The hypothesis that stress is a source of infertility and unsuccessful treatment has existed for decades.  Although there has been no consistent support of this supposition, myths about stress and infertility perpetuate.  Let’s take a look at a couple of the most common myths.

 Myth: “Just relax and it will happen.”   Individuals and couples experiencing infertility frequently hear this “advice” by from well-intentioned family and friends.  It’s often followed-up by a story about another couple they know who was having difficulty conceiving, took a vacation, and got pregnant.  The implication is that stress is the cause of your infertility and unsuccessful treatment cycles.

Fact:  There is no body of evidence that indicates that a woman’s level of stress effects pregnancy rates.  A recent and comprehensive review of the literature concluded that researchers who carried out more rigorous and well-designed studies found no significant relationship between psychological stress and infertility or fertility treatment outcomes.  Women have always conceived during times of great duress, for example, during periods of war.  Infertility is a disease.  The levels of stress experienced by individuals diagnosed with infertility have been found to be similar to that of individuals diagnosed with other chronic illnesses, such as cancer, hypertension and HIV.  Relaxation is no more a cure for infertility than it is a cure for cancer.

Myth: “If you adopt you’ll get pregnant.”  This is the idea that if you stop trying to conceive and instead pursue adoption, you’ll alleviate most of the stress in your life.  And since stress is the source of your fertility problem, you’ll now be able to conceive and give birth.  Those who espouse this myth also spout stories of couples who magically conceived following adopting one or more children.

Fact:  Research consistently fails to demonstrate a relationship between adoption and pregnancy.  One particularly rigorous study followed up with 817 fertility patients over the course of five years.  Of the 48 women in this study who adopted a child, only one spontaneously conceived after adopting.  So while it is not impossible, pregnancy after adoption is certainly not probable.  In addition, the adoption process can be accompanied by it’s own emotional and financial stress, as well as, a significant waiting period.  Finally, this myth can be hurtful to adoptive parents as it implies adopting a child is just a path to obtaining the child they really want.   

Myth:  “You’re so stressed from IVF, if you stop treatment you’ll get pregnant.” This is another version of the belief that stress is the source of challenged fertility.

Fact:  Multiple long-term studies have found that following the cessation of IVF treatment, the rates of spontaneous pregnancy and a live birth ranged form 11 – 24%.  However, it important to remember that those women who became pregnant and gave birth tended to be younger, have a shorter duration of infertility, and a less severe fertility diagnosis.  It is accepted that IVF treatment can be experienced as stressful, but numerous reviews of the literature have found no relationship between stress and IVF outcomes.

We know that stress is a consequence of fertility challenges and treatment.  While decreasing stress may not increase pregnancy rates or treatment success, it has can improve feelings of well-being and fertility quality of life as you continue on your journey to create or expand your family.

 

Dr. Erica Mindes is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist on the Counseling Staff at Shady Grove Fertility, and with the practice of Covington & Hafkin and Associates, seeing patients at offices in Northern Virginia and Richmond. She has conducted research and written on the psychological responses to infertility and infertility treatment, and recently co-authored the chapter, “Counseling Known Participants in Third-Party Reproduction” for Fertility Counseling: Clinical Guide and Case Studies. Dr. Mindes is a member of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine Mental Health Professional Group (MHPG) and serves on the MHPG Executive Committee.

 

 References:

Lawson, A.K. (2016). Psychological stress and fertility. In: Stevenson, E.L. &  Hershberger, P.E. (Eds.), Fertility and Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART): Theory, Research, Policy, and Practice for Health Care Practitioners. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.

Pinborg, A., Hougaard, C. O., Nyboe Anderson, A., Molbo, D., & Schmidt, L. (2009). Prospective longitudinal cohort study on cumulative 5-year delivery and adoption rates among 1338 couples initiating infertility treatment. Human Reproduction, 24, 991-999.

Troude, P., Bailly, E., Guibert, J., Bouyer, J., de la Rochebrochard, E., & Group, D. (2012). Spontaneous pregnancies among couples previously treated by in vitro fertilization. Fertility and Sterility, 98, 63-68.

Wischmann, Tewes H. (2003). Psychogenic Infertility – Myths and Facts. Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, 20, 485-494.