Many doctors today believe there is a link between stress and infertility.
The notion of “trying too hard” may actually be true! In fact, some doctors believe that up to 30% of all infertility problems may be caused by stress related to infertility. For example, researchers at the University of California, San Diego reported that, among patients undergoing in vitro fertilization, those who were most stressed were 20% less likely to achieve fertilization. Stress appears to have a biological impact as well: increasing levels of hormones such as cortisol or epinephrine, which has been related to infertility.
- Likewise, reducing stress may help increase proteins within the uterine lining that are involved in implantation.
- Stress reduction may also increase blood flow to the uterus, which also affects conception.
But which came first, the chicken or the egg? It seems that infertility results in stress and stress results in infertility, thus creating a vicious cycle for women or couples trying to become pregnant, which often ultimately results in other forms of psychological distress such as anxiety or depression.
There are several ways in which infertility impacts functioning. When pregnancy is difficult or impossible to achieve, individuals find themselves having all kinds of negative thoughts such as,
- “This is the worst thing that could ever happen to me!”
- “I’ll never have a baby!”
- “I’ll never be happy!”
- “It’s all my fault, I should never have drank so much in college!”
- “I have nothing going for me!”
- “My marriage is going to fall apart if I can’t have a baby!”
In CBT, we refer to these thoughts as “cognitive distortions,” or thoughts that don’t necessarily hold much truth, but have a major impact on your mood and daily functioning. The power of these cognitive distortions are so strong that they can take on a life of their own and impact many areas of your life, including your work (you may start missing too many days), marriage (you may withdraw from or blame your husband or wife), other relationships (you may isolate yourself from friends and family), health (you may begin to engage in unhealthy behaviours such as excessive smoking, drinking, eating) and day to day life (you may spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet looking for answers or putting yourself on an emotional rollercoaster testing and retesting to see if you are pregnant). Any or all of these behaviours may contribute to or result in increased stress, or psychological distress such as anxiety or depression.
Treatment for Infertility Stress
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) focuses directly on the cognitive distortions related to the current infertility. More specifically, cognitive behavioural therapists help individuals learn to identify their thoughts or cognitive distortions, examine ways they impact their behaviours and emotions, then change them in order to change emotions and/or behaviours. Practicing this over and over again in therapy sessions and in homework assignments eventually leads to a change in behaviours, thoughts, emotions, stress level, and sometimes your ability to conceive!