Speaking of Health

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Infertility can have far-reaching effects. It can affect a person's relationship with family and friends, create financial difficulty, affect the relationship between partners and negatively affect the couple's sexual relationship.

In a nutshell, infertility can cause stress.

Research has shown that women with infertility have the same anxiety and depression levels as women with cancer, heart disease and HIV. Many societies do not understand that infertility is a disease, so couples are blamed for their condition.

Does stress cause infertility?

While it's unlikely that stress alone can cause infertility, stress interferes with a woman's ability to get pregnant. Research has shown that women with a history of depression are twice as likely to experience infertility. Anxiety also can prolong the time needed to achieve pregnancy.

Studies on women undergoing in vitro fertilization showed that stress decreases the pregnancy rate.

How can you deal with the stress of infertility?

To deal with the stress of infertility:

  • Learn.
    Educate yourself about the normal responses to infertility. Talk to other people going through infertility. Understand your medical condition and ask about treatment options.
  • Communicate.
    Talk to your partner about your feelings and needs, and allow your partner to feel and cope differently. Talk about your differences and avoid conflict. Keep communicating with family and friends to avoid isolating yourself. Understand that you can talk about your situation without going into details and tell others how they can support you.
  • Practice relaxation techniques.
    The human body has two types of responses: fight-or-flight and relaxation. The fight-or-flight response is what happens to your body when you feel danger. This is the same response you experience during psychological stress. The relaxation response is when your body is in deep rest. Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, meditation and imagery, can help you transition to a relaxation response state. These techniques can help you deal with any stress, including stress related to infertility.
  • Take care of your health.
    Make sure you get your well-adult exam every year. Eat healthy, exercise regularly, get adequate sleep and allow time for recreation.
  • Deal with sexual stress.
    Sexual stress is common among couples with infertility, mostly because couples feel that this is an obligation or a duty rather than a fun activity. Couples can deal with this in several ways, including taking a break from baby-making, distinguishing between work and fun sex, and learning sensual contact that doesn't lead to pregnancy.

Does managing stress improve fertility?

In brief, managing stress may improve fertility. However, the effect of managing stress on the rate of fertility has not been well-studied.

Most available research suggests that there is a positive effect. Mind-body infertility programs have been shown to improve the pregnancy rates in women with infertility.

One study showed that 55% of women involved in a mind-body program could get pregnant, compared to 20% of women who were not in such a program. These programs teach relaxation techniques, stress management, coping skills and group support. Programs range from five to 10 sessions, and most include male partners in the sessions.

Fadi Yahya, M.D., is an OB-GYN in Albert Lea and Austin, Minnesota.

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