Updated: Dec 24, 2021
Stress is a word that you’ll hear on a frequent basis when you are trying to conceive. You’ll receive friendly but unsolicited advice to ‘just relax’ or even be told by a friend or family member the reason you aren’t getting pregnant is because of stress. Why do people say this? What is stress? What are the symptoms of stress and burnout? Does stress affect your ability to conceive or affect fertility treatments?
This is the final part of our three-part series on mental health during infertility and after baby loss. This article covers the meaning of stress, it’s physical symptoms, how it affects our emotions, the impact on fertility and fertility treatments and how to reduce stress and overwhelm.
Make sure you read the whole series. In part 1, we discussed how to recognise the symptoms of common mental health conditions and take the first steps to get help from health professionals.
In part 2, we discussed the types of health professionals that treat mental health illness and the most common medications for anxiety and depression. For now, let’s talk about stress.
What is the Meaning of Stress?
Stress is the reaction our body and mind has to events that cause you to worry, feel under pressure or make you scared or distressed. When you suddenly experience these events, your body starts an acute ‘fight or flight response’. Adrenaline is released into the blood, causing your heart to beat fast, your breath to become more shallow but fast, your palms to become sweaty and your pupils to dilate.
This response should be a short-lived response to help you get away from or manage the problem as quickly as possible. If this fight or flight response is prolonged, repeated frequently or happens when your body is not under threat, this reaction takes its toll on your body and mind.
How Stress Affects The Body and Mind
Chronic stress or long-term stress can make you feel like there is ‘too much’ of everything, too much to do, too many demands or expectations, too many changes or decisions to make, leaving you overwhelmed. It can leave you lacking motivation and energy to do anything, undermining your belief in your abilities, leading to burnout.
Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion and happens when you experience long-term stress. You feel overwhelmed. You may feel emotionally depleted or empty, doubt yourself, feel helpless, detached or procrastinate or take longer to complete tasks. You feel a far cry from your usual self.
What are the Emotional and Psychological Symptoms of Stress
Stress can cause you to feel snappy and irritable. You may find it difficult to fall asleep or sleep too much. You may avoid certain people or places, drink more alcohol, smoke more or take recreational drugs to try to relax. You might find it difficult to make decisions, you may feel overwhelmed, constantly worrying about things or even become more forgetful.
What are the Physical Symptoms of Stress?
The physical symptoms of stress can include headaches, dizziness, muscle tension or pain in various parts of your body, including back or neck, abdomina problems, nausea, chest pain, faster heartbeat (palpitations), sexual problems such as lack of desire to have sex, inability to enjoy sex or inability to ejaculate.
Identifying the cause
Sit down with a pen and pad and ask yourself these questions then write down your thoughts. What is causing you to feel stressed? It may be one thing, or a whole myriad of things. Have you felt this way for a long time or is it recent? What has changed? What hasn’t changed?
The worry of being unable to conceive, the pressure of undergoing fertility treatment, making numerous decisions about your treatment and dealing with work and other life and family commitments can be incredibly stressful.
Whatever is causing you to feel stressed, remember, you should feel what you feel; do not feel guilty for the way that you feel and do not try to deny your feelings.
How to Deal With Stress and Why It’s Important
Recognising that you feel stressed will not only help you take much-needed action but, you can also learn valuable ways to prevent chronic stress.
Here are some ways you reduce stress..
· Get active – Go for a walk and get some fresh air, go to the gym, put your favourite music on and dance around the living room. Exercise alone won't stop you from feeling stressed but will help clear your mind.
· Take back control – Tell yourself, loudly, if necessary, that you are taking back control. If you remain passive, stress will continue to gain momentum.
· Reach out and connect – A good support network will help you air your feelings. Often once you talk through your problems, they feel less daunting. Plus, laughing with friends is a wonderful stress reliever.
· Have some ‘ME’ time – Have a break from work, read a book, watch a movie, bake a cake, have a bubble bath. Anything special to pamper yourself.
· Start a new hobby or have a new experience– Take time to learn a new hobby or do something you enjoy. Learn something new, take a cooking lesson, take a photography class or take an interior design course. Enjoy and take the pressure off from yourself.
· Minimise or refrain from less healthy habits – You may think that drinking or smoking helps you cope with stress, but regular intake is harmful to your body and fertility. It might be tempting to order another takeaway or spend another night sitting in front of the tv but try something different such as reading or cooking a fresh meal from scratch.
· Help others – Helping someone else can help rest your mind from your own worries because you focus on someone else instead. Not only will they be grateful, but you will also have a sense of purpose which can feel rewarding.
