The Impact of Stress on Fertility
By Clinical Psychologist, Mandy Rodrigues
We all get stressed, yet not all of us battle to conceive. Interestingly, during times of war, and in poverty-stricken communities, the pregnancy rate is often inordinately high. Surely people battling to meet their basic needs on a daily basis are stressed? We keep hearing that if we are stressed, we won’t fall pregnant – can this be true? We also hear that many couples fall pregnant after adopting a baby, or once they’ve completely given up on their fertility treatment. So is there a link between fertility and stress, and if so what is it?
First of all, we need to understand that there is a definite link between the mind and the body. There is a lot of literature on this, and it has been proven over decades that our emotional state causes a corresponding biochemical or physical reaction. The more stressed we are on a daily basis, the more noradrenaline (the bad stress hormone) and cortisol we secrete, and the more likely we are to suppress our immune systems and suffer from illnesses. This includes endometriosis which is a condition that makes it difficult to conceive. We can thus conclude that stress does not have a direct link to infertility but there is a definite indirect link.
Stress is divided into two types: Real and Self-Induced. Real stressors are the triggers that make even the most relaxed people anxious: poverty, crime, war, death, even deadlines to a lesser degree. In these situations, the stress is externally induced, and adrenalin is secreted in order to cope. The flight-fight response or adrenalin-mediated stress is generally not unhealthy and detrimental to fertility. The reaction to this stress is usually acute and short-term. Self-induced stress, on the other hand, is a major concern when trying to conceive.
Fourteen years ago, the construct of time urgency perfectionism (TUP) stress was coined. Time urgency is when we are stressed for time, we are driven by time – we do things urgently and we’re constantly aware of time. We attempt to do too much in a given time period, or try to do more than one thing at a time. We hate being late, but often found we run late due to unrealistic assessments of time, procrastination, or difficulties in prioritising. If you fall into this category you are the type of individual who creates extra stress in your life by worrying about triggers that relaxed people would not be concerned by. This stress is inner driven – internally induced, maintained and motivated. It is a learned stress, and it becomes a habitual stress after a period of time.
Conception is supposedly something we accept as a given, so when it doesn’t happen, we are often totally unprepared for this and don’t have the coping skills to deal with it. If we are the personality type prone to suffering from self-induced stress, conceiving becomes even more difficult.
Take the couple who falls pregnant after adoption or failed IVF treatments – we hear these stories all the time. We can assume that the reason these people have fallen pregnant is because they stopped the habitual worrying about it. But stopping worrying is often easier said than done. The more someone tells you to relax, the harder it is; and it’s a task you cannot do all alone. The problem with fertility is that we put our lives on hold and the last two weeks of every cycle are spent wondering whether or not we are pregnant. We worry about the real stressors in our lives and also about the habit-forming one’s such as seeing pregnant women all around us; and then being hard on ourselves about the fact that we haven’t yet conceived. Worrying about these things does not change the outcome of the problem. A rule of thumb is “If worrying changes the outcome; then worry until you get a solution.” But if not, then it is impacting on your physical health at the same time.
If your TUP levels are high, you will need to decrease them, because the higher your TUP Stress is, the less likely you are to fall pregnant. To help manage this type of stress, it’s very important to take multi-vitamins that will assist with the natural production of growth hormones which help with egg and sperm quality. Multi-vitamins also aid in sleep enhancement and lowering fatigue. Seek professional help for infertility as it has been likened to a post traumatic stress reaction when pregnancy does not happen after undergoing treatment. Get your spouse involved in the process too, so as to decrease feelings of alienation and to increase spousal support. If you’re still struggling to conceive naturally, meet with a fertility specialist and they will help you identify the best method of conception.
The stress of fertility is very difficult as one feels out of control, and isolated in a world where one is faced by babies and pregnant women. It isolates you and makes you feel you don’t fit in. It is only natural to start stressing when one is battling to conceive. However, there comes a point where this stress is counter-productive and at this stage one needs to seek help in managing one’s stress.