Fertility expert Emma Cannon reveals six signs you could be stressed about your fertility and what to do instead
Last week, Dr Hilary Jones advised a woman calling in for IVF advice to ‘relax’, on the ITV Lorraine Show. It sent shock waves through the IVF community.
To be fair to Dr Hilary (left) he was not the best-placed person to be advising this well-informed patient group.
Firstly, being a GP his exposure to IVF patients is likely to be limited. Secondly, he probably rarely sees patients at all. In my opinion he was badly placed to advise on this extremely complicated and highly emotive area of medicine.
Anyone working on the coal face of infertility would know that telling a woman to ‘relax’ is the worse thing you can possibly say – a woman who has put her life on hold, probably invested thousands of pounds, has had to endure endless disappointments and is left with no answers, let alone a baby.
However, just telling people to ‘relax’ usually has the opposite effect and causes even more stress.
But was there any truth in his sentiment? Actually probably yes; there is growing evidence that stress does impact fertility and IVF; and how infertility can be extremely stressful.
Is stress bad for fertility?
Stress in moderate amounts can actually improve our performance and keeps us focused on a goal.
However, when this is sustained over a longer period of time our bodies adopt a ‘fight or flight’ response. This prompts the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol (a stress hormone) and adrenaline into the blood stream.
Increasingly people are running insanely busy lives and trying to juggle far too much at once, this can lead to burnout and yes the inability to conceive. Add a prolonged and arduous infertility journey to the mix and you soon have the perfect storm.
The opposite response of the nervous system is ‘feed or breed’ or ‘rest or digest’. This response tells the body that all is well and it is an optimal time to conceive, it also tells the body that it is safe to conceive. However, when stress levels are continually high over a period of time it is difficult for the body to relax into this response.
Science is beginning to look at the impact of stress on fertility and early studies show the likelihood of how natural conception is reduced when stress levels are high.
A recent American study of 501 couples over 12 months, found a 29 per cent reduction infertility and a two-fold increase in risk of infertility in couples demonstrating high levels of stress.
Research also shows that patients who become overwhelmed by their infertility tend to be less happy, engage less socially and have reduced libido. The longer it takes couples to conceive the higher their levels of stress rise. Here are the signs stress is affecting your fertility.
Stress sign #1: You’re becoming obsessed
There is often a lack of information, diagnosis and bad communication. This leads couples to do their own research, which can be overwhelming. There is so much conflicting information, which to the unqualified eye, only adds to the stress.
It is easy to become obsessed by finding ‘the answer’, when in truth there are often a multitude of reasons why things might not be working. This creates a cycle of stress; constantly seeking information and becoming overwhelmed.
Stress sign #2: Your sex life isn’t the same
Stress can also have an impact on libido and sexual function. ‘Baby-making sex’ can be stressful and lack the spontaneity and joy of sex for pleasure. Timing sex only puts more pressure on couples and many report that they struggle to keep their sex lives together.
Stress sign #3: You’re suffering with irritability and mood-swings
Depression and changes in character are not uncommon. Many couples go from having an easy-going life and relationship, to one that is dominated by the longing for a child.
Stress sign #4: You’ve fallen out with family, friends and colleagues
It can be very isolating trying for a baby, especially if you experience feelings of failure, worthlessness and emotional changes. It can be difficult for your nearest and dearest to know how to support you.
Many couples complain that friends and family often get it wrong, are insensitive, or offer unsolicited advice. This can lead to feelings of isolation and a cutting off from other people, no longer enjoying life in the same way.
Stress sign #5: You’re noticing menstrual irregularity
Stress can impact on the menstrual cycles making them irregular. Typically I would notice that the cycles are ‘regularly irregular’; varying in length sometimes short, sometimes long. Or they might cease altogether.
Stress sign #6: Jealousy and lack of joy
Many women report feeling a lack of joy and connection in life. Jealousy of other women who conceive is common followed by shame and guilt for feeling this way. It can be very difficult to share in other’s joy particularly if it is announced in an insensitive manner. ‘We only tried once’, rarely goes down well if someone has been trying for a long period of time.
Sometimes it takes longer than you think; infertility is defined as the inability of a couple to get pregnant despite having regular unprotected sex over a period of two years (NICE, 2013).
Change your focus
Instead of focusing everything on fertility try and bring some of the things that you use to find enjoyable back into your life. I have witnessed many times that when couples take a break and change their focus, things then will start to fall into place. Of course for those that are genuinely infertile this isn’t going to happen. But, I have had a patient who had zero normal sperm, make his wife pregnant the month after the sperm test.
Find Your Tribe
Rally help. Find good practitioners to support you, including complimentary therapists. Enlist friends to take you to appointments and ask loved ones for help.
Having a good community and support builds a feeling of safety which helps the body switch into ‘feed and breed’ and create the optimal conditions for fertility
Have sex for FUN
Make sex a priority and not just for baby-making. When you have sex for pleasure you release dopamine, endorphins and serotonin; the perfect antidote to the fertility wrecking stress hormones.
Be the teacher
Although it would be lovely if everyone knew what to say and do for us, sometimes people want to help but don’t know how.
It can be very empowering to turn things on their head. Instead of stewing over careless comments, show people how they can support you and explain how their words make you feel. Try to do this in a non- confrontational way and take ownership of your feelings. e.g. ‘when you said X it made me feel Y”. Or ‘when I tell you about my situation I am not asking for you to fix it or find solutions, I am really just needing you to listen’.
Don’t compare yourself to other people; everyone is different and will have a whole different set of circumstances. It is completely pointless comparing your situation to theirs. If others succeed before you it does not mean there are less babies in the world or that you are less likely to be successful. The best reaction is to extend your love with grace and be happy for them. This will ultimately be a healer for you.
90 Days Fertile is a new digital programme designed to support the fertility journey; delivered into your inbox on a daily basis, created by Emma Cannon.
Through videos, meal plans, fertile tips, guided meditations, recipes and much more. It also includes several guest appearances from a consultant gynaecologist to give medical input.
This programme is not designed to replace medical advice but it is designed to support you emotionally at whatever stage of trying you are at.
Emma Cannon is a fertility and women’s health expert, registered acupuncturist, founder of the Emma Cannon Clinic, and a mentor and speaker. With over 20 years in clinical practice, from her fertility rooms she has helped countless patients achieve their dream of having a family
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