Ask the Experts - Alice Domar & Effects of Stress on Fertility

Stress & Fertility Expert Alice Domar answers some of our patients' questions

Image: Academy of Mindful Psychology

Image: Academy of Mindful Psychology

Whilst stress alone is unlikely to make you infertile, it may well have an impact on your chances of conceiving. One antidote to stress is what's known as 'mindfulness' which really just means 'bite-sized chunks of meditation' or 'awareness'.  If we break down the idea of needing to sit quietly for an hour in an uncomfortable position and imagine instead little, 'mini', chunks of 30-second to 5 minutes of peace, then the whole thing seems easier to swallow.  Here's Alice's description of how to do a 'mini'. Try it .... it really does work!

Dr. Alice Domar, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health and the Director of Mind/Body Services at Boston IVF.  Her cutting-edge research focuses on the relationship between stress and different women’s health conditions and for creating innovative programs to help women decrease these physical and psychological symptoms..

Last week I put some of your questions about stress and fertility to her

Some doctors say stress doesn't effect fertility but others say it does - could you explain how you think stress impacts on my fertility & what evidence is there for this?
There have been dozens of studies which have looked at the impact of psychological interventions on pregnancy rates in infertile women and most of the research shows that women who receive such treatment are far more likely to conceive than women who don’t. This does suggest that stress can have a negative impact on fertility. There have also been some recent studies out of Ohio State University in the US which indicated that women with higher stress levels took longer to conceive.

Is there any evidence than stress effects a man's fertility as well?  The doctors seem to be putting all the pressure on me while my partner gets off scot-free.
There have been several studies which have shown that stress is indeed associated with decreases in sperm production. So no, the guys should not get off scot-free! If your partner has a male factor identified, he needs to look at all factors which might impact sperm production, including stress and lifestyle habits.

I don't feel stressed and yet people say I am - what symptoms should I be looking for?
Well, I am a believer that most people are pretty aware of their own stress level, but some may be in denial. If others think you are, perhaps you are being more irritable than usual. The most common symptoms of stress are physical (headaches, insomnia, gastrointestinal, fatigue, neck or back pain), psychological (sadness, anxiety, irritability, tearfulness) or behavioral (eating more or less, craving sweet or salty foods, drinking more alcohol, exercising less, watching more tv)

My job is stressful and IVF is stressful but I can't just stop doing them.  How can I manage my stress whilst still doing these things?
There are lots of ways to decrease stress while undergoing treatment. The best ways include group support, mind/body groups, individual or couples therapy, online support, and reading/learning cognitive behavioral strategies.

I get stressed about being stressed - it's just another thing I feel I'm failing at.  Do you have any advice on how to deal with this?
Remember that most infertility is caused by physical factors, not stress. But your stress level can contribute to the problem. Instead of stressing about being stressed, do something about it. Join a yoga class, take long walks, join a support group, bake, whatever works for you.

Once I'm pregnant I can relax, sort out my diet and make some time for myself - why are people trying to convince me to do all that now while I'm still trying to conceive?
Because your stress level and diet might be preventing you from conceiving. So now is in fact the best time to make those changes.

Mindfulness seems to be a buzz-word for 2014.  Do you think the 'mindfulness apps' can really help?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen any research which shows that help or don’t help. But any relaxation technique is better than none.