Coping With the Stress of Infertility
Erin Westaway, ND 2018
You’ve helped to plan baby showers for your three best friends; your sister just called to
tell you she’s pregnant with her third and you had six friends announce their pregnancies on
Facebook in the last two weeks. You really WANT to be happy for them and there is some part of you that is, but if you’ve been trying to get pregnant and it isn’t happening, there is often a sinking sensation, a dread, and a grief that comes with hearing these announcements. Then follows the guilt. And then the people saying, “Don’t worry, it will happen for you when the time is right,” or everyone’s favorite, “Just stop stressing and then it will happen.” But the truth is - whether you’ve been trying for three months or three years - if you’re not getting pregnant as easily as you thought you would, it can be very stressful.
And yes, that stress can impact your ability to conceive. It can feel like a viscous cycle that there is no good way out of. The truth is that every woman and every couple needs ways of coping with that stress in ways that work for them, but here are a few strategies that you might find help take the edge off and give your fertility a little boost.
1. Go to bed earlier and get a full 8 hours of sleep. Every night. OK - do let yourself
stay out later for something fun once in a while, but try and make early bedtimes your
norm if possible. Getting enough sleep gives you a huge boost in your capacity to cope
with stress. It also helps to balance your hormones, your blood sugar, and decrease
inflammation - all of which have a direct impact on fertility. People who go to bed
earlier generally are less depressed and have an easier time getting pregnant. If you
struggle with insomnia, don’t beat yourself up about this, but do seek help. Finding
ways to get quality (unmedicated) sleep might be the best thing you can do for yourself.
2. Take a good hard look at other stressors in your life and make adjustments where
you can. Remember that when you do get pregnant, priorities are going to change and
decisions will be made differently. What things can you let go of, take a break from, or
change right now? Get creative with solutions. Anything you can take off your plate to
make room for taking care of you and your partner, do it. Sometimes that means giving
yourself permission to skip a baby shower or not take on that extra project at work.
Maybe this year you skip traveling to see the family for the holidays and give yourself a
fabulously relaxing stay-cation. If you’re able to financially, maybe you give yourself
laundry service once or twice a month so you have more time to do something that
brings you joy. The little stressors add up, so whatever you can eliminate will help.
3. Create a ritual that helps you cope. First thing in the morning and/or just before bed
are great times to incorporate this. Generally you’ll want it be something that
connects you with a felt sense sense of joy or peace. It could be a morning prayer or
meditation, a yoga practice, or simply drinking your favorite cup of tea while
appreciating a moment of stillness. Maybe for you it’s getting outside and watching the
seasons and the light change daily. Whatever it is, it should be a time to consciously
cultivate the experience of gratitude and joy in your life. Yes - this can be a hard one
when you’re in the stress of struggling to conceive and in no way do I mean to minimize
this. Consider your connection with joy and gratitude as a muscle to be strengthened -
and one that will work better on some days than others. It is NOT about suppressing or
ignoring the hard stuff - there should be space for that too. It is about helping your
body access its positive feelings ALSO. The more you can actually feel those positive
feelings in your body, the more it will shift your whole hormonal pattern and your stress
response in a healthy direction. If it’s hard, you might start each day by spending a few
minutes accessing a positive memory that you can really feel into. It’s OK to use the
same memory every day. You can even come back to that memory throughout the day.
The point is to find any way you can of shifting your body into a place of ease. The
more time you spend in this state, the healthier you will be hormonally and emotionally.
4. Talk with loved ones about what support you need. With your partner, talk about how
you can support each other - fertility struggles can be hard on the relationship if you
don’t talk about it, so have an open conversation about what is hard and where you can
help each other. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need from your friends and family.
That might mean asking friends to limit how much they talk about their kids or asking
family to stop asking you when you will get pregnant. The more people know what is
helpful and what isn’t, the better they are able to offer that to you.
5. Take a break from social media. Social media is designed to play directly into our
sense of wanting something we don’t yet have. It is actually created to be stressful -
the suspense it creates around “likes” and responses to comments are a great hook to
keep you engaged, but the brain and the body process them as stressors. And a break
also means a break from all those baby announcements and cute baby photos of your
friends and family.
6. Go outside. Every day. There is a lot of research showing the more time you spend
outside, especially in natural environments with trees or water, the less depressed we
feel and the more focused we are. So go for a walk or a hike. Or just find your favorite
spot to sit and look at the world, but give yourself a break from everything you need to
accomplish and get out there.
7. Find a good adrenal support. Adrenal glands are the primary organ in the body that
helps us cope with stress. And most of us are giving our adrenals quite a work out. A
high demand on the adrenal glands directly impacts the hormones we need to
conceive. Supporting the adrenals can be a big help when there is still stress despite
our best efforts. For women trying to conceive, I look for a high quality brand
containing rhodiola, ashwaganda, and holy basil.
8. Get some body work. A good massage, some cranio-sacral therapy, Mayan
abdominal massage, or visceral manipulation. All can be relaxing and can help you
connect back with your physical body - which we tend to disconnect from when we are
under stress. Many insurance companies now cover certain forms of body work
especially to treat pain, so if you have any physical pain, treat yourself well. Physical
touch can be a great way of helping the body let go of stress. Some of the above, such
as cranio-sacral therapy, Mayan abdominal massage, and visceral manipulation can
actually help prepare your body to conceive.
9. Sing loudly. No, I’m not kidding. Turn up the music in the kitchen or get in the car
and (windows up or down according to preference) sing your heart out. It doesn’t have
to be pretty. Loud singing can do two great things for you (aside from helping you
make new friends): it helps to stimulate the vagas nerve, which is the nerve responsible
for helping you relax, and can stimulate the thyroid. An under-functioning thyroid is also
associated with difficulty conceiving. So go find a song you love and belt it out.
10. Contrasting hot and cold water. This one sounds weird, but exposing your inner
organs and in particular your spine to alternating hot and cold water can be great for
tonifying the nervous system and helping you let go of stress. It also helps pump new
fresh blood through the pelvis to stregthen your reproductive organs. One way to easily
do this at home is to take a nice relaxing bath with about 4 cups of Espoms salts.
When you’re good and warm, get out and immediately run a heavy tank-top or t-shirt
under the coldest water out of your tap. Wring it out well and then wrap yourself in a
fleece blanket and then a wool one. Rest there for at least 20 minutes. If you fall
asleep, that’s fine. If not, you’ll likely feel more relaxed. If you have cold induced
asthma, be careful with this one.
These are ideas. The bottom line is about finding ways to shift your nervous system and help
your body and your mind cope with the stress you’re under. If it’s more than just stress and
you’re feeling especially anxious or depressed, isolating yourself, or becoming concerned
about your mental health or safety, you may need some professional help. There are
counselors and therapists who specialize in issues around infertility and pregnancy loss.
There are also infertility support groups such as RESOLVE that can be great resources. Finding a good holistic practitioner to help support you can also be a tremendous help. Whatever you do, know that you are not alone and there are people ready to help.
Please comment below if you would like to add anything to this list that I have missed, or if you have questions or comments that we can add to this discussion!
Dr. Erin Westaway is a naturopathic physician in Seattle, WA specializing in helping couples to improve health and fertility. She enjoys working with couples who want to optimize their health before getting pregnant as well as couples who are struggling to conceive. She is also happy to work with couples to support them with natural means while going through a medical process such as IVF.
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