Psychological perspectives on fear of birth : heterogeneity, mechanisms and treatment

Sammanfattning: Although it is medically safe to give birth in most western countries, the vast majority of pregnant women experience some kind of anxiety, fear or worry in relation to their pregnancy or the upcoming childbirth. Most pregnant women find ways of coping with these issues but, for many, fear of birth is a significant source of distress during pregnancy, with negative consequences both when giving birth and in the postpartum period.Previous research on fear of birth has for the most part had a medical perspective, investigating risk factors and consequences of this form of fear or anxiety, along with studies evaluating different forms of interventions. The general aim of this thesis was to approach fear of birth from a psychological perspective, by exploring the role of psychological factors in this form of fear, worry or anxiety.Four studies are included in the thesis. The first study is a randomized controlled trial, in which we compared a guided Internet-delivered self-help program, based on cognitive behavior therapy (guided ICBT), with standard care (midwife led fear of birth specific counseling), for the treatment of fear of birth. Despite poor adherence to the guided ICBT, the results showed a similar reduction in fear levels during pregnancy in both groups, with lower levels of fear of birth in the guided ICBT group one year after birth. The second study is a narrative literature review. This study adopted a psychological perspective on the existing literature describing fear of birth, with a special focus on the specificity of this form of fear or anxiety, the pathways of fear acquisition, and the physiological, cognitive and behavioral aspects of fear of birth. Using systematic procedures for the literature search, inclusion and exclusion, 89 original research papers were included and summarized in the study. The aim of the third study was to explore possible heterogeneity among pregnant women reporting high levels of fear of birth. Comparisons between primiparous and multiparous women revealed that these groups were very similar in their levels of fear of birth as well as in the psychological variables investigated. Using a series of hierarchical and non-hierarchical cluster analyses, five possible subgroups based on psychological characteristics were identified, pointing to psychological heterogeneity among women fearing birth. In the fourth study, our aim was to take a first step in trying to identify psychological mechanisms relevant to the understanding of fear of birth. In this study, pain catastrophizing and intolerance of uncertainty were clear predictors of fear of birth, while parity was not.Taken together, the results of the four studies included in this thesis indicate that fear of birth is a concept in need of further investigation, and that psychological perspectives could offer an important contribution to our understanding of this form of fear or anxiety. Women fearing birth seem to be a heterogeneous group, and psychological characteristics (e.g. pain catastrophizing, or catastrophizing in general, and intolerance of uncertainty) might be of greater importance than parity in both describing this diversity and understanding the development and maintenance of fear of birth. Treating fear of birth using guided ICBT can be challenging, and before introducing this form of treatment as an alternative, further refinement and evaluation of the methods are needed.