We know that stress can cause lots of bad things in the body — it’s been demonstrated as a factor in heart attacks, strokes, ulcers, indigestion — and many people have pointed to it as an element in fertility. This article says that last bit seems to be true. Let me say that this is merely one factor, and perhaps not the most important one, as I detailed in this previous post, so it is still hurtful and quite possibly completely untrue to tell someone that he or she “just needs to relax” in order to conceive. But it may be one factor (do check out this comic that Jill @ The Unnecessarean posted on another blog, because it may be more than appropriate for this post and this topic, considering the research that is under consideration). Which in itself is a hard thing to bear — as the article pointed out (and as many women who are undergoing or who have undergone fertility treatments attest), infertility is a stress. And waiting is stressful, and fertility treatments are stressful, and waiting every month to see if the fertility treatment has been successful is a stress, and life is a stress, and waiting is a stress, and hoping is a stress, and more waiting is even more stress.
This research is preliminary — the article mentioned that some of the studies have been done in rats, and other results have been inferred from studies of birds — so it’s too early to say exactly what effect and how strong the effect is. The article did say that this may be part of the reason why animals in captivity have low rates of reproduction — which is particularly problematic for some species, since many endangered species are captured so that they will be bred and reproduce and build up their numbers.
But isn’t that just a kick in the teeth — that stress, which is just about inherent in wanting a child but not being able to have one [I think of Rachel in the Bible’s plea to her husband, Jacob, “Give me children, or I die!”], may actually be a factor in keeping it from happening? And what is to be done? Telling women, “Aw, just relax!” isn’t going to help. Perhaps giving them a gift certificate to a spa might help. But we’re talking about chronic stress — probably typically a life situation that doesn’t just vanish overnight — financial troubles, marital troubles, a death in the family, long-term illness, work troubles, lack of work, etc. And these are not going to go away with a deep tissue massage.
I’d think more of this research if (can I be optimistic and say “when”?) it leads to something concrete and beneficial. Sometimes research and news is like astronomy studies that talk about the possibility of an asteroid strike on earth, or the sun exploding and consuming the earth, or something that is either so remote a chance of happening as to be almost zero, or something so far in the future (millions or billions of years), that it makes almost no actual impact on life as we know it today, or, “if it happened tomorrow, so what? we can’t do anything about it anyway!”). So, let’s say that this research is true for humans, and true in a big way. What can be done to reduce the stress level of women who are experiencing infertility (and are stressing out because they can’t conceive)? Now that would be some research worth undertaking. Because if you can’t do anything with the end results, does it really matter what the results are?
Considering the other deleterious effects of stress on the body, it makes sense to try to reduce or eliminate stress, particularly chronic stress, if at all possible, even if this research turns out to be overblown. Exercise can help; so can meditation. If you’re stressing out over infertility, perhaps you should just take a break for a few months or so. While you’re taking a break from trying to get pregnant, you can then try to eliminate the causes of particular stresses — finances? learn how to manage money better; marital troubles? seek counseling, etc. There’s no point in just continuing to stay in the hamster wheel of chronic stress when you don’t have to. Even if you don’t have a child from this, or never have a child — you’ll still be better off if you’re not living under chronic stress. And I can say that positively, without any research!