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11 Ways to Manage Stress During Fertility Treatment

Fertility treatment is difficult to navigate. Here are some ways to lower your stress levels and care for your mental health. 

April 3rd, 2024 | 13 min. read

By Melissa Kelleher, LCSW

We all experience stress. But when you're dealing with the emotional roller coaster of infertility on top of normal life stressors, it can often 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.

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Stress is a Natural 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 its negative side effects and maintain balance and wellbeing. 

What is stress and how does it affect the body?

The term 'stress' refers to the response of the sympathetic nervous system to a triggering event. The body naturally 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 all part of the body’s normal and healthy response to stress. However, when stress becomes a constant presence in your life, it can have a negative effect on your body.

Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress

There are two distinct forms of stress: acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term). Let's explore the differences between the two and the tell-tale signs of each form.

Acute Stress

This "short-term" form of stress is directly related to immediate or recent challenges or pressures. It can actually be beneficial in small doses, helping to motivate you and improve your performance on tasks or in challenging situations.

However, if acute stress occurs too frequently or is too intense, it may lead to negative health outcomes, including emotional distress, physical discomfort, or worse.

Symptoms of acute stress can include:

  • Emotional distress, such as anger, irritability, or anxiety.
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach upset, rapid heartbeat, and muscle tension.
  • Temporary behavioral changes, like increased or decreased eating, sleeping difficulties, or social withdrawal.

Managing acute stress often involves identifying the stressors, using stress management techniques (like deep breathing, mindfulness, or exercise), and seeking support from friends, family, or professionals if needed.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress persists over an extended period, typically resulting from ongoing pressures, challenges, or adversities that seem insurmountable or endless.

Unlike acute stress, which is short-term and related to immediate concerns, chronic stress lingers and can become a major factor in someone's life, often leading to significant health problems.

Causes of chronic stress can vary widely but often include long-term work issues, relationship problems, financial difficulties, and enduring health concerns. Situations like living in a high-crime area, experiencing racial discrimination, or being in a challenging caregiving role can also contribute.

The impact of chronic stress on health can be profound, potentially leading to or exacerbating a range of physical and mental health conditions, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease (i.e. high blood pressure, heart disease)
  • Mental health disorders (i.e. depression, anxiety, panic attacks)
  • Immune system suppression (making the body more susceptible to infections)
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Because chronic stress can have such a deep impact on an individual's well-being, managing it often requires a multifaceted approach.

This might include lifestyle changes (such as improved diet, exercise, and sleep), developing better coping mechanisms (through therapy, mindfulness, or stress reduction techniques), and sometimes medication to manage symptoms or underlying conditions exacerbated by stress.

Note: If you've tried to navigate depression or anxiety on your own and are still struggling, reach out to your healthcare provider for additional support. If you are experiencing an acute mental health crisis, dial 988 to be connected to resources.

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.

Note: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 wa 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. Can 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 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.

Every fertility journey has its ups and downs. That’s why it’s often described as a roller coaster of emotions. Again, it’s not that all stress is bad - it’s a normal part of life. However, long-term chronic stress is what can lead to additional problems. 

That being said, does stress decrease your chances of getting pregnant? The quick answer is maybe - but not in the way you might think. Studies have shown that patients struggling with infertility have similar rates of depression and anxiety as patients who suffer from other serious medical conditions like heart disease or cancer.

Here's the connection:

Chronic stress can lead to depression, anxiety, and other health issues, and the more depressed and anxious you are in treatment, the more likely you are to discontinue that treatment.

It's less about stress directly correlating with your success and more about it negatively affecting your mental health, which can ultimately impact your willingness to continue riding the fertility roller coaster.

Triggering the Relaxation Response

While you can't necessarily control the experience of fertility treatment, you can control your emotional response to it. The goal of managing stress is to try and elicit the "relaxation response" to counteract fight or flight mode. It’s not a specific technique - it simply describes the internal changes that occur when the mind becomes calm.

This 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.

Note: 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.

