What three words do you associate with “hospital”?
- What do you believe about your siblings’ birth (if relevant)?
- What does your mother believe about your siblings’ births?
- What does your father believe about your siblings’ birth?
- What did/does your religion teach you about birth?
- What did/does your religion teach you about sex?
- What are your three most secret thoughts about childbirth?
- What do you fear the most?
Once you have completed the questions take some time to look over your answers. You may want to wait a day or two before doing this. Then, analyze your answers to see what preconceived notions you may have about birth. For example, you may discover that you are feeling as though you have to live up to the expectations of an important family member, such as your mother, and you have a bit of “performance anxiety.” Someone in your family may have had a cesarean section because they had a “small pelvis” (which rarely requires a cesarean section), and you may fear that your pelvis is too small as well.
By identifying the fears that your answers reveal, you can then begin to address them. Read on to learn ways that you can reassure yourself.
How to cope with fear
Here are a few ideas on getting in touch with yourself and dealing with fear and anxiety:
- If you haven’t yet signed up for a childbirth education class, do so now. This will help you get familiar with what is to come both during the birth and afterwards.
- If your worries center around labor and the baby’s health, talk to your health care provider. Be honest—don’t be afraid of looking like a hypochondriac. They’ve seen and heard it all, and they know that expectant mothers often experience anxiety. Ask for a reality check.
- See a therapist or make an appointment to speak to a childbirth education teacher one-on-one.
- Talk. Then talk some more. Talk with your partner, or if your partner feels too close to the situation, try a friend who is good at listening. Although you want reassurance, you also want someone who will let you vent and not try to talk you out of your worries.
- Write in a journal. Try to write continuously for a set amount of time, say ten minutes to start with. To let your thoughts flow freely, keep your pen moving the whole time and try not to edit your words before they’ve even hit the page.
- Daily meditation, even for just a few minutes, can really help to center you. If you are able, try extending the time to twenty minutes, or meditating twice, first thing in the morning and right before bed.
- Make a list of affirmations to repeat to yourself. Write them down on an index card and carry it around in your wallet. Good ones to start out with are:
I am at peace.
I am safe and my baby is safe.
I am being cared for by a higher power who wants the best for me and my baby.
My body knows how to have a baby.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who edits and publishes peggyomara.com. I was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Please sign up for my free newsletter with the latest posts on parenting, activism, and healthy living.