No one ever grows up expecting to have infertility, yet it is extremely common—affecting one in eight couples in the United States. Being diagnosed with infertility can be emotionally devastating, raising fears of invasive and expensive procedures that may or may not work and jeopardizing lifelong dreams that may or may not come true. Thus, when a couple is struggling to conceive, caring for their mental health often goes hand in hand with caring for their reproductive health.
“The relationship between stress and infertility is complex,” says Dr. Gad Lavy, a Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Specialist at New England Fertility Institute. “Psychological stress does not appear to cause infertility, but infertility is certainly a major cause of psychological stress for our patients.”
Facing infertility can cause a profound emotional strain that most couples don’t expect. Studies have shown that up to 40% of women meet diagnostic criteria for anxiety or depression at the time of their initial visit with a fertility specialist, and many women go on to report their experience with infertility and its treatments as the most stressful event of their lives.
“Infertility can be very isolating,” Dr. Lavy says. “Many women have a hard time talking with their family members, friends, or even their partners about such personal issues, and often end up suffering in silence as a result.”
Social pressures commonly add to the emotional burden of infertility. Reminders of infertility are everywhere—a baby photo on a social media site, a birth announcement in the mail, a holiday dinner with nephews and nieces… These everyday encounters may lead to social withdrawal in some women, while others experience symptoms such as irritability, insomnia, weight changes, or difficulty concentrating.
Dr. Lavy believes encouraging stress reduction and healthy coping techniques is an essential part of his role as a fertility specialist. “Stress is the #1 reason people abandon fertility care—not treatment failure, not financial concerns—simply overwhelming emotional stress.” Although studies have shown that stress reduction doesn’t directly lead to higher pregnancy rates, Dr. Lavy explains that it does ultimately help more couples to reach their goal of becoming pregnant: “It helps them to keep trying.”
Women and men undergoing fertility treatments can effectively reduce their stress in a number of different ways. Acupuncture, yoga, art, music, sports, dance, and exercise are all commonly used, and couples are also encouraged to stay engaged with their social support networks. Meeting with counselors or local support groups can also be beneficial, particularly for combatting feelings of isolation and hopelessness that may occur. Resolve has a number of online resources that many couples find helpful, including a directory of local infertility support groups.
“The journey to parenthood can be challenging, but it helps to know that you are not alone,” Dr. Lavy offers.