Anyone who has been unsuccessfully trying to conceive has heard this well-meaning advice from family and friends: “You’re just stressed. Relax and you’ll get pregnant when you’re not thinking about it.”
This makes you think about it even more. Every year at this time, people gather to celebrate the season and reconnect with each other. This togetherness somehow provides an opportunity for intrusion into a problem many women and their partners would prefer to keep private.
But how much of an impact does stress have on fertility? Does stress cause infertility? Or is it a byproduct of the experience of infertility itself?
This can be a “which came first – the chicken or the egg?” conundrum. In some women, certain forms of stress will disrupt normal ovulation which obviously poses a problem. Stress – in and of itself – does not cause infertility in the vast majority of cases. In this era of modern fertility treatments, approximately 70% of all patients will have a successful outcome with medical intervention. If stress alone caused infertility, one could argue that even more women would find themselves seeking services.
Despite those reassuring odds, however, stress can – and does – still take its toll. The mechanisms are unclear: some theories focus on the “stress hormones” cortisol and epinephrine, which in turn affect other important hormonal pathways. Such pathways control the expression of implantation receptors on uterine lining and blood vessel reactivity which regulates oxygen delivery to important structures in the ovary and uterine lining. From this perspective it makes sense that multiple subtle diminishments may add up to a problem.
More and more research is showing that managing stress levels during fertility treatment may be helpful toward achieving success. This is something that women can do for themselves without the need for a prescription. Several studies have focused on the effect of acupuncture on in vitro fertilization. A few have shown a positive impact and some others have shown equivocal results. Many women report feeling more relaxed and empowered when they incorporate such mind-body techniques into their care plans. Other studies have suggested a positive impact from massage therapy, exercise, guided-imagery, yoga, psychotherapy, support groups, meditation, deep breathing – even foot reflexology. Many people find it helpful to simply continue activities and hobbies they find enjoyable and relaxing – in other words: be normal.
The bottom line is anything that maintains your enjoyment and quality of life during fertility therapy is valuable. It doesn’t help to “just relax” to get pregnant. It does help to relax because it feels good, is comfortable and makes you healthier overall. Meanwhile, there are many on-line resources available to help you develop coping strategies for the holidays. A good starting place is www. resolve.org/support/Managing-Infertility-Stress.