Mind/Body Influences on Infertility

Although people with infertility often feel their problem is unusual, infertility is actually very common. In the United States, one out of six couples of childbearing age struggle with infertility and report that infertility is the worst experience of their lives. Undergoing an infertility workup and subsequent treatment can be a very difficult process and often impacts people on several levels: physically, psychologically, spiritually and financially.

Loss of control is a highly prevalent feeling for those who struggle with infertility. Most people assume they can have children when they choose. After twenty or thirty years of assuming you would have your children when you wanted, and maybe even spending time and energy trying not to get pregnant, realizing that you may never have a baby can be very distressing.

Most of us were taught from an early age that the harder we work at something, the more likely we are to get it. Infertility is different, however, in that how hard you work at getting pregnant or what kind of person you are is irrelevant to the process of becoming pregnant. Because the idea of having children is so fundamental to our identity, those who experience infertility may begin to feel that life is utterly unfair and that their own lives are out of control.

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The Infertility/Stress Connection

No study has proven that being calm causes conception. However, there is preliminary evidence that very high levels of emotional stress can contribute to infertility by causing fallopian tubal spasm, irregular ovulation, hormonal changes, and perhaps by decreasing sperm production. Thus, perhaps a cycle of physiological and psychological events occur as a result of infertility stress. The vicious cycle goes both ways: stress affects infertility and infertility affects stress.

Therefore, the infertility workup and treatment may cause stress that contributes to the infertility. Even if the original cause of infertility is treated, the extreme level of emotional distress may be causing other problems that sustain infertility. If so, taking concrete steps such as eliciting the relaxation response, doing exercises to relieve tension, and challenging negative thoughts may increase the chance of becoming pregnant. However, these approaches cannot treat organic problems like endometriosis, tubal scarring, and blockages.

So, what is the relationship between stress and infertility? We know that there is a relationship between stress and infertility, but the specific nature of the relationship is unclear. We do know that most causes of infertility are physical. However, since we know that infertility causes stress, it makes sense to take action steps to alleviate that negative stress. At the very least, you should feel better. At the Advanced Reproductive Health Centers, Ltd and The Chicago Stress Relief Center, Inc, we teach several specific stress management techniques that optimize a couple’s ability to be most successful during this arduous process.

Treatment Approaches of Infertility

Learn the relaxation response
Once you began to elicit the relaxation response, you may feel more calm and less anxious throughout the day, which will help you feel more in control. Enjoying life when you feel depressed, anxious, and angry much of the time is difficult. You may remember what you felt like before you started to “try,” and you may want to start feeling that way again.

Another advantage of eliciting the relaxation response is that it gives you time every day that is just for you. Most women going through the infertility process tend to take care of themselves last. Between trying to keep up with work, taking care of your spouse, housekeeping and going for seemingly endless medical tests and appointments, you tend to forget about taking care of yourself. You might feel guilty about doing things just for you, such as spending an afternoon reading a novel or soaking in the tub. Many women undergoing infertility unconsciously feel they don’t deserve nice things because they are angry at themselves for not getting pregnant.

All people need to create time for themselves. If you feel you absolutely cannot find twenty minutes every day for the relaxation response, examine your priorities. You deserve time to help yourself feel better. Look carefully at how and with whom you spend your time. The first step in taking control over your life is making yourself a priority.

In the morning, elicit the relaxation response prior to starting your day and before going to sleep to help feel less anxious and more in control throughout the day. Some people find it useful to choose a special positive thought, word, or phrase that is calming and meaningful to you that can be repeated during the relaxation response.

Notice your thoughts, feelings, emotions
Ones health is a product of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Automatic thoughts, which tend to be negative, can become even more automatic and negative as you go through months and years of infertility. Patients report automatic thoughts such as “I’ll never get pregnant. I’ll always be infertile, Why me? I’ve been a good person, She doesn’t deserve to have another child. What did I do wrong?” Sound familiar? Stop, Take a Breath, and Reflect on your automatic thoughts. Challenge thoughts that are exaggerated, distorted, or simply not true. Learn to change automatic negative thoughts into positive thoughts.