· Share the load and get some help – Are you able to get help with your workload or task lists? Are there some simple ways you can get help or organise your time? Are there events or tasks that you can decline? Perhaps you can hire a cleaner for a few hours or do your grocery shop online. You can then prioritise the things that need to be done now or that will help you move forward, leaving the rest to wait later. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, ask for extra time or feel able to say NO now and again.
· Try to be positive – Instead of focusing on the negative things in your life, make a small list of the positive things in your life or things you are grateful for. This can be 2-3 things and if you do this regularly, it can help reduce stress.
· Accept the things that you can’t change – If you are worried about situations that you can’t control or situations where you can’t influence the outcome, it can take up a lot of your energy and cause a great deal of worry. You can only do your best to change what you can control, and after that, do what you can to let it go and accept what happens next. Obtaining help from a therapist or coach can help you do this.
· Introduce and/or maintain good lifestyle habits – Get a good amount of sleep every night. Eat nutritious, healthy food, reduce the amounts of alcohol, drink plenty of water and fluids to keep hydrated, stop smoking and taking illicit drugs.
Does Stress Affect My Ability to Become Pregnant?
You’ve most likely heard countless stories of friends, relatives or friends of friends becoming pregnant during a holiday, after a night of binge drinking, after they had stopped fertility treatment, had ‘given up ’ trying to conceive, or when they have started the process of other ways to start a family such as adoption. If you are having difficulty trying to conceive it’s common to be told to relax, take a holiday, reduce stress, stop actively trying so hard and ‘you’ll get pregnant’.
There is no consistent or conclusive evidence to support that stress directly affects your ability to become pregnant or stay pregnant. However, stress can affect your ability to become pregnant in other indirect ways. For example, stress can mean you are too busy to have sex, have sex less often or have reduced desire to have sex. Stress can also lead to introducing lifestyle changes that negatively impact fertility such as smoking too much, drinking too much alcohol, or eating food that isn’t nutritious.
Managing stress and looking after your mental health as much as possible is good for your overall emotional and physical well-being, and it also places you in a better position to cope with the emotional and physical challenges of fertility treatments.
You can read more about how stress can impact fertility in the information resources at the end of this article.
Does Stress Affect Fertility Treatment?
Numerous studies have shown that people living with infertility or experiencing baby loss report stress, anxiety or depression. There aren’t good quality studies that consistently show that stress and psychological symptoms negatively affect pregnancy rates. However, undergoing fertility treatments can add to the burden of stress and become detrimental to your mental health, so here are some ways you can reduce stress during your fertility treatments.
Complementary therapies, e.g. Yoga, meditation, massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture, journaling, visualisation.
Aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling or any other activity you enjoy. Refrain from high intensity exercise during fertility treatment.
Take breaks and do something you enjoy, e.g. reading, listening to music, spending time with friends and family.
Spend time in green space and bring nature into your everyday life, e.g. do some gardening, exercise outdoors, take walks outside, spend time with your pet.
You can read more in the information resources section at the end of this article.
How Can I Get Help?
Although stress is not a medical condition, looking after yourself and getting help and support is essential.
Support is available on a one to one basis or via groups. There are many forms of help available; local in-person or accessible online from any location in the world. Some are available for free, and some require a subscription or membership fees. The Fertility Network UK offers support; learn more by reading the information at the end of the article.
You may find forums, online groups or communities helpful and supportive, or may find they contribute to that feeling of overwhelm. If you use forums or online communities, check to see if they are moderated to minimise misinformation.
Speak to or visit your GP if you have tried some of the above measures and are still not feeling better. Your GP may recommend medication to help with your symptoms or refer you for specialist assessment.
You should also get help from a medical professional such as your GP, practice nurse or psychologist:
If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or beliefs that life is not worth living.
If you are having difficulty coping.
If you can only cope with the stress by drinking alcohol or using recreational drugs.
If you are having severe attacks of panic or anxiety, e.g. feeling breathless, dizzy, heart beating rapidly.
If you aren’t able to function in life, e.g. you aren’t able to look after yourself (wash, eat, get dressed, get out of bed), if you are avoiding things you need to do, e.g attend work or look after your children.
Reaching out for help isn’t always easy but remember that help is available; please don’t suffer alone.
At Your Trusted Squad, we reduce the stress and overwhelm of your fertility journey by making you feel supported, more in control, saving you valuable time and helping you make informed decisions. Read more about the services we offer at Your Trusted Squad.
Managing Infertility and Stress, Resolve
Stress and Fertility, Fertility Network UK
Access Support, Fertility Network UK
Stress and Infertility, American Society for Reproductive Medicine
Treatments for Stress, Mind
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