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Some couples get pregnant easily while some do not despite trying for a long time. There could be multiple factors contributing to difficulty conceiving but of all of them, stress plays a significant role. Stress does not directly cause infertility however it does impact the chances of conception by delaying it. Infertility has become very common now and the factors contributing to it are multiple, ranging from physical causes, and dietary changes to even excessive use of gadgets. There is enough research to prove that stress can adversely affect a couple’s chances of conception naturally or through medical procedures like IVF. So, what is the relationship between stress and infertility?
The science behind stress and infertility
When we are stressed, our brains release cortisol, a stress hormone that interferes with the signals between the brain and the ovaries, thus disrupting the ovarian cycle and the release of the ovarian eggs. In the case of men, sperm production and motility are impacted. Apart from the body’s response, stress contributes to behavior and mood changes too. There is a decrease in the desire and motivation to have sex. There is an increase in smoking or drinking alcohol in order to cope with stress which in turn causes trouble with conceiving.
Understand the vicious cycle
Stress and conception are highly connected. Most often, couples who are trying to conceive become dejected when it takes a longer time. Some find the medical procedures involved in the process to be taxing. For example, most couples going through IVF procedures are often stressed out. This in turn affects the biology and behavior of the couple, thereby creating a vicious cycle. Stress management is thus necessary in order to break free from this cycle which in turn would help a couple conceive.
Some amount of stress is normal. However, if one is continuously anxious and hassled by circumstances around them, it will deeply impact conception. Here are a few pointers on overcoming stress:
Identify triggers: It helps to understand the causes of stress and work towards managing them. If conflict with a partner is contributing to tensions, then one needs to work it out by talking to a neutral person and work on conflict resolution skills. If excessive work is the primary cause, then one needs to consider improving one’s work-life balance. Hence, making a list of potential stressors and attempting to find ways to manage them is the first step a couple can take to manage their stress levels.
Exercise: Physical activity is known to increase the chances of conception as well as lowers stress levels. During exercise, endorphins, otherwise known as ‘happy hormones are released which helps in relaxation thereby aiding the process of getting pregnant. 30 minutes of exercise each day is noted to be beneficial. It also helps in managing weight, excess of which is known to interfere with pregnancy.
Talk Therapy: Counselling or therapy is helpful for those trying to conceive. Research points to the significant benefits of cognitive-behavior therapy, a form of talk therapy, in managing infertility stress. Sessions are aimed at helping the client understand the mind and body connection as well as identify unhelpful thoughts and triggers to negative emotions. The client is then encouraged to let go of the irrational thoughts and reframe them to ones that are realistic.
Mindfulness practice: Each day making time for mindfulness meditation practice helps with reducing stress levels. This requires 10 to 15 minutes of breath focus and observation of floating thoughts without any reaction or response.
Improve communication with a partner: Poor communication between couples is a known cause of emotional distress and relationship crisis. In couples aiming for pregnancy, there has to be honesty and transparency in communication. In cases where there is a high level of conflict causing the breakdown of communication between partners, one can take the help of a Couples or Marriage therapist to resolve issues.
Connect with others: Most couples tend to feel embarrassed to talk about infertility. It helps to confide in trusted friends and family members and discuss the issue instead of keeping it a secret. Social support helps in reducing the distress associated with infertility.
Focus on self-care: Being calm and relaxed is necessary for conception to occur. Hence explore ways to destress by pursuing hobbies or calming activities like listening to music, singing, solving puzzles, etc. One needs to get enough sleep, eat well, and time alone as well as time with friends in order to stay emotionally healthy.
Affirmations: Engage in positive self-talk. The statements we make to ourselves often have a powerful impact on our psyche and improve confidence and hope. Statements like these are helpful: ‘I am taking good care of my body and mind in order to nurture a baby’, ‘I am filled with positivity and ready to welcome a new life into me.’
Stay busy: It helps to keep oneself occupied with work and other activities to keep the mind off from thoughts related to pregnancy and infertility. The more one dwells on thoughts related to one’s inability to get pregnant, the more stressed out one would feel.
Undergo Relaxation training: To manage stress, it helps to induce a state of deep relaxation with the help of specific exercises like progressive muscle relaxation, abdominal breathing, etc. Reaching out to a clinical psychologist trained in these exercises would prove helpful in managing stress.
Watch out for signs of depression or anxiety disorder: Constantly feeling stressed can lead to depression or anxiety disorder. It helps to be aware of the signs and take them seriously as they can significantly affect one’s chances of getting pregnant. If you have been feeling excessively tired and unhappy, experiencing sleep and appetite disturbances, and feel no desire in doing things you previously enjoyed; it helps to seek help from a mental health professional.
Trying to get pregnant can be a very stressful experience. One cannot control the physical factors contributing to infertility but the emotional situation surrounding it can be managed. It helps to know that one is not alone and to work on managing stress to improve the chances of conception and deal with stress and infertility in females. We at Cadabams have a team of counselors and therapists who can work with either or both partners to help manage the anxiety levels.
Dr. Nisha Vidyasagar
Consultant Clinical Psychologist