Melissa is a licensed clinical social worker and fertility counselor at Illume Fertility. She works with both couples and individuals during their fertility journey, helping them navigate loss and disappointments, as well as giving them the tools to make decisions related to their fertility challenges.
We all experience stress. Even as we begin to see the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, anxiety and stress still seem to be at an all-time high. If you're dealing with the emotional roller coaster of infertility on top of all of that...well, it can sometimes feel downright overwhelming.
When you feel stressed, it causes a physical reaction. The body responds to stress in three different ways: physically, mentally, and emotionally. And as we all know, stress is a normal (and unavoidable) part of life.
Even positive events in your life can cause stress. For example, buying a new home or getting your dream job. Fortunately, regardless of whether your stress stemmed from a positive or negative circumstance, the human body is built to respond to it. This is exactly why our bodies have a “fight or flight” response.
But when we're dealing with chronic stress (for example, due to infertility), it's important to learn how to manage it in a healthy way to avoid the negative side effects of stress and maintain balance and wellbeing.
"Stress" refers to the response of the sympathetic nervous system to a triggering event.The body releases hormones, such as adrenaline, into the bloodstream, resulting in the "fight or flight" reaction. 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 part of 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 falling asleep, causing you to toss and turn all night. We've all been there, right? 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 can also lower immune system functioning. From a psychological standpoint, chronic stress can eventually result in depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.
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. Keep reading to find out how!
Does stress impact my fertility?
At some point in your quest to grow your family, it's likely that you have felt stressed - probably a major understatement. It’s only natural to be sad or upset that you aren’t pregnant yet, especially when you'd hoped (or expected) that it would be easy. It's also normal to feel frustrated that you even had to seek out fertility treatment.
A fertility journey has so many ups and downs. That’s why it’s often described as a roller coaster ride of emotions! Again, it’s not that all 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 connection here is this: Chronic stress can lead to depression and anxiety, and the more depressed and anxious you are in treatment, the more likely you are to discontinue treatment.
It's less about stress directly correlating with your success and more about it affecting your levels of depression and anxiety, which can ultimately impact your willingness to continue riding the fertility roller coaster.
We encourage you to check out our Mental Health Minute video series for some helpful tools and ideas that can help with managing stress during fertility treatment.
Explore the ups and downs:
What can I do to help my depression or anxiety?
I like to think about it in terms of figuring out what you can control and letting go of what you can’t.
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 leads to a decrease in heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension, and causes oxygen rates to fall below resting levels. This in turn decreases the adverse physical and psychological effects of chronic stress.
There are many methods to elicit the relaxation response including visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, energy healing, acupuncture, massage, breathing techniques, prayer, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, and yoga.
Note:If you've tried to navigate depression or anxiety on your own and are still struggling, please contact us or your personal doctor for additional support. Medication can be a very helpful tool for some patients.
Get holistic support on your fertility journey:
Find the Tools that Work for You
The good news is that there are many ways to manage stress, it’s just a matter of finding a few tools that work best 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. It can also be a combination of both. Equipping yourself with multiple resources can only help you on your journey.
Here at Illume Fertility, we even offer free weekly Fertile Yoga classes which have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in fertility patients! If movement is something that helps you de-stress, I recommend checking out a class.
11 Ways to Manage and Reduce Stress
In addition to the above suggestions, here are eleven more tips for managing and reducing stress that are specifically tailored to patients going through fertility treatment:
#1 Make a List of Priorities
Before taking on new commitments, evaluate whether now is the right time to add something else to your plate. Don't be afraid to say no to requests from friends, family or work to ensure you don't get overwhelmed.
#2 Find a Fertility Friend or Support Group
Illume Fertility offers free, ongoing support groups as does RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association. Support groups are a safe place to vent, talk about how you're really doing, and hear from others who can relate. Facebook and Instagram also have strong fertility communities and can help you find new friends by connecting you to others who truly understand what you're going through.
#3 Get to Know Yourself Again
What are some things you enjoy doing? What are your hobbies? Who's in your support network? How have you handled stress in the past? There is no one-size-fits-all way to deal with stress, but learning about yourself will help you hatch a personalized self-care plan that works for you.
#4 Remember: It's Okay to Take Breaks
Whether taking a “fertility break” looks like avoiding fertility accounts on social media for a day or setting aside a full weekend with a "no TTC talk" rule with your partner, taking some time to reconnect with your interests and life outside of fertility treatment can be incredibly restorative.
Explore things you once enjoyed that may have taken a backseat due to treatment, like painting, crafting, volunteering, or other activities!
Similar to breath work, you can practice repeating a mantra to calm your mind and focus in on your goals. Here's a guided video to help you create and practice your first fertility mantra.
#7 Reach Out for Support
At Illume Fertility, we have a dedicated Patient Advocate, Lisa Rosenthal, who offers free, one-on-one fertility support to those on a fertility journey. Ask your navigator to connect you or email Lisa directly for a listening ear.
#8 Trust Your Care Team
Remember to rely on your physician and Care Team for medical advice instead of turning to the internet or Dr. Google. Your team will be able to provide tailored advice and support and answer any questions or concerns you may have.
#9 Seek Out a Therapist
A good therapist can provide you with professional guidance as you manage infertility and fertility treatment. If you’re a patient at Illume Fertility, myself or Lisa Schuman, LCSW, are available to support you with individual or couples' counseling sessions. We have worked with many fertility patients over the years and are happy to help you at any point during your journey. Ask your Patient Navigator to help you book an appointment!
#10 Create a Mental Health Toolbox
Building a mental health toolbox is an incredibly helpful way to ensure your self-care resources are close at hand for difficult days. You can do this by creating a list on your phone, putting items (like a stress ball or favorite candle) in a physical box, or whatever works best for you.
Here are some suggestions for what to add to your toolbox: photos of loved ones, encouraging notes from friends or family, positive affirmations, mediation or relaxation apps, a playlist of your favorite songs to cheer you, phone numbers of people you trust, or other tools.
Learn more about creating your toolbox:
#11 Recognize Infertility as a Life Crisis
The emotional and physical impact of infertility and fertility treatment should not be understated. Acknowledging the sadness, disappointment, and stress associated with infertility is an important step in the process. Infertility is a big deal, and there is nothing "wrong" with you if you're struggling to accept or navigate it. By recognizing the true impact of infertility, you allow yourself the space to process it and be gentle with yourself.
It's Never Too Early (or Late) to Manage Your Stress
Personally, I find that breathing exercises work wonders to immediately reduce my stress! But it's all about finding the tools that are right for you and your personal challenges. Don't feel discouraged if the first tactic you try doesn't work - there are so many different things out there that can help you manage and reduce stress.
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 - and beyond.
If you're looking for additional support or tools on your fertility journey, we recommend exploring the links below!