Become aware of how beliefs and expectations contribute to stress. Much of your stress may be explained by your expectation of being able to conceive at your discretion. When this does not occur, you feel internal conflict (stress), usually manifested by feelings of loss of control over your choices, your body, and your life. As you begin to reflect on and challenge your automatic thoughts, you may notice the emergence of certain irrational (exaggerated) beliefs and/or cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking or over-generalization. In this case, failure to conceive during one twenty-eight-day cycle becomes “I’ll never conceive” and then being a “failure” in life. Realize these patterns and challenge them. Look at what your thoughts are saying to you. See if you can challenge them and turn them into a more positive alternative, which you believe in your heart to be true.

Every woman having difficulty conceiving has been told at least once, “Just relax and you’ll get pregnant,” “You’re working too hard at it,” “Go on vacation,” “Just have a glass of wine,” or “Adopt, then you’ll get pregnant right away.” Not only are these statements offensive, harmful, and guilt-producing, they are not true. Following the suggestions here will not guarantee conception. The main reason to use our techniques is that infertility can be a very difficult experience. Most women with infertility feel anxious and depressed. We have found that the women who go through our program feel significantly less anxious, depressed, angry and tired; they feel they have more control over their lives and can lead a more normal life. A basic goal of our program is to help people stop living in twenty-eight-day cycles and find ways of reclaiming joy in their lives.

Focus on other goals
Many of those who struggle with infertility decide to stop focusing on other goals as they focus solely on getting pregnant. One woman in our program realized she stayed with a job she hated because the hours accommodated her infertility treatment. Another woman decided not to work because she wanted to be constantly available to the infertility clinic.

Infertility can occupy not only your time, energy, and money, but also exerts control over your body. Many women experiencing infertility tend to focus on controlling all aspects of their lives. Some feel their lives are so regulated by infertility treatments that they rebel with unhealthy habits such a smoking, frequently drinking caffeinated beverages, and not exercising. Others are very careful for the second two weeks of their cycles, but indulge themselves once their period comes. Still others work very hard to maintain exemplary habits in an effort to increase the chance of conception.

In general, moderation is the answer. Because infertility arouses many feelings of deprivation, severely restrictive diets and punishing exercise regimens are neither appropriate nor productive. Approach healthy lifestyle habits with balance and perspective. Do things you enjoy and that bring you pleasure rather than frustration and deprivation. Make choices and changes that are both healthful and emotionally acceptable.

How about. . .

  • inviting your husband to take a long stroll in the moonlight
  • taking an interesting cooking course and practicing at home one night per week
  • a girls’ night out to visit a comedy club
  • a new activity: miniature golf, bowling, pottery, gardening, bicycling, painting, etc.
  • adopting a puppy or kitten from a local shelter
  • taking a deep breath and tackling a new challenge; do something you always dreamed of but were unable to try

One of the most common problems associated with infertility is isolation. Support groups are a way to share thoughts and feelings, to gain support from others who know exactly what you are going through, as well as for you to help and support others.

One of the most common problems associated with infertility is isolation. Support groups are a way to share thoughts and feelings, to gain support from others who know exactly what you are going through, as well as for you to help and support others.

Resolve, Inc., a national organization for the infertile dedicated to teaching and providing information, has local chapters in most states. One service is support groups for individuals and couples, as well as pre-adoption support groups. These groups are run by experienced group leaders, and the cost is reasonable. Do an internet search or look in your local phone book for the number and location of the nearest Resolve chapter, or call the national office at (617) 623-1156. The Advanced Reproductive Health Centers, Ltd and The Chicago Stress Relief Center will be starting an infertility support group in the near future. If you are interested in learning more about the upcoming support group, call Dr. Howard K. Weissman, Director of Psychological Services for the Advanced Reproductive Health Centers, Ltd., at 847-412-0922 or e-mail.

People uncomfortable in group situations can seek help from the many well-trained therapists who are experts in helping people in similar situations. Many Resolve chapters can supply you with a list of local therapists who specialize in infertility-related issues. Also ask your physician. Many infertility specialists work closely with psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists. Asking your physician for a referral does not signal that you have a “problem;” you are merely doing what you can to help yourself feel better.

Be sure you feel comfortable with and trust the person you choose as a therapist. The first one you see may not be the best person for you. Do not hesitate to talk to several therapists before selecting the one who feels right.

Infertility is not an issue only for the woman. It affects the couple, and it is very normal for couples to report numerous difficulties in their relationship as they experience infertility. Frequently, both parties have different feelings at different times. Seeing a therapist together may help clarify each other’s goals while learning to support those aims and goals in your partner.