niaw: stress and fertility

have you heard, it’s national infertility awareness week! and in honor of it, i have been doing a bunch of posts this week for all of my fertile friends and family to help inform them about infertility and the issues in our community.

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“just relax!” the most common, yet unhelpful advice an infertile couple has ever received. there is this long held misconception that infertility can be caused by stress. while there is some evidence that stress can interfere with a woman’s hormones, the majority of research out there is…spotty at best.

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before we get into the research too much, i do want to point something out. there are some researchers doing clinical studies in infertility, which can cover the costs of procedures or medications as compensation (at one point i knew of a database where you could search for studies like this, but it’s lost to me now. i’ll add a link if i can find it). but studies like this are few and, quite literally, far between. couples usually have to be located near the facility performing the research, or being will to travel there (which could take weeks). i have also been under the impression that funding for such research can be very scarce.

my understanding is that most of the research into infertility is completed after the fact, by reviewing medical files or talking to infertile couples about their experiences. personally, i have chosen to share our experiences with the infertility family research registry. anyone who is trying/has tried (successfully or not) to build their family can participate. information provided by fertile families is used as a “control.” in addition to keeping our information current, i have given participated in validation studies (giving researchers a bit more information to identify my stats in the data from SART) and completed numerous questionnaires about my experiences as an infertile woman.
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it seems that for every study that comes out suggesting there may be a link between the two, another comes out refuting it. the most recent studies i have seen didn’t find a connection between stress and successful outcomes. what they did find though, was that even if the cycle results in a pregnancy, women can still experience clinical levels of depression and anxiety. other studies have found that women who are dealing with infertility are six times more likely to meet the criteria for PTSD. the stress levels of infertile women have been found to be similar to those with cancer, heart disease, or HIV.

i absolutely loved what one of the researchers, Dr. Lauri Pasch, had to say:

I think we can safely say to women, ‘Stop worrying about being worried.’ Psychological interventions need to be geared toward helping women feel better, and not toward increasing their chances of pregnancy.

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the main thing that annoys me about the cliched advice to just relax: it implies that i have control over whether or not those embryos implanted. and, by extension, if it didn’t work, it was because i was too stressed out.

and that is utter and complete bullshit.

i have never felt as completely out of control in my life as i did seeking treatment for our infertility. my emotional state has no bearing on whether or not a medical procedure necessitated by a diagnosed medical condition is successful or not. we don’t tell people with diabetes that they can control their health by being happy. we don’t blame a cancer patient’s stress levels if the chemo didn’t work. that would be heartless, right?

i couldn’t really control my stress levels during treatment, but what i could control was ensuring that i was working with the best doctors available to me, and followed every dosing instruction perfectly. each injection was precise. every medication taken exactly on time. everything else took a back seat to making sure that i could make a doctor’s appointment every other day for weeks. and despite all that, it didn’t always work.

as many times i tried to be rational and tell myself that, the overwhelming emotion i felt after our failed cycle was not disappointment or sadness (although that was huge), it was guilt. if only i had done something different – yoga, meditation, acupuncture – i would be pregnant. like i said, complete and utter bullshit.

so please, please, please keep this in mind when you respond to a friend telling you they are having trouble building their family. there is nothing relaxing about infertility, and it’s insulting to imply otherwise.

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One thought on “niaw: stress and fertility

  1. Amen! Thanks for this post. If I had a quarter for every well-meaning person who told me to relax or take a vacation in order to get pregnant, it would have paid for my IVF procedure.

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