Fact or Fiction: Does Stress Affect Fertility?

If you’ve ever told someone that you’re having trouble conceiving, you’ve probably been told “just relax and it will happen”, or “don’t stress, because you won’t become pregnant if you’re stressed”.  These responses not only put the blame on you, but they also give you the false impression that your stress level is hindering your ability to become pregnant. There have been many research studies that look at the relationship between stress and fertility. It has been shown that fertility challenges most definitely causes stress, but we can’t say with certainty that stress causes fertility challenges.

Stress and conception

No study has been conclusive, but there have been robust studies that suggest emotional distress does not affect a woman’s chances of conceiving.  For example, a December 2019 study of 111 women trying to conceive asked them to keep daily diaries and record their stress levels.  The women who reported high or moderate levels of stress had no difference in achieving pregnancy from women who reported low stress levels. Research on the effects of stress on IVF success has had contradictory results.  A study from 2014 of about 400 women undergoing IVF treatment measured their stress levels by a biomarker in their saliva. The group with the highest stress level was found to be 29 percent less likely to conceive than those with the lowest stress level.  However, research published in 2017 determined that perceived stress, fertility-related stress and cortisol levels were not associated with the outcomes of IVF cycles. This is not only reassuring but makes sense; throughout history women have been able to conceive even when they’ve been subject to extreme stress, even under dire circumstances like sexual violence. Taking part in relaxation techniques or figuring out ways to destress can always be helpful, but placing the blame of infertility on a women’s stress level is counterproductive. Feeling stressed about being stressed is all too common for women undergoing fertility treatment.

Fertility challenges and stress

Struggling with fertility is undoubtedly stressful—even for those who generally cope well and become pregnant after just 1 treatment cycle.   Patients often say that they feel guilty for feeling so distraught over their fertility struggles; after all, they will often say that they could have a more dire diagnosis, such as cancer.  However, studies have shown that patients diagnosed with infertility experience levels of anxiety and depression similar to those going through cancer treatment. One study of 352 women receiving fertility treatment found that more than half showed signs of depression and three quarters had symptoms of anxiety. This is often one of the first “life crises” a couple or individual faces and that in and of itself can be earth shattering, especially when friends and family are getting pregnant and having babies. Many women and men also do not share their struggles with fertility with friends and family, which can lead to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and distress.

Coping with Stress

Since we know that infertility does directly cause a person’s level of stress to rise, it may be useful to take advantage of some relaxation techniques to help cope with the stress of infertility. Some healthy ways to destress during fertility treatment are yoga, acupuncture, meditation, and breathing exercises.  There has been some research to suggest that these activities may increase pregnancy rates, but regardless of their efficacy, if they help you relax a little bit, they may be worth trying. Finding healthy and productive ways to unwind and destress as much as possible will make the burden of fertility treatment more tolerable. The upside of taking part in some of these exercises is that they will undoubtedly help you in the future. Any healthy coping mechanism you develop during this time you will be able to fall back on when faced with stressful situations. There are many reasons a person may choose to keep their struggles with fertility private, but in general, it helps to have at least one trusted person you feel like you can talk to about treatment. This person may be a family member, friend, or even colleague, but make sure it is someone you feel comfortable with and can trust. Going through fertility treatment can feel isolating, so staying connected to trusted individuals in your life can help ease the burden. It may also be helpful to consult a mental health professional if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed and may benefit from additional support and evaluation. Sometimes insurance plans have behavioral health specialists who specialize in fertility available for consults, or they can refer you to someone in your insurance network.  WIN’s comprehensive behavioral health program offers access to emotional support from Care Managers trained in behavioral health. It is completely normal to feel stressed while going through fertility treatment, but remember, you do not have to do it alone.

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