The Real Deal on Stress and Fertility

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Trying to conceive can be an overwhelming process when it doesn't happen straight away. Here's how to care for yourself through it all.

Last updated: 15 November 2022
5 min read
  • Studies have shown that stress can impact fertility, which can turn into a vicious cycle when you're stressed about not getting pregnant.
  • Honing in on the self-care practices that actually work for you can help you take control of that anxiety.
  • Phone a friend—but make sure it's the right one. Reaching out to someone who has experience with or even just empathy for your situation can make a huge difference.

Read on to learn more …

How Stress Affects Fertility and How to Manage It

*This content is designed to inform and inspire, but it is not meant to diagnose, treat or give specific medical advice. Always check with your healthcare provider about how to stay healthy and safe before, during and after pregnancy.

If you've spent most of your life trying not to get pregnant, it can be a shock when it doesn't happen once you're actually ready. That shock can turn to stress and anxiety when month after month, you're still not pregnant. The catch: We're constantly told stress is bad for fertility, but how are we supposed to tackle this hugely stressful situation … without getting stressed out?

"It's inherently stressful to have a deeply desired dream held out of reach", says New York City-based psychiatrist Lucy Hutner, MD, the lead editor of the Textbook of Women's Reproductive Mental Health. On top of that, "a situation where we feel responsible for an outcome that we can't fully control is a recipe for stress". So, take heart: stress is completely reasonable. But that doesn't mean you can't find ways to manage it. Here, experts share how big a factor stress really is when it comes to fertility—and techniques to reduce it.

Recognise the role stress plays in fertility.

Telling someone to chill and it'll all work out is never helpful, in any situation. But understanding how stress impacts fertility is still important. In a 2018 review in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, researchers found that reducing stress may indeed improve success. "Studies have shown a massive impact of psychological interventions on pregnancy rates", says study co-author Alice Domar, PhD, the Chief Compassion Officer (can we make this more of a regular thing?) at Inception Fertility and an associate professor of obstetrics, gynaecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Throughout decades of research, Domar has found that when women experiencing infertility participate in cognitive behavioural therapy and mind-body interventions (like meditation), they are two to three times more likely to get pregnant compared to women who don't.

Reframe how you talk to yourself.

What's often most effective for infertility patients, says Domar, is a stress-management strategy known as cognitive restructuring. If you're constantly spiralling through negative thoughts—"The infertility is all my fault"—Domar suggests challenging that inner narrative. "For example, if a woman says, 'I'll never have a baby', I would ask, 'Well, if that's true, why are you putting yourself through IVF and spending all this money?'" says Domar. "Clearly, this person has hope. So instead of thinking, 'I'll never have a baby', you could think to yourself, 'I'm doing everything I can to try to have a baby'". Or tap into gratitude: "I'm thankful to feel ready to be a mother whenever and however it happens".

How Stress Affects Fertility and How to Manage It

Find what relaxes you.

Can't stand bubble baths? No worries. Self-care rituals aren't one size fits all, says Natalie Crawford, MD, a fertility doctor and co-founder of Fora Fertility in Austin, Texas. What counts is taking the time to actually do them. "Take acupuncture, for example. It could help reduce stress and therefore may be beneficial, according to some fertility studies. However, it had the exact same response as what was called sham acupuncture, which is basically the same experience except the needles are applied randomly. Both of these were better than no intervention". In other words, it's probably just stepping away from your daily life and focusing on yourself that's most helpful. Consider journalling, exercising, reading or another hobby. Whatever you decide to do, Crawford suggests devoting at least 30 minutes to it daily.

Confide in friends who get it and validate your experience.

When your sister-in-law announces her third pregnancy before you've had your first, you need people who can understand why the seemingly joyous news has you in tears and don't just tell you to brush it off. "Your very best friends or closest family members may not be the best to help you through this", says Hutner. "People can have very well-meaning friends, but then sometimes those well-meaning friends get pregnant, which can be hard". Look for those who can provide judgement-free validation. Crawford adds that if you're not finding the right support within your network or through like-minded online communities (and, TBH, even if you are), therapy may be a good option.

Connect more with your body.

Between peeing on ovulation tests, checking your temperature and overthinking every little sign and symptom, "when you're trying to get pregnant, you can't escape constant interaction with your body", says Hutner. "When our body isn't doing what we want it to do, that can be very painful and perplexing. I encourage my patients to do anything they can to continue to connect with their body in a positive way". This could look like keeping up with your existing workout routine, trying a new kind of physical activity, getting a massage if your budget allows or doing body-scan meditations.

The key is to find ways to honour and support your body in whatever it needs in this moment. After all, it might not be just yours forever.

Words: Jihan Myers
Photography: Vivian Kim


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Originally published: 18 November 2022

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