If you’ve told anyone that you’re trying to conceive, then you’ve definitely heard well-meaning advice about stress. “You’re trying too hard,” your friend says, “and if you just relax, that’s when it will happen.” You might have felt frustrated, or felt like your friend had no compassion. Can’t your friend see that you’re suffering, and that it’s not your fault?
Infertility Leads To Stress
First of all, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Infertility is stressful. In fact, research has shown that the stress levels of women undergoing treatment for infertility are the same as for women with breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, or heart disease. No one would tell someone with one of those diseases that they should “just relax” and it will go away! You are absolutely not alone in feeling stressed about your infertility.
Stress Also Leads To Infertility
At the same time, stress does have a role to play in infertility. Scientific research has indicated that stress is a factor in up to 30% of cases of infertility. A study that looked at the levels of stress hormones found in women’s saliva found that those with the highest levels of stress hormones were the least likely to conceive. While controlling stress is not a panacea and will not result in conception for every couple, it does make a difference for some.
When you feel emotional stress, your body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). These are the same hormones that would be released if your life were in danger. Think of the dangerous situations endured by generations of humans, such as being pursued by a tiger. Should your body use its resources for conception if it might mean that you can’t get away from that tiger? Of course not.
Our modern stresses, including traffic, demanding jobs, mortgages, and infertility, are not life-threatening like a tiger. However, the body can’t tell the difference. So when you’re stressed, your body interprets it as a potential threat to survival, and will divert resources away from reproduction to have them available for running away. In this way, stress could interfere with conception. While the most recent research has challenged the idea that stress is causally related to all or even most infertility, it can play a role, and it certainly reduces your quality of life at the same time.
To be clear, no one is suggesting that infertility is your fault. Even though stress might be contributing to your infertility, you are not to blame for the stresses of the modern world. But you might benefit from finding ways to reduce your stress levels.
It’s easy to say that you should control your stress. But, come on, the world is a stressful place to be, and infertility is even more stressful. You can’t just decide not to be stressed…or can you?
In a way, you can; stress management is a learned skill, and it’s one that most people have never been taught. While “just relax” isn’t a particularly useful piece of advice, there are several stress management techniques that have been shown to be helpful in controlling stress and reducing the levels of stress hormones in the body. Fortunately, there are experts who can help you learn to manage your stress and feel more comfortable and relaxed during your fertility journey.
Here at Reproductive Health Center of Tucson, Dr. Mark Gilbert, a respected professor of psychiatry, offers a Mind-Body Medicine Skills Group, where you can learn scientifically validated techniques for managing stress in a supportive and welcoming environment. You can learn more about it here.