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Stress & Fertility

Nurturing Your Spirit: Looking inside to get the whole picture

Cultivation of freedom and inner peace

“What’s meant to be will always find a way.” ~Trisha Yearwood

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Spirit can be a tricky thing to define and as such it can often be the last thing that people address when having reproductive challenges. I suggest you make it a top priority, however, as it is not only linked to physical health but quite often the cause of it. For me, spirituality comes in many forms, but I can boil it down to a nurturing of two values: growth and contribution.

Are you contributing in some way, making the world a better place? Are you growing as a person with new skills, learning from your mistakes, or looking past self and following the wisdom of something divine? It is also very important that you take the time to look at how you are feeling on a deep level, the nuts and bolts. How happy are you in your life as a whole? Do you feel like you have a purpose and if so, are you fulfilling it? Do you like your job or are you staying there because the benefits are attractive for when you get pregnant? Is the desire to have a baby putting a strain on your relationship?

Go back to church or temple regularly. Find time to meditate. Spend more time in nature. Volunteer for a worthy cause. Find things that nurture your spirit and decide right now that you are going to (re)incorporate them into your life. The fulfillment you will be gifted with is beyond words, and something that could have profound effects on your fertility and spirit of your unborn child.

The process of getting pregnant, or rather struggling to get pregnant according to plan, can be very stressful. Whatever caused the difficulty in conceiving originally is now compounded with the immense stress that accompanies infertility. Women instinctively understand that stress is not good for reproduction, so this results in more stress and a frustrating cycle emerges. Sadly, in this sense, infertility may become its own cause.

Taking the time to balance the big picture with staying in the moment is key to a contented inner life and being self ‘full’.


Stress

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” –Lao Tzu

Stress is such an umbrella term these days. Since it covers everything from being overworked to emotional strain within a relationship or financial worries, all of us are bound to have some. It is how we deal with it that determines whether it becomes harmful.

There are mixed opinions as to whether stress has an effect on fertility but I question, how could it not? When someone experiences stress, the body releases a hormone called cortisol. Whether it’s meeting a deadline, fighting with your spouse or being chased by a pack of hungry wolves, cortisol bubbles through our veins. In the past (like when you may have actually been being chased by wild animals), cortisol was essential for survival because it heightened the senses making us faster, stronger and keenly aware of our surroundings. When the imminent danger was gone, cortisol levels dropped and our body slowly went back to functioning regularly. In a modern day world, however, we sustain these levels for prolonged periods of time and that is where the problems start.

In situations of long term stress, health dangers are rampant. The body is not designed to sustain heightened cortisol levels and it causes trouble for the immune system. When there is trouble in the immune system, there is trouble everywhere. From colds to cancer to chronic fatigue, a weakened immune system plays a role. And what about fertility? How does a compromised immune system play a role there?

Think of your body as a very busy life. There is a LOT going on. You have to maintain a job, you’ve got your relationships, both personal and professional. There’s your family, your social life, your health, maybe some travel, home maintenance and maybe that nagging little noise your car is making. You can’t do everything at once.

You have to schedule your time wisely and prioritize. If work is hectic, your social life might suffer and if you have to fly home to look after your sister’s kids while she’s sick, your job is going to have to take a back burner for a couple of weeks.

Your body is the same. It has a lot to do and it has to decide what is most important. When stress is a long term thing, reproduction is not the priority. Instead of making sure your reproductive organs are getting enough circulation, blood flow is going to the heart because the cortisol is telling it that there is imminent danger and it needs to beat faster.

Your body is highly intelligent and its job is to keep you alive. Producing offspring is secondary to the number one job – looking after you. When YOU are healthy, then your body is free to think about creating someone else.

Some stress is inevitable. We are all susceptible to the traffic jams and holiday dinners and trips to the dentist. Dealing with stalled fertility can be a huge stress. How do you avoid letting those instances make your cortisol levels rise?

Figuring out your stressors is a good place to start. I suggest making a detailed list of everything in your life that makes you a little edgy. Include both significant and minute from running late for an appointment to fighting with your spouse. Then qualify this list into two additional categories–things you have control over and things you do not.

For the list of things that you have control over, set some goals for yourself to move on from those stressful situations. Could you reduce the frustration that traffic causes by using public transit? Is there someone that you need to have a heart-to-heart with to get through a strained relationship? Can you delegate some of your duties elsewhere to free up some time for yourself?

And for the list of things you don’t have control over, I suggest you pair them with a third list. A list of everything that makes you feel relaxed and happy. It might be a deep breath to gain perspective and some dedication to reprogramming your reactions, but a hot bath, a run along the seawall or a cuddle with your dog are also guaranteed to combat stress. If it makes you feel good, it has the opposite effect that cortisol does. The chemicals released from pleasurable activities actually boost your immune system and like everything in Chinese medicine, good health is about finding balance.


