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The Truth About Stress and Fertility

It’s important to know how one impacts the other.

Source: iStock/ljubaphoto

As if going through fertility treatment isn’t stressful enough, many women believe that being stressed contributes to their fertility problems.

Here are some typical quotes:

  • “I know I can’t conceive because I want it too much”
  • “This is my punishment for working too hard”
  • “I worried so much about building a bank account before I had a child that I wore my body out”
  • “I felt so guilty about having an abortion that my ovaries shut down…I think I’m punishing myself”
  • “This is all my own fault...I never relax…I just can’t”

Maybe the self-blame is a natural attempt to restore a sense of control: “If I made myself infertile, I can undo the problem.” But this belief not only makes the victim responsible for her own misfortune, it’s not accurate.

Research finds infertility certainly causes stress, but not vice versa.

In fact, even when physical stress or emotional stress does interfere with your menstrual cycle, stress-induced hormonal changes are usually self-correcting and self-limiting. That means when there is a fertility problem that follows stress, the stress was most likely a trigger for a pre-existing medical condition or predisposition.

Think about it. Women can conceive under the most stressful circumstances if there is no physiological problem — even traumatized women and war prisoners often get pregnant. If reproductive systems are as vulnerable to stress as many believe, the human species would have perished long ago. And that means the old advice, "Just relax and then you’ll get pregnant," is a myth.

Although most stress doesn’t impact egg quality, it can lead to behaviors that cause fertility problems. For example, women may leave fertility treatment, harm their fertility through drugs, smoking, or drinking, avoid sex, postpone child-bearing, or not follow instructions for fertility medication.

So, reducing stress is always a good idea during fertility treatment. Here are some suggestions:

  • First, accept that you have no control over the past or the future. That means making a deal with yourself to live in the present and deal with the diagnosis.
  • Next, choose to behave “as if” you are calm and optimistic. Your brain will signal your body that extra adrenaline is not needed. Soon you will actually feel more calm and optimistic. It works!
  • Make sure your partner and support system know that you are not to blame. Encourage partners to come to appointments to gather the real facts.
  • Don't leave your job to reduce stress levels while going through fertility treatment, unless you wanted to leave anyway! Leaving is often counter-productive because any drastic change in daily life usually increases stress levels. Besides, familiar routines are usually more stress-reducing than unstructured free-time, and work-relationships can offer distraction and support.
  • Take some time-outs from worrying, watching and waiting because play and laughter are nature’s stress relievers. Competitive games with others or online, individual games, like crossword puzzles, watching a comedy, reading funny emails, or sending them to a friend actually release mood-elevating brain chemicals. In fact, according to a Harvard study, a total of just 20 minutes a day of laughter or play can decrease stress symptoms by 50 percent.
  • If you enjoy working out, do it. Exercise helps burn off frustration and you can feel more like you did before you exhausted yourself with self-blame. This will also remind you to treat yourself well.
  • And finally, remember to be your own best friend. Stop blaming yourself and treat yourself to the same supportiveness, consideration and respect you give to others you love.

All in all, give yourself a break. And remind yourself that infertility certainly causes stress, but stress does not certainly cause infertility.

More from Georgia Witkin Ph.D.
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