She and her husband had undergone nearly every possible procedure and tried every therapy available, from herbal supplements and dietary changes, acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, to fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization. Nothing worked.
My friend was a mess. Years of positive thinking followed by the inevitable crushing disappointment that followed had taken their toll on her physical and mental health, and on her relationship with her husband. The in vitro treatments had left her body confused and exhausted. Doctors told her to accept the fact that she would never conceive.
She and her husband eventually did accept the prognosis, and were able to move on. They saw a couples counsellor, and redirected their focus towards adoption. They successfully adopted a lovely baby girl, and life regained a sense of normalcy and peace. Without the continual pressure to conceive, and the anxiety and sadness that accompanied her feelings of failure each time she didn’t, she was finally able to relax and enjoy her life.
Within a year of the adoption, my friend was pregnant. Happily, she carried to term and delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy.
Many of us have heard similar accounts. The couple tries and tries, and seemingly the moment they accept the diagnosis of infertility, they conceive. Is it a miracle? Is it fate having a cruel laugh at their expense? Or could it be something over which we have more control?
Research has long suggested that stress can influence the odds of conception, and new studies have confirmed that higher levels of stress are associated with lower fertility in women. In one study measuring blood levels of stress markers, women with higher levels of stress-related enzymes in their bodies had a harder time getting pregnant. It seems that the stress of ‘trying too hard’ may actually play a role in up to 30% of all infertility problems.
Though researchers do not yet fully understand the role stress plays, there is mounting evidence to suggest a causal link, and to support addressing stress specifically when treating or diagnosing women experiencing difficulties conceiving.
Amelia Wesselink, lead author of a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, agrees: “Although this study does not definitely prove that stress causes infertility, it does provide evidence supporting the integration of mental health care in preconception guidance and care.”
“What we do know now is that when stress-reduction techniques are employed, something happens in some women that allows them to get pregnant when they couldn’t get pregnant before,” says Allen Morgan, MD, director of Shore Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Lakewood, N.J.
My friend, and perhaps those who share a similar story, experienced a profound drop in stress levels once she gave herself permission to ‘stop trying and failing’ at getting pregnant. She, her husband, their families and friends, had talked about and focused on little else for nearly 10 years. The stress she experienced on a daily basis may well have been enough to affect her ability to get pregnant, and the subsequent drop in those stress levels might just have been what her body needed to rebalance itself and create the necessary environment for conception.
Though the well-meaning advice of friends and family to ‘relax’ and ‘you’re trying too hard’ might feel annoying and unwelcome to women who are struggling with infertility, for some it may end up being just what the doctor ordered.