Stress and the Human Body

* In a prospective cohort study, a group of researchers from the U.S. decided to answer the question: Are women’s stress levels prospectively associated with infertility? They measured biomarkers (i.e., specific chemicals or hormones) for stress in their saliva and a perceived stress questionnaire in almost 400 couples. What they found was that when these biomarkers and perceived stress were higher, the time to pregnancy was increased (Lynch, 2014).

* In a study done attempting to explain exactly how acupuncture helps with stress on a biological level, researchers found that it actually regulates the specific hormones associated with the biochemical reactions that take place in the body as a result of stress (Wang, 2014).

* In 2014, The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) released a patient education fact sheet on stress and infertility. It talks about the unknown impact of stress on fertility, how stress impacts fertility patients, how to reduce stress, and how people can help loved ones or friends going through this difficult time.

How stress impacts fertility is not completely understood but high levels of stress can prevent pregnancy and affect a woman’s chance of conceiving. What we do understand is that taking steps to manage stress provides a better quality of life during challenging times.


How stress impacts a fertility patient

For some, being unable to conceive breeds an obsession with pursuing anything and everything that might help, from prayer to vitamins to IVF. Others completely withdraw from life, loved ones and society as a whole. Either extreme must be addressed in order to accomplish their goal of creating a happy healthy family.


How to reduce stress

Proper stress management helps people feel more in control and can improve overall well-being. Reducing stress can help bring a sense of clarity and aid women and couples in making better decisions for their health and fertility treatment options. It should be remembered that being stress free during fertility struggles is an unrealistic expectation, but finding ways to minimize stress and its detrimental effects is recommended. Acupuncture, aerobic exercise, guided imagery, journaling, listening to music, massage therapy, meditation, mind-body groups, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, psychotherapy, self-help books, support groups, visualization, walking/hiking and yoga. These are just a few suggestions that could be a part of a stress management program.


How to help those who are struggling

Avoid telling them to ‘just relax and you will get pregnant’. Compassionately asking how they are doing and listening is likely the most important thing you can do for your loved one. If you feel it timely and appropriate, gently offering valuable tools that may reduce stress, improve quality of life and bring back a regained sense of control may be very appreciated.


Meditation

“Muddy water, let stand becomes clear.” ~Lao Tzu

Meditation is a practice that is becoming more and more prevalent in the western world even though cultures have been practicing it for ages. It is a very simple concept that can be extremely helpful for allowing an individual the opportunity to get in touch with their inner self.

Here are the basics:

1. Sit comfortably in a warm, quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.

2. Relax and pay attention to your breath. Take deep belly breaths that fill your abdomen.

3. Clear your head. When thoughts arise, gently let them go and bring your attention back to your breathing.

It may be a challenge at first but start small. Five or ten minutes a day will have an impact and you can increase the time you sit as you get more comfortable with your practice. Be patient with yourself. Thoughts will arise and that is normal. When you realize you are thinking rather than focusing on your breathing, just guide yourself back lovingly. Regular meditation will lower your blood cortisol levels and help ground your energy so that you can embrace the journey to parenthood calmly.


Take a moment…or two

Some people are intimidated by meditation; maybe it sounds too new-agey or you just feel you don’t have time. If that’s the case, I suggest a less rigorous form of mindfulness that can be done throughout your day and is much more simple.

Choose an activity that you partake in daily such as washing your hands or having a glass of water or even opening a door. Each time that you do that activity, check in with yourself. Take a couple of deep breaths and consider for a moment where you’re at emotionally, physically and intellectually. You don’t have to address your feelings in any way nor judge them. Simply acknowledge where you are and what you’re doing. Then, most importantly, smile and be grateful for all the wonderful blessings you have in your life. Be in the moment for that moment and then carry on with your day. Think of it as checking in with yourself the same way you would your partner or someone else you care about.

When mindfulness practices are done consistently, they become programmed to be a part of your instinctual makeup. Over time, they play a massive role in changing your life. It is the little things that make big differences.


Self-Care

“Sleep is the best meditation.” ~Dalai Lama

Nurturing yourself is always important. This is even more crucial when you are wanting to become a parent. While it may be hard to define, spirit is always something that seems to thrive when you take good care of yourself. Self-Care means something different for everyone so I encourage you to find what works for you. A few favorites include: warm baths, alone time, time with friends and loved ones, exercise and regular massage.


Giving Back

Another way to nourish your spirit and to take your mind off things is to lend a hand to those that need it. Sometimes the best way to get out of our heads is to do something selfless. And again, putting others first can be great preparation for parenting. Helping someone in need not only gives us a sense of purpose, but will often induce gratitude for our own circumstances thus pulling us out of the rut of self-pity and frustration.

The American writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it best when he said, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no person can sincerely try to help another without helping themself.”

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