What is the relationship between Stress and Fertility?
As you know this is a topic very close to my heart and to my personal story.
I have been in an almost ten-year-long fertility journey and I am still longing to become a mother.
However, in this journey, I learned the most amazing lessons of my life and in a way, it has been that journey that sparked the idea of this blog.
So here is what I want to share with you today: struggling with infertility can be the most stressful experience of your life or it can be an amazing journey of discovery of your most powerful creative force.
We all know it takes two to make a baby, but the cultural and social expectations around having children often don’t impact men and women equally. Becoming a mother and getting pregnant is so much a part of the female identity in our culture and because it happens to our bodies, we feel somehow responsible when it does not happen.
The weight of this responsibility becomes unbearable when women start struggling with becoming pregnant and are told their stress could be hurting their chances of conceiving. When I was struggling to become pregnant, I was so worried that the stress of my career, my diet and health, and my emotional and mental state were affecting my chances of having a baby. People’s comments like “It is all stress, you need to stop stressing out and it will happen” only made it worse because I felt that I was causing my own infertility.
So after years of feeling powerless and guilty, I decided to look at what the science says about the topic and to share what are the most important lessons I learned.
The question I dwelled on for a long time was if stress caused infertility. Science tried to answer this question.
A study from a collaboration between the University of Louisville and Emory University reported that women who are stressed have a lower chance of conceiving. In the study, 400 women, 40 years old or less and who were sexually active, recorded their daily stress levels and stressors over the course of several months. The authors reported that during the cycles where women were stressed during their ovulation window, they were forty percent less likely to conceive.
In addition, the women in the study who felt more stressed in general were forty-five percent less likely to conceive compared to the other women in the study.
Even if it is not clear the role stress plays on fertility, certainly some women are more reproductively sensitive to stress than other women.
However, when it comes to understanding the root cause of the issue, science doesn’t really help because the results of research studies are mixed: some research has linked stress and infertility while other studies have shown no relationship between stress and infertility.
However, there is a reason to consider a link between stress and reproduction.
When we are stressed, we release stress hormones that shift our body toward survival mode which is the exact opposite of the reproduction mode.
It is important to address some critical questions that may help you reduce the vicious cycle that the fertility struggle activates in your stress response.
The first question is about purpose and meaning.
What is your true desire and purpose to become pregnant? Is it to reproduce yourself, or to become a mother and nurture a child?
The second question is related to yourself and the relationship that you have with your own inner child, the most intuitive, innocent and creative part of yourself.
Are you aware of your creative force and do you give to that force a space to exist and manifest in your life?
The third set of questions are related to your relationships, your social support system.
Do you surround yourself with supportive relationships and limit the exposure to toxic people? Do you ask for help when you are feeling overwhelmed? Do you connect with your partner and share your feelings in a way that helps you both create connection instead of distance and more stress?
The fourth question is about self-care. Do you have the tools and effective practices in place to support you through your journey?
As you are learning, self-care is essential in all aspects of health. When it comes to fertility and stress, whether the link is there or not, anyone can learn and benefit from some rock solid self-care tools.
Infertility can be isolating, frustrating, devastating for a woman because of the sense of total disconnect and loss of control on her body that it creates.
Even more so, if assisted reproductive treatments are involved, from the induction of ovulation to artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, these treatments involve the use of fertility medications that can send our hormonal balance completely out of whack and affect profoundly how we feel about ourselves, how we relate to our partners, and how our body and mind respond to stress.
The stress of undergoing fertility treatments for the body and the mind of a woman has been compared to the stress of chemotherapy.
A study in Taiwan on women seeking infertility treatment showed that forty percent of participants were diagnosed with depression or anxiety. The treatment itself, the shame associated with infertility and the lack of adequate social support systems can be very stressful for women. However, rarely women protect themselves from this type of stress. They still push through while they inject themselves with massive doses of hormones that completely dysregulate their brain and body chemical balance.
The sense of powerlessness and hopelessness that results can lead to self-doubt, it can strain relationships, and because infertility oftentimes has no clear cause, it can test our own sense of sanity.
The type of self-care and support strategies you have in place when dealing with infertility can make a difference in how you overcome your struggle.
I strongly encourage all my friends and clients to create a strong support and self-care system that can help them navigate that stressful period of their life.
Here are some of the most effective strategies and science-proven programs to support women dealing with infertility:
Connect with your partner. Research shows that disconnect can strain the relationship. Act as if you are dating again. Set aside time during the week to spend with your partner. Have fun together and limit fertility talks!
Rethink your attitude. Recognize your negative thinking and beliefs and practice positive coping strategies like the Tame your Brain exercise in my audio-training.
Stay active. Physical activities are critical and they boost serotonin, a mood-enhancing brain chemical that improves your stress response.
Relax and Restore. Take five minutes to practice the “relaxation response” technique that I teach in my free audio-training. This technique will shift your stress response to a relaxation response and helps decrease heart rate and blood pressure.
Seek help! Individual counseling or group support can be particularly helpful for women who feel isolated as a result of infertility. These are some very helpful resources:
• Resolve.org, a website of the National Infertility Association, has links to local support groups across the nation.
• The Mind/Body Program for Fertility at the Domar Center achieved amazing results. Patients reported an overwhelming sense of improvements such as increased feelings of control, security, well-being, and self-esteem and they were provided with useful tools to feel better.
• There is increasing evidence that a behavioral treatment approach might be efficacious in the treatment of the emotional aspects of infertility. I loved this approach: Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenko.
• If you don’t have time to join a support group, this online program offering psycho-educational support to women suffering from infertility showed significant improvement in the area of social concerns related to infertility distress.
Try acupuncture or hypnotic therapy. They are as effective as anti-anxiety medications but with fewer side effects!
No matter where you are in your fertility journey and what strategy you choose, please learn to take time for yourself and ask yourself the questions that will help you navigate your situation with more awareness. Try to enjoy your life, get outside, be a little selfish, do whatever it takes to be kind to yourself.
And remember that you have the power to harness your stress into growth, health, and happiness!
Now tell me, what does creativity mean for you?
Write your comment in the comment box and let me know.
Thank you so much for sharing your journey.
Herrmann D, Scherg H, Verres R, von Hagens C, Strowitzki T, Wischmann T. Resilience in infertile couples acts as a protective factor against infertility-specific distress and impaired quality of life. J Assist Reprod Genet. 2011;28(11):1111–1117.
Alice D. Domar, Machelle M. Seibel, Herbert Benson. The Mind/Body Program for Infertility: a new behavioral treatment approach for women with infertility. Fertility and Sterility. Vol. 53, No.2, February 1990.
Cousineau TM, Green TC, Corsini E, et al. Online psychoeducational support for infertile women: a randomized controlled trial. Hum Reprod. 2007;23(3):554–566.
Frederiksen Y, Farver-Vestergaard I, Skovgård NG, et al. Efficacy of psychosocial interventions for psychological and pregnancy outcomes in infertile women and men: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open 2015;5:e006592.