Stressing over Infertility

August 27, 2010Carole 1 Comment »

As though infertile women (and men) didn’t have enough to be anxious about, the New York Times reported on a new study that has scientifically confirmed the obvious, that stress can disrupt the reproductive system and make conception more difficult.

There are an amazing number of articles, opinions and business opportunities regarding stress and infertility. What came first, stress or infertility? Are you stressed because infertility and it’s treatments are stressful or did sustained stress in your life lead to infertility? Is there an evolutionary reason for the species to shut down reproduction in stressful times? And what about “procreation vacations“, a shameless marketing ploy to cash in on fertility patient’s stress?-or a great idea for couples?

ASRM has published a patient fact sheet on Stress and Infertility which has some common sense advice, mostly that you are not alone in feeling stressed, getting help from others or support groups like Resolve may be helpful and becoming well-informed to take back control of your life are all likely to make the stress better or at least tolerable.

Some people find that stress reduction techniques such as imagery, visualization, hypnosis, auto-suggestion, meditation, positive thinking, progressive muscular relaxation, deep breathing, biofeedback, and massage are helpful in managing their response to stress. Some people are turned off by these approaches and find relief in becoming experts on their infertility and regaining some control that way. Some people feel better about infertility if they can laugh about it. “Laughing IS conceivable” is a new blog written by a past infertility patient who is also an essayist and a stand-up comedian.

Some causes of infertility will not be “fixed” by stress reduction. If your fallopian tubes are blocked, being carefree won’t unblock them. If you are missing essential parts like ovaries, uterus, vas deferens (sperm ducts), etc., stress reduction won’t make those parts whole. In contrast, if infertility has a hormonal cause, then stress can contribute to hormonal problems. Stress negatively impacts the production of signaling hormones in the brain which in turn affects secretion of other hormones that regulate the function of the ovary and testis.

An excerpt from Chapter 32 of the free on-line bookHow to have a baby, overcoming infertility” written by Dr. Aniruddha Malpani and Dr. Anjali Malpani has a insightful passage about why the “Just Relax”  advice is so painful for infertility patients to hear.  “Just relax and you’ll get pregnant”  smacks of blaming the victim.  Essentially, you are being told, “If you would just relax, it will all be fine. You are making a big deal out of nothing”. Now you feel doubly hurt because this advice has trivialized your problem and blamed you for it in the same sentence!

“Just relax” seems similar to the overly naturalistic approach to cancer care– the idea that you can  cure your cancer simply by thinking good thoughts. Granted, reducing stress may help your body’s immune system function better  and may help fight cancer.  But there is no reason to assume that if your cancer prognosis gets worse or you are not getting pregnant, that it’s your fault. If you’d only relaxed more!! There’s a limit to what you can control and seriously, there is a limit to how much guilt or responsibility you can claim. Sometimes life just sucks and it’s not your fault. Forgive yourself already.

Perhaps that’s the key to reducing stress. Do all you can do to solve your infertility problem by whatever means you have available, then get off your back already. Stop beating yourself up. It’s a medical problem, not evidence of moral weakness.

Sometimes you are solving the wrong problem. Upon further reflection, maybe becoming pregnant with your own genetic child is not the only answer to your heart’s desires. Perhaps experiencing pregnancy is really important to you, but reproducing your own genes is less important. Egg donation or embryo “adoption” may be the answer. If the experience of pregnancy is not so important to you but you want to parent an infant, gestational surrogacy may be another route to parenthood. Adoption may satisfy your heart. Or not. Everyone is different and there are no wrong answers.

Maybe science will fail you and adoption isn’t your answer, what now? You are still alive – and hopefully – generally healthy, in spite of infertility. What will you do with your life? As hard as it is to adopt the long view in times of crisis, we have to find something that pushes us beyond the pain of the moment into the hope of the future. Shelagh Little offers her insights on life after infertility treatments fail which are based on her personal experiences.

You might find this thoughtful  Blogtalk about “Deciding to live Child free” empowering because it sheds some light on the monster under the bed  – the fear that treatments will fail – that causes much of the stress associated with infertility. Pamela Tsigdinos, author of Silent Sorority and Stephanie Baffone, a therapist who decided to live child free after years in infertility treatment and also counsels others facing this decision, discuss their choices and experiences after fertility treatments ended.

The good news is that most of you will parent in one fashion or another and your stress about fertility will be replaced by stress about parenting! Definitely something to look forward to.

© 2010, Carole. All rights reserved.

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