We all have a phobia of something. My wife, for example, squeals whenever she sees a spider and demands that I crush it to a pulp with the heel of a shoe - just releasing it out of the window is not good enough. They'll come back to get her, she says, as the spider looks on innocently, with eight big imploring eyes.
Whilst not a big fan of spiders, I'm not afraid of them. I have quite a bizarre phobia, though: sponges. Just the feel of a sponge against my skin makes me want to throw up; even watching someone else wash themselves with a sponge sends me dry retching to the nearest bin. Incidentally, this phobia is so incredibly strange that there isn't a specific name for it.
My hatred of sponges, apart from being downright ridiculous, is inherently harmless; but some phobias are much worse. One which affects around one in six women is tokophobia: the fear of childbirth or pregnancy.
This is not just a simple dislike, but an all-consuming terror which can lead to a number of complications. Helen Mirren revealed herself to be a tokophobe in 2007, pinpointing the origin of her phobia to a distressing educational film about childbirth shown to her at school when she was a teenager. "I swear it traumatised me to this day," she said, in an interview with the Daily Mail. "I haven't had children and now I can't look at anything to do with childbirth. It absolutely disgusts me."
As with all phobias, tokophobia affects different women with different levels of severity; frequently beginning during adolescence and escalating as time passes. This is often due to the woman's own mother's experience, or - as demonstrated in the case of Helen Mirren - poor education.
Some mothers suffer from secondary tokophobia, after a particularly traumatic childbirth or postpartum depression. No matter how or why tokophobia arises, though, there is no doubt that it is a serious condition - but it can be treated and overcome.
Claire, from Kent, underwent counselling in her twenties after developing tokophobia in her teenage years. "The fear was taking over my life," she recalls. "I panicked and cried most days...anything can send you into a panic, such as seeing pregnant women in the street to seeing the word 'delivery' on something."
She was put on a course of antidepressants, a common treatment for tokophobia. Mary*, from West Yorkshire, was placed on a similar course of antidepressants after developing tokophobia following an abortion at the age of 14. "I suffered a lot of emotional abuse from the professionals," she said, "and the main reason I had an abortion was because my mother always told me 'Don't you dare get pregnant'".
Both Claire and Mary exhibited the classic symptoms of tokophobia: nightmares, a difficulty in concentration, the occasional panic attack. Some sufferers, however, can have much more violent reactions. One mother recounted a story of her work colleague, who was diagnosed with tokophobia during her pregnancy.
"She hated the fact that there was something alive in her body." she remembers. "She couldn't discuss it, think about it or even acknowledge it. At her scans she refused to look at the baby on the screen. Once she started to feel the baby move she would jump up and cry - sometimes she would vomit because it disgusted her."
This is a particularly intense form of tokophobia, although it is not uncommon. This sufferer underwent counselling to help overcome her condition - a common course of treatment, and one shared by Claire and Mary. "I was told my fear was too great to cure within the allocated 12 sessions but that they would try their best." states Mary.
The support of friends and family is also vital, of course, in overcoming this overwhelming condition. Claire found this especially helpful when, in 2008, she became so fed up with her fear taking over her life she started trying for a baby with her partner and fell pregnant.
"This is when things got really tough." she recalls. "As soon as I heard the word 'midwife' I broke down and said I couldn't go through with it...but with another course of antidepressants and a very supporting partner and family I managed to carry on with the pregnancy and even started to enjoy it towards the end."
For many, it is the end of pregnancy that holds the most fear, which is why the majority of tokophobes request elective Caesarean sections to help ease their worries. This relies on the mother having a supportive network of professionals who have an understanding of tokophobia and its severity, and who do not just dismiss it as a simple fear of pain. "Our GP has been a great help over the past three years, and we wouldn't have got this far without him." smiles Mary, fondly.
Mary is currently trying to obtain written confirmation from consultants and health professionals that she will be granted a Caesarean section when she falls pregnant - and it is a 'when', not an 'if'. "I want children," she says, "but this fear is holding me back."
Claire and the office worker both delivered their babies via Caesarean section, and it is then that they underwent a sudden shift in perception. The office worker, who had reacted so strongly to the fact that she was pregnant, did a complete U-turn. "Once she woke up and held her baby girl in her arms she was in love." recalls her colleague. "She always said she would come back to work two weeks after it was born; she has recently told work she will not be coming back as she wants to stay at home and raise her baby."
Claire's experiences echo the same feelings. "Since having my little girl I feel free." she says. "I hardly ever think about pregnancy and birth, and can enjoy other peoples' pregnancies with them. We are now trying for number 2. I am a bit nervous, but I think it is on a more normal level."
* Name has been changed upon request