By James Schwartz
For years, doctors have said that too much stress or emotional upset can be at the root of physical issues such as headaches, high blood pressure, digestive issues, skin rashes and many other physical disharmonies. However, doctors have always looked at infertility as simply a biological issue: thoughts, emotions, fears and stress had nothing to do with the ability to conceive. Now with seven million women in the United States diagnosed with unexplained infertility, experts are beginning to see that there is a crucial connection between the mind and the body when it comes to fertility. After all, if seven million women are being told that nothing is physically wrong with their ability to get pregnant, then that is an indication that mental and emotional factors do play a role in the conception process.
How can our thoughts and emotions get in the way of pregnancy? When our bodies experience fear, anxiety, anger, overwhelm or emotional upset, the physical response created within the body is what we put into the catchall category of stress. When we experience stress, our bodies go into survival mode. Our bodies can operate in survival mode or in reproductive mode: we aren't designed to operate in both of these modalities at the same time. Somewhere in our psychological or physiological make-up it appears that we have a built-in protective mechanism that says we aren't meant to be getting pregnant during those same moments when we are running for our lives.
How Stress Affects the Ability to Conceive
How does stress affect the body of a woman who is trying to get pregnant?
The hypothalamus gland is the brain's control center for reproductive activity. It is the gland that sends instructions to the body as to what kind and how much of certain hormones should be produced. Unfortunately, the hypothalamus gland is highly sensitive to stress. When it senses stress-which for many of us is a daily condition-it can throw off the hormonal balance for ovulation and menstruation.1 Another common stress response is the production of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone that puts the body in fight-or-flight response. Fight-or-flight is physiological reaction that occurs when we go into a defensive or survival mode. The blood in our body goes to our extremities so we can run fast or fight off predators; however, this takes the blood and energy away from the core of our body. The uterus and the reproductive system are depleted of the energy and blood flow they need to function properly.
When the body is in fight-or-flight mode, it moves out of reproduction mode. In other words, if the hypothalamus senses stress, it assumes that we are in danger and the last thing it wants to do is create a pregnancy under those conditions. People who experience stress everyday are often in the fight-or-flight mode, and since it is such a familiar feeling, they aren't fully aware of it. They become accustomed to how it feels.
Practitioners of Eastern medicine or acupuncture see the stress response in a little different light but fully understand the negative impact stress has on the ability to have a baby. Acupuncturists focus on the flow of energy throughout our bodies. In the Eastern medicine model, energy flows though pathways that are called meridians. As long as that flow is even and uninterrupted, the body is usually in a healthy state and conception is possible. If that energetic flow is interrupted by stress, the physical responses can include such things as decreased uterine blood flow, insufficient chi for the ovaries to produce viable follicles or even a lack of uterine energy to support life and hold an embryo in place.
Running Away From Pregnancy
The programming that determines whether our bodies are in survival or procreation modes may have originated centuries-or perhaps millenniums-ago when humans were truly running from predators. Unfortunately, many of us carry around a level of stress today that is not unlike the pressure we experience when we are running for our lives. There are three common scenarios in which this occurs. For some women who are trying to get pregnant, this running is about overworking and trying to meet very high expectations. They feel tremendous pressure to continually perform at exceptional levels both at home and in the workplace. They exhaust themselves mentally, physically and emotionally. The result is that, after all the effort they put into trying to continually meet or exceed expectations, they don't have the time or energy to create a baby. The stress that arises out of this daily pressure can take the physical body out of the conception mode.
Running On The Treadmill
A second scenario involves women who are trying to conceive but are literally running too much: over exercising will put the body into survival mode because the hypothalamus gland perceives this excessive physical stress to be a sign that we are behaving in this manner in order to stay alive. The hypothalamus doesn't know whether we are running from lions or excessively working out on a treadmill. These women put so much of their energy, or chi, into exercise, there is not enough energy remaining in the body to support the fertility process. A simplified way to look at this is to imagine that each day a woman has one hundred units of energy in her body. If she uses up eighty of those units in her workout, she is only left with twenty percent of her energy for her body to achieve conception. That might not be a problem if she is twenty years old, but it can be an important factor in women over thirty-five.
Running From Our Issues
And lastly, the third type of running involves women who are running from their issues. In regards to this last category-running from our issues-there is an aspect of stress that is often misunderstood and overlooked. Everyone associates stress with the day-to-day stuff in our lives such as demanding jobs or money issues, but much of our stress actually comes from our unresolved emotional issues. Every day, those deep-seated issues buried in the subconscious are constantly being triggered and creating stress responses.
An example of this is a woman who has had a miscarriage. Naturally, a miscarriage is such a traumatic event that it creates a great deal of internal fear about having to go through that experience again. When that woman goes to the doctor, the doctor might observe the high level of anxiety and recommend that the patient do something about her stress. As a response to that recommendation, that woman, hearing the word "stress," might cut back her hours at work. However, reducing the workload does not address the fear of having another miscarriage, so the stress-which is really coming from the fear-is still in place. The original dynamic doesn't change by reducing the workload, and her body, responding to the fear of having another miscarriage, remains in the stress or survival mode and out of the conception mode.
In addition to miscarriages, there are many emotional issues that can lead to the kind of stress that can interfere with pregnancy: unresolved dysfunctional memories from childhood, body image concerns, feelings of inadequacy, fear of childbirth, guilt from a termination, questions about a husband's ability to be a good father are just a few of the issues that can create stress. If the underlying issues are not addressed or processed, then the corresponding emotions and physical responses are locked in place and can create a level of stress in our bodies that can interfere with becoming pregnant. Most people in our society have become so accustomed to such high levels of stress that the situation often is ignored until it creates a physical disharmony-such as infertility-before it is addressed.
What To Do About These Issues
It is important for women trying to get pregnant to address the stress situation. A good first step is to adopt a relaxation technique such as meditation. Meditation is a great way to calm the mind and can be used to visualize a successful pregnancy.
Lifestyle changes may be necessary in order to decrease the daily pressures. This can include everything from cutting back on the overtime hours at work to shifting exercise routines away from running and instead opting for a calming, mind-centered form of yoga.
The most efficient way to release the deep-seated emotional issues is by using mind-body techniques such as hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy works directly with the subconscious mind where the blocking issues reside, so it goes directly to the source of the problem that has been creating the stress. Traditional talk therapy primarily engages the conscious or critical mind, and the critical mind is masterful at preventing us from getting to the root of our issues. If the roots of our emotional issues are not addressed, the stress won't go away.
There have been numerous studies regarding the success of using mind-body techniques to increase fertility. A look at the most credible of those studies, including those conducted at institutions such as Harvard and Yale, produced results in take-home baby rates that ranged from around 42 to 65%.2 The success of these studies indicates that mind-body work might be one of the more critical parts of the protocol for every woman trying to conceive.
To rebalance the physical body and reduce stress, acupuncture is an excellent modality to promote relaxation and restore an even flow of energy. Naturally, getting enough sleep, eating healthy meals, taking walks and indulging in massage are all ways of self-nurturing and positive steps in reducing tension.
Taking steps to let go of stress not only increases the chances of having a baby, but making some of these changes can add greater happiness and longevity to our lives. Most importantly, it is a way to stop running away from pregnancy and begin preparing the body for conception.
1. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). "Diseases and Conditions: Infertility" From MayoClinic.com. 15 June, 2006.
2. James Schwartz, The Mind-Body Fertility Connection, (Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2008)13-21