Stress and Fertility: How It’s Connected and How to Manage It
Stress is a natural – and totally normal – part of being human and everyone experiences it from time to time.
However, when it comes to stress and fertility, there is some truth to the idea that too much stress can indirectly impact your conception goals.
The truth is that stress and conception just do not mix. However, there are things you can do to control the stressors in your life and prevent them from getting out of hand. Here’s a look at how stress can impact your fertility, the science behind stress, and eight different ways that you can reduce stress while you are trying to conceive.
Can stress cause infertility?
In short, the answer is no. The presence of stress alone does not directly cause infertility in women.
However, in some women, it can make becoming pregnant much more difficult. Two studies in particular have brought this issue to light, with one study finding high levels of stress to be associated with lower chances of becoming pregnant and another indicating that stress may delay conception.
In essence, while we do not know for certain that stress specifically leads to infertility, we do know that stress might make it more difficult to become pregnant.
How does stress affect fertility?
So how exactly are stress and fertility connected? Let’s explore three key ways that stress can make it more difficult to conceive.
Low sex drive
When you’re feeling stressed out, your libido is likely to plummet. When this happens, having sex with your partner might occur less frequently or even stop altogether for a period of time – not good if you’re aiming to have sex every 2-3 days to increase your chances of getting pregnant.
This loss of libido and intimacy can be extremely frustrating for couples, and in some cases, it may even cause the stress surrounding pregnancy to spiral and become worse. While it is possible for this vicious cycle to be broken through therapy and/or other stress-management techniques, it can also be a huge setback on your journey to conception (and taking advantage of your fertile window).
When faced with a stressful situation, your body naturally releases both adrenaline and cortisol as a way to cope and respond in the short-term. However, if you are feeling stressed all the time, your body still produces adrenaline and cortisol even though you might not really need them.
This chronic stress, and continued production of stress hormones, can cause your body to have a prolonged hormonal imbalance. For women specifically, this can lead to ovulation disruptions, missed periods or irregular periods.
Weakened immune system
Another way that stress can impact fertility is through a weakened immune system. The prolonged exposure to stress hormones can make it even more difficult for the body to respond to real threats to its immune system, such as viruses and bacteria.
The presence of stress can also lead to unhealthy habits that further weaken the immune system in an indirect way. For example, if you are going through a stressful time, you might be more inclined to smoke, drink, binge eat, or have unhealthy sleeping patterns – all of which can be detrimental to the conception process.
The science of stress
So what’s the science behind stress and what it can do to our bodies? Here’s a quick look at what happens when we’re stressed, what it does to our bodies in the long-term, and the most common symptoms and causes of stress.
What happens when we’re stressed
When your body senses a “threat”, it prepares for action by releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This then affects multiple systems throughout the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, and gastrointestinal systems.
In truly dangerous situations, this physical response is designed to help you fight back and survive. It’s why you can quickly jump out of the way to avoid being hit by an oncoming car. Or why you can find the energy and stamina to save a child who has just fallen into a pool.
However, bear in mind that your body cannot distinguish between threats or “stressors” that are physical and those that are emotional. That means that your body’s stress hormones will still respond whether or not you are worried about an upcoming presentation at work or you’re in the midst of a life-or-death situation.
And while the immediate stress response is good, a prolonged stress response in the body can be harmful to your health. Specifically, it has the potential to lead to a number of long-term health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, low libido, and hormonal imbalances.
Common causes and symptoms of stress
In order to more effectively manage stress, it’s important for couples to stay ahead of the game and be aware of its common causes and symptoms.
Here are a few of the most common situations that might cause or trigger feelings of stress.
- Life transitions and changes: Moving to a new city, starting a new job, getting married, or losing a loved one.
- Financial difficulties: Taking on debt or losing a source of income.
- Relationship problems: Break-ups or ongoing disagreements with family or friends.
- Time-sensitive stressors: Tight deadlines, big events, and packed schedules.
Symptoms of stress typically manifest themselves either emotionally, physically, and/or cognitively. Here are a few examples:
- Emotional: Easily irritable or agitated, feeling overwhelmed, finding it difficult to relax, and/or feeling like you have no control over your life.
- Physical: Constant fatigue and low energy, loss of appetite, insomnia, frequent headaches or upset stomach, low libido, tense muscles, and/or chest pain.
- Cognitive: Racing thoughts and worrying, unable to stay focused or organized, forgetfulness.
What you can do to reduce TTC stress?
