Stress and fertility: How do they affect each other?

The diagnosis of infertility and its treatment seem to go hand in hand with stress.  That is what the majority of partners, especially women, say about undergoing fertility treatment at a clinic from the beginning of the process to the end.

Treatment of fertility and stress

In a study called Anxiety in fertile and infertile couples conducted by the professors Carmen Moreno and María Dolores Martín at the National University of Online Education (“UNED” in Spanish), the authors concluded that the most stressful treatment for couples is in vitro fertilization.  This makes sense because in vitro fertilization is a more complicated technique than artificial insemination.  Additionally, they found that, throughout treatment, both men’s and women’s level of stress reaches its maximum at three key moments: the day of the insemination, during the week of waiting, and the day on which they learn the results of the treatment.

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Stress or anxiety?

Stress is a natural and adaptive response that prepares us to take action when we face an objectively dangerous situation.  Our hearts speed up, our breathing rate increases, and our muscles tense.  On a physical level, we are preparing for fight or flight.

The level of stress that we perceive depends on our evaluation of the situation at hand, that is to say, on how dangerous the circumstances seem to us.  Additionally, our stress depends on whether we believe that we possess the skills to deal with the situation or whether we think the situation is beyond our capacity to control.  If we think we can control the situation, we will be able to regulate our stress.  On the contrary, stress could last too long and turn into anxiety.

Anxiety is not adaptive when we experience it in situations that are objectively not dangerous.  If this type of anxiety extends over time, it can become an anxiety disorder.

Styles of confronting stress

Below, we will discuss the two types of confrontation styles that Richard Lazarus and Judah Folkman propose.  We will also examine an applied example of the theme of this article: stress and fertility.

  • Confrontation centered on the problem. This style entails analyzing the problem, searching for alternatives, selecting the best option through a process of cost-benefit analysis, and putting the chosen solution into practice.  We often employ this method in the face of problems with solutions that we see as being partially or totally under our control.  For example, we could use this method when we confront the diagnosis of our infertility.  The thinking could go like this: “Now what do I do to become a mother/father?  I could search for information about available clinics, and then I could research different treatment techniques to see what is most appropriate for my case.  Hmm … What steps do I need to follow?  Okay, that’s what I’ll do.”
  • Confrontation centered on the emotion. The function of this strategy is to regulate the emotional discomfort brought on by the stressful event (for instance, the fertility treatment).  In general, it is based on avoiding the stressful situation, reevaluating what happened, and focusing selectively on the positive aspects.  We use these strategies when upon evaluating the situation, we think that we can’t do anything to change it.  For example, during the week of waiting for the results of the fertility treatment, we could experience the stress of wondering whether we succeeded in getting pregnant.  Because this is a situation that isn’t under our control, having already done all that we could to put ourselves in the position to get pregnant, we should center our efforts on confronting the situation with a response based on emotion.  For example, we could practice a relaxation technique or talk with our partners about what is worrying us.

Stress and pregnancy

One of the questions that most often worries couples in fertility treatment is whether their level of stress could affect their reproductive capacity.  Suffice it to say that, over the years, multiple studies have sought to respond to that question without much success.  As we’ll see, there are results in both directions:

  • According to a recent study called Relationship between hair and salivary Cortisol and pregnancy in women undergoing IVF that was conducted by Adam J. Massey and his team, it seems that the level of stress measured in women before a treatment of in vitro fertilization affects their rates of pregnancy by increasing their levels of cortisol.  Cortisol is a glucocorticoid produced by the suprarenal glands, the principal functions of which are metabolizing and increasing the level of glucose in the blood and suppressing the action of the immune system.

The importance of support

To sum it all up, it is difficult to determine whether stress affects the probability of achieving pregnancy.  What is clear, however, is that stress affects the quality of life that couples experience during fertility treatments, and for that reason, it is important to learn how to handle stress.  Accordingly, psychological support and specific psychological interventions exist in fertility treatments; for couples in these situations, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to yield positive results.

Additionally, when we feel stress, we feel guilty, but fighting against that feeling doesn’t help us to feel better.  It is advisable to not obsess about the idea of feeling calm and relaxed all the time.  Feeling a certain amount of stress during the process of fertility treatment is normal, and every couple experiences stress in a different way.

If you feel stress about the idea of a fertility treatment, don’t fret about asking for psychological help.  You deserve to be able to get pregnant, and you deserve to feel better.  At ifeel, we trust our specialized psychologists to help you during the process.


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