Mental Health Awareness Month: Infertility and Stress
We all experience stress. When you feel stressed, it causes a physical reaction in your body. Your body responds to stress physically, mentally, or emotionally. This is a perfectly normal part of life. Even positive events in your life can cause stress. For example, buying a new home or getting your dream job. Fortunately, the human body is built to respond to stress, and that is exactly why we have a “Fight or Flight” response. Fight or Flight refers to the response of the sympathetic nervous system to a stressful event by releasing hormones, such as adrenaline, into the bloodstream. This physiological response helps us become more alert, motivated, and ready to respond to real or perceived danger. Have you ever felt your heart race or your breath quicken? How about when your face gets flushed or your hands get sweaty? This is your body’s normal and healthy response to stress.
However, stress can have a negative effect on your body if it becomes continuous or chronic. In the short term, chronic stress can lead you to have difficulties either falling asleep or cause you to toss and turn all night. It can cause you to eat poorly, increase substance use, and / or become irritable. Long term stress can lead to increased blood pressure, upset stomach, headaches, and lower your immune system functioning. From a psychological standpoint, chronic stress can eventually result in depression, panic attacks, and anxiety. Like many things in life, stress is a part of most fertility journeys, but thankfully, there are things you can do to combat some of this natural response in a healthy way.
How Does Stress Relate To My Infertility Treatment?
Well, at some point along this journey to build a family, I’m guessing that you have felt stressed (probably an understatement). It’s only natural to be sad or upset because you aren’t pregnant yet when you hoped, or when seeking out fertility treatment. This fertility journey has so many ups and downs. That’s why it’s often described as causing a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Again, it’s not that stress is bad, it’s a normal part of life. But chronic stress can be an issue. That being said, does stress decrease your chances of getting pregnant? The quick answer is maybe... but not in the way you may think. Studies have shown that patients suffering from infertility have similar rates of depression and anxiety as patients who suffer from other serious medical conditions such as heart disease or cancer. The key takeaway here is this: the more depressed and anxious you are in treatment, the more likely you will discontinue treatment.
What Can I Do to Help My Depression/Anxiety?
I like to think about it in terms of figuring out what you can control, and letting go of what you can’t control. You can’t control having to experience fertility treatment, but you can control how you react to it emotionally. The goal of managing stress is to try and elicit the relaxation response to counteract Fight or Flight. It’s not a specific technique, but it describes the internal changes that occur when the mind becomes calm. Several scientific studies by Herbert Benson and colleagues at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Behavioral Health have shown the benefits on your body when eliciting the relaxation response. The response is a decrease in heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension, and oxygen rates fall below resting levels. This in turn will decrease the adverse physical and psychological effects of chronic stress.
What are some ways to manage and reduce stress?
Fortunately, there are many ways to manage stress, it’s just a matter of finding a few that work for you. Sometimes, it’s as simple as reconnecting to something that worked for you in the past, like going for long walks or journaling. Other times, it’s being open to trying something new like tending a garden or joining a support group. Or, it can be a combination of both! Equipping yourself with a few tools only helps in this case.
Here are some ways to do this as it specifically as it relates to going through fertility treatment:
- Start by making a list of priorities. Before taking on new commitments, think about it whether now is the right time to add something else to your plate.
- Find a fertility friend or support group - RMA of CT support groups and Resolve are two great resources. Feel free to vent, confide and hear from others who can relate to what you are going through.
- Get to know yourself a bit - What are things you enjoy doing, what are your hobbies, support network, and how do you handle stress. There is no cookie-cutter way to deal with stress but learning about yourself will help to make a plan that can work.
- Practice self-care. Take “fertility breaks” whether it be a few hours or a weekend to do something you enjoyed before starting fertility treatment that took a backseat once you started.
- Practice breath work, or utilize a relaxation or mindfulness app.
- Rely on your physician and your team for medical advice and to answer any questions or concerns you have. Not the internet or Dr. Google.
- Seek out a therapist can provide you with professional guidance as you manage your fertility treatment. If you’re a patient at RMA of CT, feel free to schedule a chat with Lisa Schuman, LCSW or myself. We have worked with many fertility patients over the years and we are happy to assist.
Personally, I find that breathing exercise works wonders to immediately reduce stress at the moment. Some of my favorite apps that I often recommend to help with this include Ferti Calm, Insight Timer, Happy Not Perfect, and Calm.
Your fertility journey is a personal one, and the way you manage it emotionally is unique to you. Always remember, there are many tools that you can utilize that can help you get through it the best way you can. Starting to incorporate some of these into your everyday life can go a long way in helping to manage your stress as you go through treatment.
Looking for more mental health tips from Melissa? Check out the video below.