Are you ready for the good news? You’ll be excited to learn that there are real, practical ways that you can reduce stress while you are trying to conceive. Here are a few activities to try on your own or with your partner.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to blow off steam and reduce stress. Exercise not only helps to reduce the presence of adrenaline and cortisol in your body, but it can also help your body produce key endorphins that can help to lift your mood.
The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity” aerobic activity per week, so why not improve your physical and mental health by getting in some extra movements? Here are a few ideas:
- Walking, jogging, or hiking
- Going for a swim
- Cycling around your neighborhood or to work
- Playing a sport like basketball, soccer, or tennis
- Dancing or jump roping
If you’ve never exercised regularly before, don’t feel intimidated! You don’t have to follow a regime fit for an Olympic athlete. Small changes like taking the stairs or walking instead of driving can still be a step in the right direction.
Another research-backed way to reduce stress in your life is to start practicing yoga. In addition to helping you feel less stressed, yoga also has many other health benefits including increased strength and flexibility, improved sleep, and improved respiratory and cardiovascular function.
If you don’t live near a yoga studio, there are tons of free YouTube videos out there that can help you get started with yoga as a beginner (we even wrote a guide to fertility yoga)- all you need is a yoga mat and a safe place to practice in your home!
Journaling or keeping a daily diary is not just for angsty teenagers anymore! In fact, journaling has been found to improve overall well-being, mitigate mental distress, and enhance physical functioning in adults.
Journaling not only empowers you to privately process your thoughts, but it can also help you to air out any worries, take stock of what’s stressing you out, and track your feelings over time.
If you’re not quite sure what to write about, the two-minute morning technique is a research-backed journaling method that can help you get started!
Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a massage? They not only help to ease muscle soreness and tension, but consistent massage therapy can also help you feel more relaxed and less stressed. One study even found massage therapy to be an effective tool in reducing occupational stress among nurses.
There are a range of different massage therapy treatments out there – from deep treatment massages to gentler, Swedish-style massages.
Bonus tip: book a couple’s massage with your partner to help foster relaxation and intimacy together.
Meditation is simply a structured way of finding inner calm through concentration techniques and/or breathing exercises. Research even suggests regular meditation can help to improve your sleep, reduce feelings of anxiety and stress, and relieve tension headaches.
If you’ve never practiced meditation before, it might feel a bit uncomfortable at first. To get started, you may find it helpful to watch some guided fertility meditation videos on YouTube or download a meditation app like Headspace. With time and a bit of practice, you’ll begin to appreciate the benefits of meditating regularly.
Psychotherapy is a type of therapy where you meet with a licensed therapist, and they can help you talk through some of the stressors that you are facing. This is a great tool to use if you need further help with managing your stress, beyond the common self-help techniques such as exercise, journaling, and meditation.
There are a number of different types of therapies out there that can suit your lifestyle and personality, the most common of which include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) and
- Psychodynamic Therapy
Remember, there is no shame in seeking out therapeutic help if you feel overwhelmed with stress. It is a valid and normal tool that can help you better manage your symptoms.
Joining a support group is another effective way to reduce stress in your life. Whether you are struggling with stressors at work or at home, there is bound to be either an online or in-person group of individuals going through the exact same challenges that you are.
Support groups not only help you feel less alone, but they can also encourage and inspire you to speak up about what you are going through. By sharing your concerns with others, you are more likely to feel a sense of control over your stressors, have a better understanding of them, and get access to further resources that might help you cope.
Reading a self-help book can also be helpful in reducing your overall stress levels. Self-help books are great because they offer practical advice in a way that inspires and encourages you to make real changes to your lifestyle.
Many self-help books also come with built-in journal prompts, giving you a structured way to reflect on what you’ve read and process your thoughts through writing. It’s also common nowadays for self-help books to also have a corresponding online community, which can be a great source of further support.
✔️ Medically Reviewed by Banafsheh Kashani, MD, FACOG
Banafsheh Kashani, M.D., FACOG is a board-certified OB/GYN and specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Eden Fertility Centers, and has been treatingcouples and individuals with infertility since 2014.
Dr. Kashani has conducted extensive research in female reproduction, with a specific focus on the endometrium and implantation.
Additionally, Dr. Kashani has authored papers in the areas of fertility preservation, and fertility in women with PCOS and Turners syndrome. She also was part of a large SART-CORS study evaluating the trend in frozen embryo transfers and success rates.