The Science Behind Stress and Fertility
On a scale of candlelit bath to the year 2020, how stressed are you feeling right now? It’s been a whirlwind of a year (thankfully it’s nearly over), and one that has required a lot of extra self-care to protect our mental health and wellbeing. But what impact could the stress of this year, on top of all life’s normal stressors, be having on your reproductive health?
In the world of science, the relationship between stress and fertility has been debated for years. Are you feeling stressed because of your fertility issues? Or, is your stress the reason behind your infertility? We’re here to explore the science behind it.
What is stress?
“Stress” itself can be defined as any situation that tends to upset the balance between a living body and its environment. And in today’s society, we have plenty of stressors, even before COVID came along. Work or educational pressures, psychosocial stress, and physical stress caused by injury, surgery or other medical conditions are just some of those we face every day. You only have to take a glance around your surroundings to see people in various stages of tension.
But what actually causes this tension?
Let’s say you’re off to an important job interview. You’re sitting at the station waiting for your 30-minute delayed train, knowing that the possibility of being punctual is zero. Inside your brain, your hypothalamus decides to pull the trigger on your stress hormones – that’s right, the ones that activate your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart’s beating faster than normal, you’re breathing has become more rapid too, and your muscles begin to tighten. This is basically your body’s alarm system that is designed to protect you in cases of danger and emergency. But if your brain is pulling the trigger on your stress hormones without taking breaks, it could have very damaging effects on your health.
Symptoms of chronic stress can include:
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, muscle pain, stomach problems, chest pains, faster heartbeat and sexual problems.
- Mental symptoms such as struggling to concentrate, indecisiveness, feeling overwhelmed, worry and forgetfulness.
- Behavioural changes such as irritability, over/under-sleeping, over/under-eating, avoiding certain places or people and drinking or smoking more.
What came first: The chicken?
Infertility and stress tend to go hand in hand, kind of like that unwanted duo you never planned to meet, yet here Mother Nature is hurling them both at you hoping you can catch.
It’s a no-brainer that experiencing infertility causes stress, with plenty of research reporting high levels of anxiety and depression in those experiencing it. Despite the fact that as many as 1 in 7 heterosexual couples have difficulty conceiving or maintaining pregnancies, infertility is often a silent struggle in which people do not share with family or friends. The taboo nature of infertility can lead to social isolation which often increases psychological vulnerability, compounded by the inability to reproduce already causing a list of negative feelings, such as shame, guilt, and low self-esteem.
These feelings of guilt & stress can lead to a communication breakdown between couples or loved ones. Always remember to have a safe space for open conversations about your feelings. Try and make sure that you and your partner are on the same page regarding treatment.
Feeling stressed and frustrated is natural, but staying silent about your struggles will only further add to your stress. Finding someone who you can trust and a shoulder to lean on as you make your way through your fertility journey is extremely important. They could be your partner, a loved one or a good friend. Sometimes it’s easier to confide in someone you don’t know and so seeking counselling from professionals might help you navigate your feelings and alleviate some of the stress.
Or the egg?
Whilst it’s commonly understood that infertility causes stress, what about vice-versa?
When your body experiences stress, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormonal changes force your body to take emergency action, your heart rate increases, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises and breath quickens. You may also struggle with sleep, (for some sleep is a challenge whilst for others naps are an absolute must-have) and notice changes in your appetite and overall mood.
“Fight or flight” mode is activated, whereby your body starts to shut down the systems that are not essential for survival, and since you don’t need your reproductive organs to survive – they can be heavily impacted. It is common for women’s bodies that are under significant stress, perhaps from under-eating or over-exercising to lose their period, (hypothalamic amenorrhea) as their body can not keep up with menstruation during this “survival state”. If your body is under such stress, not only is the likelihood of wanting to partake in intercourse fairly unlikely (if you are – go you!), but the likelihood of conception can be affected.
A review of the literature focusing on the predominance of psychological symptoms in those experiencing infertility found that between 25% to 60% of infertile individuals reported psychiatric symptoms and had significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression than in those who are fertile.
The stress of fertility treatment
Another factor to consider when looking at the relationship between stress and fertility is the implications of undergoing fertility treatment such as IVF. Fertility patients are significantly more at risk of suffering from serious mental health conditions due to their infertility diagnosis and the treatment that follows, and so it is extremely important for them to be acknowledged throughout.
There has been significant research into the psychiatric health of those going through fertility treatment:
- A study conducted in 2004 interviewed a total of 122 women before they made their first visit to a fertility clinic. The results showed a shocking 40% of women were diagnosed as having either anxiety, depression or both.
- A large Danish study that screed 42,000 women for depression prior to treatment found 35% to be positive.
- In a large northern Californian study, 352 women and 274 men were assessed in fertility clinics. The study shows that 56% of the women and 32% of the men reported “significant symptoms of depression” and as many as 76% of women and 61% of men showed strong signs of anxiety.
These reports showcase robust evidence that fertility treatment can have a remarkable impact on one’s mental wellbeing.
How to get through it?
Self-care. Self-care. Self-care. You can never get enough of it. Be sure to set some time aside for yourself. Understand your limits and what triggers you should try to avoid. Figuring out where to start when you’re confronted with overwhelming lists or thoughts is always a challenge, so start small. Set yourself goals that you know are achievable, and the feeling of accomplishment, once they’re done, will be blissful.
Here are some of our favourite tips to help unwind amongst the madness:
Move – You’ve heard it all before, but the benefits of exercising comes in bounds. Not feeling a high-intensity workout? Then don’t do one. Start with some slow exercises, or try some yoga to help calm your mind.
Breathe – Practising meditation methods can help bring some calm into the chaos. It might sound a little “peace and love”, but being mindful can encourage you to feel more grounded and at ease.
Rest – Listen to your body when it needs a break, you’ll do it no good if you burn yourself out. Put your feet up and switch off when you need to.
In times where you feel like it’s all gotten a bit too much, always know there is someone here to talk to. Seeking professional help is a sign of strength as it shows you value your mental wellbeing more than your pride. If you are struggling with infertility, our specialist team of experts include fertility counsellors, who are there to support you through your fertility journey. Understanding your biology is the first step – and then we’ll take it from there.