(CNN) — Dr. Stuart Fischbein chuckled when he read the title of the press release: “Women with a fear of childbirth endure a longer labor.”
The release was promoting a study published this week in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Researchers at Akershus University Hospital in Norway found women who feared giving birth were in labor for 1 hour and 32 minutes longer, on average, than those who had no fear.
“I’m glad there’s now evidence to say that,” Fischbein said, “but it’s obvious.”
For those of us who aren’t OB/GYNs, it may seem more like a cruel joke. Women who are afraid of the pain and the possible medical complications associated with giving birth have to suffer through it longer?
Study author Dr. Samantha Salvesen Adams initially thought her team would find the prolonged labor could be explained by other factors — women who feared birth the most were first time mothers, who are known to have longer labors anyway, or obstetric interventions like epidurals. But when those factors were taken into consideration, the difference in time between the fearless and the fearful was still 47 minutes.
“Mental stress is associated with physiological arousal and release of stress hormones,” Adams wrote in an e-mail. “During labour, high levels of stress hormones may weaken uterine [contractions].”
In other words, the adrenaline released when a body is stressed stops the oxytocin hormone production that makes a woman’s uterus contract, slowing labor. It’s a natural, biological response to fear, Fischbein said.
Fischbein, who’s also a co-author of “Fearless Pregnancy,” said women today are afraid of giving birth because they’re surrounded by horror stories.
“We have a society where sensationalism sells. They’re pounded with information [about] things that can go wrong with childbirth. Of course you develop fears.”
To understand Fischbein’s lack of surprise at the study results, you have to take a look at the way other mammals give birth. For example, when cats, dogs or horses are in labor, they find dark places to have their offspring in peace. They eat when they’re hungry, pace if they’re in pain and run if something comes near them.
Compare that to a hospital setting, where a woman is given ice chips, strapped to machines while laying in bed and surrounded by people who are constantly interrupting. Though the machines and medical personnel are sometimes necessary, Fischbein says the stress comes from being in an unfamiliar environment.
He recommends women find a doctor or midwife who will take the time to talk through their fears and dispense honest advice about the birthing process.