Is Stress Impacting Your Ability to Get Pregnant? Here’s What to Know
Reviewed by Dr. Lisa Czanko, MD, MPH
In a dream world, trying to get pregnant would be a relaxing, pleasurable process involving connection and intimacy with a partner, regular and mutually satisfying sex, and a positive pregnancy test long before the “trying” loses its luster.
In reality, most people are trying to get pregnant while facing multiple stressors in everyday life—from work to family to relationships and more.
And if a person had a hunch that long-term stress might not be the best thing for getting pregnant, well, they’d be correct. Not to get too meta, but feeling stressed about getting pregnant can increase stress—and may impact fertility—even more.
So, what is the relationship between stress and fertility, and how can someone find helpful ways to reduce stress while trying? Here’s what to know about how stress affects fertility.
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Research on stress and fertility
First, let’s take a broader look at how stress manifests in the body. Remember learning about the “fight or flight” response in school? That’s referring to your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for how the body responds to stress. With this response, heart rate increases, breathing speeds up, and a person might feel especially alert or like their senses are sharper (all helpful responses if someone is in real danger). Once the stressful experience is over, the body returns to normal.
But what about the long-term stress so many people face today? Without proper time to recover from stress, the body’s fight or flight response stays activated for way longer than it’s supposed to. The result? A long-term drain on the body, in the form of digestive issues, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, changes in appetite, anger, irritability, and more. Plus, during fight or flight, the body shuts down any non-essential systems—which can include parts of your reproductive system.
So, how does fertility fit into all this? While there haven’t yet been any large-scale studies about the relationship between stress and fertility, smaller studies on people with ovaries undergoing infertility treatment have still given us some insight into the topic.
For example, one 2018 study found that among couples going through in vitro fertilization (IVF), women who had higher blood levels of a protein associated with stress were less likely to get pregnant after one round of IVF. Another study, also featuring women going through IVF or gamete intrafallopian transfer, found that stress was negatively correlated with a woman’s ability to get pregnant. Finally, a 2013 study found that among women going through IVF, non-pregnant women reported higher anxiety and depression scores compared with the pregnant group.
Stress reduction techniques while trying to conceive
So, how can someone manage their stress and improve their chances of getting pregnant? The most effective strategies involve a combination of lifestyle changes, mindfulness, and mental health support.
Start a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Start by adding a few minutes of meditation to a morning or evening routine, and then gradually add on from there. Many mindfulness apps also have meditations for specific situations and moods, so a person can explore them all to find what might suit their lifestyle.
Maintain healthy eating and drinking practices. The temptation is REAL to turn to junk food or a nightcap at the end of a long, stressful day. However, adding more fruits and vegetables to the plate can supply stress-relieving nutrients instead. Look for foods high in magnesium, which plays a role in stress levels; dark leafy greens, avocados, nuts, and legumes are all good choices here. And think twice before reaching for an extra cup of coffee or a cocktail. Both caffeine and alcohol can mess with a person’s sleep schedule, which will only add to stress.
Exercise regularly. From taking a favorite Pilates class to getting outside for a walk, regular movement can protect a person from the negative effects of stress (thanks, endorphins!). Find a way to break a sweat that’s fun, and make it a goal to do that for 20-30 minutes, at least three times a week.
Practice breathing. Surprise, it actually takes a bit more than the “inhale, exhale” thing. Mindful, diaphragmatic breathing can increase relaxation and reduce a person’s cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Not sure where to start? Try box breathing: breath in for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and repeat.
Seek out mental health support. Trying to get pregnant can feel like an isolating process, especially if a person is feeling stressed in other areas of life. In addition to mindfulness, talk therapy can reduce stress and give a person helpful techniques for stress management. In fact, one meta-analysis found that among 2,700 people seeking fertility treatment, those who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training were more than twice as likely to get pregnant than those who didn’t.
While it’s totally normal to feel stress (especially when trying to conceive), there are steps a person can take to manage their stress. Through mindfulness, breathing techniques, a healthy diet, and more, they can take better care of themselves. And in doing so, they can also improve their prospects of achieving a healthy pregnancy.
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