How to practice:

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

Own your journey.

Learn how to feel more empowered and in control throughout fertility treatment and increase your chances of success in the process.

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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 what works best for you. Sometimes, it’s as simple as reconnecting to something that helped in the past, like going for long walks or journaling. 

Other times, it’s being open to trying something new like starting a backyard 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. 

Did you know? Here at Illume Fertility, we offer free weekly Fertile Yoga classes which have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in fertility patients. 

11 Ways to Manage & Reduce Stress

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. Here are some 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.

Many fertility patients find that their energy becomes depleted during treatment due to various factors such as hormonal medications or the stress of managing continuous appointments, procedures, and tests.

You may not feel like your normal self right now - and that's okay!

#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.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram also have welcoming, active fertility communities that can help you find new friends by connecting you to others who truly understand what you're going through.

If you're comfortable being open about your fertility journey, you will likely also find that many of your friends and family members have gone through similar challenges while trying to conceive. Sharing our struggles often reveals just how common these issues are.

#3 Get to Know Yourself Again

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are some activities I really enjoy?
  • What are my hobbies or interests? 
  • Who's in my support network?
  • How have I handled stress in the past?

While there is no one-size-fits-all method of coping with stress, taking some time to slow down and learn about yourself will help you create a personalized self-care plan that really works for you and your personality.

#4 Remember: It's Okay to Take Breaks

Whether "taking a break" looks like avoiding fertility accounts on social media for awhile 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.

Tip: Think about exploring things you once enjoyed that may have taken a backseat due to treatment, like painting, crafting, volunteering, reading, or other activities. 

#5 Practice Breath Work

When you're feeling stressed, that "fight or flight" mode often kicks in and causes you to breathe more shallowly. Deep breathing can help you recenter yourself, slow down your heart rate, and lower anxiety.

We recommend you find some breathing exercises that feel good to you (for example, box breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) or download an app for some guided breath work.

Some of our favorite meditation and mindfulness apps:

#6 Find a Mantra 

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 unique resource: a dedicated Patient Advocate, Lisa Rosenthal, who offers free, one-on-one fertility support to anyone on a fertility journey. Ask your Patient 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 (AKA Dr. Google). Your team will be able to provide tailored advice and support and address any questions or concerns with your specific case in mind.

#9 Seek Out a Therapist

A good therapist can provide you with professional guidance and a safe space as you manage the tangled mess of emotions infertility and fertility treatment bring up.

Illume Fertility has built an extensive network of vetted psychological counselors that offer virtual and in-person sessions. Ask your Patient Navigator anytime for more information about our counseling network.

#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.

A few suggestions on what to add to your toolbox - we encourage you to include any items or ideas that will help calm and center you:

  • Photos of loved ones
  • Encouraging notes from friends or family
  • Positive affirmations or mantras
  • Meditation or relaxation apps
  • A playlist of your favorite songs
  • Phone numbers of people you trust
  • Sensory toys or coloring books

Envision your family's future:

Explore possible paths to parenthood, meet your Care Team, learn about fertility testing and treatment options, and more with our free Fertility 101 eBook.

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#11 Recognize Infertility as a Life Crisis

The emotional and physical toll of infertility cannot 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.

Be gentle with yourself.

Your Emotional Health Matters

When trying to conceive, so much attention is paid to your physical health and fertility - but your emotional/psychological wellbeing is just as important.

You may discover that something like a simple breathing exercise or taking a walk outdoors works wonders to immediately reduce your stress. But if you find yourself struggling to cope, never hesitate to ask for help and support. 

Note: 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 such a personal one, and the way you navigate the emotions of it all is going to be unique to you. Being aware of how stress is impacting you and starting to incorporate some of these tips into your everyday life can go a long way in helping to manage your stress as you go through treatment - and beyond. 

Melissa Kelleher, LCSW

Melissa has worked with Illume Fertility patients as a licensed clinical social worker and fertility counselor for many years. She facilitates sessions 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 specific challenges.

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