Written by Amira Posner
Amira is a Social Worker in Toronto, Ontario. She works with individuals and couples who are struggling with infertility. Amira facilitates the Mind-Body Fertility Group, and Mindfulness Fertility Series. She is also a mother of three miracles. www.healinginfertility.ca
Struggling with infertility is inherently stressful. Pregnancy is supposed to be a natural occurrence, so when it doesn’t work, we are inclined to feel defected and broken. The overwhelming feelings that come with trying to conceive can weigh you down, blurring your vision of what is possible. The other day I had a client say to me, “I’ve never failed at anything 24 times. It’s been two years.” I liked the way she put it but it sounded devastating.
It’s completely normal to feel anxious and overwhelmed in the fertility journey. But just how much does it really affect us? Does it impact our fertility even more? The sleepless nights when the racing mind keeps us up, the early morning clinic visits to the unbearable two week wait; there is so much out of our control and yet we tightly grasp to the idea that it is our fault, we did something wrong. We end up spending a good chunk of time eliminating or adding different elements in hope that it makes a difference in our success.
Studies show that stress and anxiety can compound fertility challenges, making the experience that much worse. ⭐️
When you feel anxious, your nervous system activates, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones change our physiology by elevating our heart rate and putting us on high alert. We move into survival mode and all the energy gets redirected into our limbs and reactivity centre to keep us safe. This is our fight and flight taking a hold.
Fortunately, the same connections that cause high stress levels can be used to reduce stress, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and help you find peace and presence. The opposite of the fight and flight system is the relaxation response. We all have it within us, however most of us aren’t aware it’s there or how to bring it to light!
Below are 4 powerful mind-body techniques that you can integrate into your fertility journey to combat stress and activate your relaxation response.
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment with openness, inquisitiveness and non-judgment. Mindfulness gives us permission to slow down so we can pay full attention to what is going on around us. It allows us to see past our automatic thoughts and feelings. When we use this technique, we realize how often our minds fill with worry, fear and judgment. The more we pay attention to our fearful mental patterns, the more control we gain to quiet and shift them.
Mindfulness is acceptance: the more we can accept rather than resist our experience, the easier our journey becomes. Mindfulness meditation, yoga, eating and walking are just a few examples of ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your life. You can do almost anything in your life with a mindful awareness; it just takes a little effort.
With practice, this tool can help balance narrow-minded thinking surrounding infertility, ultimately allowing more space for compassion, acceptance and gratitude. When we are in a calm state, our fight and flight gets to rest.
The breath links mind and body. Breath is available to us on demand, twenty-four hours a day. Most of the time our minds are in thinking mode and we are lost in thought while our body is off doing something else. The famous Vietnamese philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh would say to this, “the mind and body are not aligned."
Taking a deep, conscious breath is a fantastic and useful technique that can unite the mind and body and ground you in the present moment. Resting and digesting.
Trick your Limbic System
Our physical bodies have innate capabilities and are hardwired to perform certain activities. The fight or flight response is the body’s primitive automatic response that prepares us to “flight” from a perceived threat. The limbic system, the part of our brain that determines a fight or flight response, cannot differentiate between real danger and excessive stress.
Many individuals struggling with infertility have an activated stress response system which can play out on an emotional and physical level, potentially impacting conception. When our fight or flight system is aroused, we tend to perceive the things in and around our environment as threats. Fears, negative thinking and our belief systems become distorted.
On a physical level, nerve cell firing releases chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into our system. These chemicals can alter homeostasis—the ability to maintain equilibrium—of our physical bodies. Our body actively looks for the enemy and we gear up to flee it. The only problem: there is no enemy in infertility. It is the painful experience of not successfully conceiving a baby and all the associated anxiety that can set off the fight or flight response.
Visualizations, guided relaxations and imagery are a few tools that can reverse stress effects, trick the limbic system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
This is the most difficult of the 4 techniques and requires the desire to truly change your perspective. Are you familiar with that light feeling you get on a Friday around 4pm? It’s almost the weekend and the busy week is over. It’s time to let all the stress and exhaustion leave your body! Try closing your eyes and imagine that you are a helium balloon floating into the sky, free of all disadvantageous emotions. Infertility requires energy and resilience and the reality is that infertility could go on for many years, even forever. Letting go is a strategy that can neutralize stress and make it easier to deal with the negative results and hardships while at the same time help us keep trying. Letting go does not mean giving up. It means adopting an attitude that everything will fall into place at just the right time.
If we can bring our attention into the present and away from our pain, we can strengthen the mental muscle of positive coping and let go naturally, almost without even knowing it’s happening.
Understanding the impact of stress on our fertility creates an opportunity to use our mind and body to alter our physiology and connect with something deeper within ourselves. This mechanism creates resilience which can carry us to the end of our journey.