No one ever grows up expecting to have infertility, yet it is extremely common—affecting one in eight couples in the United States. Being diagnosed with infertility can be emotionally devastating, raising fears of invasive and expensive procedures that may or may not work and jeopardizing lifelong dreams that may or may not come true. Thus, when a couple is struggling to conceive, caring for their mental health often goes hand in hand with caring for their reproductive health.
“Infertility can cause a great deal of stress in our patients,” says Dr. Donna Session, a fertility specialist and Practice Director of Tennessee Fertility Institute. “Psychological stress can cause infertility by preventing ovulation (the release of eggs). Stress is one of the most common reasons for missing a period. The typical example is a women missing her period around the time of stressful events such as final exams. Methods to reduce stress through cognitive behavioral therapy have been successful in restoring menstrual cycles.”
Facing infertility can cause a profound emotional strain that most couples don’t expect. Studies have shown that up to 40% of women meet diagnostic criteria for anxiety or depression at the time of their initial visit with a fertility specialist, and many women go on to report their experience with infertility and its treatments as the most stressful event of their lives.
“Infertility can be very isolating,” “Many women have a hard time talking with their family members, friends, or even their partners about such personal issues, and often end up suffering in silence as a result.”
Social pressures commonly add to the emotional burden of infertility. Reminders of infertility are everywhere—a baby photo on a social media site, a birth announcement in the mail, a holiday dinner with nephews and nieces… These everyday encounters may lead to social withdrawal in some women, while others experience symptoms such as irritability, insomnia, weight changes, or difficulty concentrating.
Dr. Session believes encouraging stress reduction and healthy coping techniques may contribute to fertility. “Stress is complex and difficult to measure, however we have all seen patients who conceive on vacation or with adoption after long standing infertility.”
Women and men undergoing fertility treatments can effectively reduce their stress in a number of different ways. Acupuncture, yoga, art, music, sports, dance, and exercise are all commonly used, and couples are also encouraged to stay engaged with their social support networks. Meeting with counselors or local support groups can also be beneficial, particularly for combating feelings of isolation and hopelessness that may occur. Resolve has a number of online resources that many couples find helpful, including a directory of local infertility support groups.