How Fear Influences Your Labor

August 17, 2018

The process of pregnancy and childbirth is filled with many unknowns for women and their families. These unknowns can create some fear and anxiety, even for the most supported and prepared women. Common fears that some women might experience include:

1. The possibility of losing the baby.

2. That they won’t know when they are in labor.

3. That birth will not go the way that they envision.

4. Concern that labor will be too painful.

What is interesting is that fear does not just affect the psychology of a laboring woman; fear can actually affect the physical process of labor and birth. Studies have shown that when animals perceive there to be danger, when they experience fear during labor and birth, it can actually serve to slow or completely stop the labor process. The same phenomenon has been observed in human females. 

Even when a woman does not consciously acknowledge or notice fear about birth, her chosen birth setting, or her care provider, it has been observed that many women experience a slowing or stopping of labor when they change locations for the birth (going from home to the hospital for example).

The reason for this slowing or stopping of labor is due to the fact that when women experience fear or stress, their bodies produce the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones are important to the preservation of human beings as a species across time, however in the modern birth setting, these hormones can serve as a disruption to the normal physiological process.

In order for a woman’s uterus to contract effectively to cause dilation and the expulsion of her baby, a woman needs the hormone oxytocin to be flowing. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline serve to counteract oxytocin in the body, hence the slowing or stopping of labor in the presence of fear or stress. These hormones also reduce the pain­relieving effects of the hormone endorphins, and the increased sensation of pain may serve to feed back into the cycle, causing more fear, ultimately disrupting the labor process.

Fortunately, there are many ways for women to counteract these negative effects of fear and stress on their labor and birth. First, women can seek education for themselves to a level that they feel most comforted and confident. They can also make choices to ensure that they feel trust toward their chosen birth place and those who will be in attendance at their birth, including their health care provider. A doula can also help women by reminding them of what is normal in birth, providing comfort measures to reduce discomfort and stress, including simply being available to the birthing woman through the process of her labor and birth.