Stress, anxiety, and even depression during a fertility journey are extremely common. The lack of control inherent to fertility journeys is challenging for anyone, but emotional support from a therapist or friends and family can make a difference. We talked to clinical psychologist Farah Ali, PsyD, one of the Carrot Experts members can connect with, to dig into the relationship between stress and fertility journeys and share recommendations for managing that anxiety.
Stress during the fertility journey
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health defines stress as “a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter challenges in life.” Fertility journeys can be one of those challenges — especially when infertility’s involved.
Research shows the psychological weight of an infertility diagnosis can be comparable to a cancer diagnosis. People diagnosed with infertility may find themselves grieving the loss of how they expected getting pregnant would be.
When it comes to fertility treatments specifically, the costs, time commitment, and unpredictability of the process can produce a lot of anxiety. “You’re sometimes at the fertility office every other day getting ultrasounds or bloodwork,” says Dr. Ali. “It can be pretty stressful to juggle all of that.”
The relationship between stress and fertility
The idea that stress causes fertility challenges is inconclusive. Some studies have shown possible effects of stress on fertility, but many of them don’t show a dramatic impact and are complicated by study size and design. It’s most likely that stress indirectly affects fertility through behavioral responses to stress. For example, researchers know that smoking — a stress response for some — negatively impacts fertility. Someone dealing with depression may choose to put off starting or continuing fertility treatment, leading to age-related delays or reductions in success.
While the research is inconclusive, going through a fertility journey, particularly if it's different than what a person has expected, creates a lot of stress. The good news is that well-documented research shows social support can minimize stress.
5 tips for managing stress during your fertility journey
Learning to manage your stress can make everything feel a little easier to deal with. Here are five tips Dr. Ali recommends trying as part of your routine.
1. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is simply being present in the moment, which can be especially helpful if you’re caught in an anxiety spiral or what Dr. Ali calls a “feeling storm.”
“The analogy that I like to use is being outside in a thunderstorm and getting all wet versus being inside and watching it happen,” she says. “There's still a storm happening, but you don't have to be right in the middle of it.”
You can practice mindfulness just by noticing how your feet feel on the ground or how your back feels in a chair. You can also experiment with paced breathing, which requires you to slow down and really focus on your breath.
Here’s one easy breathing exercise to try: Breathe in for a count of four, hold for four, and then exhale for six. Exhaling for longer than you inhale may activate the parasympathetic nervous system — the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system, as opposed to the “fight or flight” side — and calm you down as a result.
2. Get a good night’s sleep.
- Stop electronic use 45 minutes before you go to sleep. The blue light of phones, laptops, and TVs can disrupt the quality of our sleep.
- Have a bedtime routine. This means finding ways to wind down from the day’s activities to signal to your body that it’s nighttime — and going to bed and waking up around the same time each day.
3. Create space for movement.
Research shows that exercise can be effective in managing mild to moderate depression. While high-intensity exercise isn’t recommended during certain times in fertility treatment cycles, there are plenty of ways of moving that are safe no matter when you do them.
Try taking a walk outside or trying out fertility-safe yoga poses. If you’re undergoing treatment, check in with your doctor about what exercises they recommend.
4. Eat foods that make you feel good.
Keeping an eye on what you’re eating during cycles where you’re trying to get pregnant can help you avoid mood crashes at a time when emotions may already be high. Dr. Ali says fruits and veggies tend to make people feel good, while processed and sugary foods can make you crash.
“Sometimes you just need to eat a Big Mac or eat a piece of chocolate cake — that's totally fine,” she says. “Just be mindful of what you're putting in your body.”
5. Reach out for support.
Lean on your support system. Whether that’s connecting with someone who has gone through a similar experience or reaching out to a friend or family member for lunch, these connections can be helpful ways to maintain relationships and find some normalcy and a healthy distraction during your fertility journey.
Some people may find that talking to a therapist is the most helpful way to manage stress during fertility journeys. In select countries, Carrot members can speak with an emotional support expert like Dr. Ali for that emotional support.
Find what works for you
Remember to practice self-compassion by responding to yourself the same way you would to someone else going through the same things you are. You deserve just as much compassion as anyone else does, says Dr. Ali. She recommends giving yourself grace and trying different strategies until you discover what helps you manage your stress the most.
Carrot members have free, unlimited access to Carrot Experts for information and guidance. In some locations, this includes emotional support with licensed therapists experienced in supporting those on family-forming journeys.