Infertility, Trauma & How Yoga Supports Your Body & Mind While TTCSep 27, 2023
I love to get woo when talking about yoga, but today I want to get a bit more science-y…
For so many years I worked as a Pilates instructor in studios where Yoga was also a big thing. I’d dabble in a yoga class occasionally, but I didn’t really get it. It all seemed a bit “woo” and I felt like we wasted a lot of time sitting or lying down & breathing. What was the point?
Fast forward many years later where I had been struggling for years with my fertility. I was getting nowhere with medical interventions, medicated cycles or IVF.
I almost rolled my eyes when a friend of mine suggested I try this thing called “Fertility Yoga.” How on earth could something like that help when procedures like IVF hadn’t?
But here’s where things got interesting. I decided to give it a try because (like so many women I know), I’d already tried a million other things & nothing had worked. What was one more?
When I started to notice some positive changes in my life (a more regular cycle, improved sleep, a more stable mood), I realised there was more to it that I’d ever given yoga credit for. And as someone who’s very left-brained, type-A and comes from an exercise science background, I wanted to know WHY.
Why are yoga & meditation used in so many clinical settings?
Why are yoga & meditation used to treat depression, PTSD & other mental health issues?
And how exactly does it benefit someone’s overall health (and most importantly, to me, your fertility)?
It turns out there was a lot I didn’t know. Yoga & meditation are some of the only complementary therapies that has been studied extensively in the Western medical world. There are piles of research to back up why it’s so effective.
So I went deep. I gathered as much information as I possibly could.
And the answers were amazing.
So what exactly IS trauma?
When we think about trauma, we often think about war veterans, victims of abuse & those who have been in accidents. These all are examples of traumatic experiences, but trauma can come in many different forms.
If you’ve experienced infertility, pregnancy loss or recurrent loss, know what these are examples of trauma, too.
So often on this journey, the world around you minimises what you've been through. You're told “you can just try again” or “just do IVF,” and because of this, we tend to discount what's happened. But it’s important to recognise the depths of these experiences – because unresolved trauma doesn’t magically disappear once you see that positive pregnancy test (or once you have your baby in your arms).
Let’s start with your nervous system
Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) has one job. And it’s a big one. To keep you safe & ensure your survival at all times.
Every moment of the day, your ANS is looking for signs of safety or danger. It then pours through the vast catalogue of previous experiences you’ve had throughout your life as a reference point.
It’s forever assessing: Is this person safe to talk to? Is it safe to cross the road? What happened last time we walked into this room?
Unfortunately, when you’ve been through a traumatic experience like infertility or pregnancy loss, your ANS starts to work overtime. It brings you into a heightened state of vigilance. You’re forever on the lookout for danger, even in seemingly harmless situations. You’re always expecting the worst, waiting for the other shoe to drop, not able to enjoy the present moment. It’s hard to find joy in the little things. You overreact to small problems, you have trouble concentrating. You might also deal with panic attacks, flashbacks & find it hard to sleep. This is also known as PTSD.
How does trauma affect fertility?
Ideally, when your ANS senses danger, we get ready to either run, fight or freeze/hide until the danger has passed. To do this, your brain activates your sympathetic nervous system (which you may also know as your “fight or flight” response). Your cortisol levels increase, the adrenals pump out adrenaline & norepinephrine & your body gets ready for action.
Once the threat is gone, your brain should then activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Here your cortisol levels drop, you return to a state of calm, and your body continues all its regular functions which aren’t essential for immediate survival (things like critical thinking, immune response, digestion & reproduction).
The problem with having a constant stressor in your life (like infertility), is that your brain’s radar for danger is completely thrown off. It can’t tell when the danger has passed. It can’t tell the difference between “I’m pretty sure that lion over there is about to eat me” and “I’m terrified this embryo transfer isn’t going to work.”
It doesn’t know you’re safe, and it never switches off.
You have trouble sleeping. You lose focus at work. You find it hard to enjoy things you previously loved doing. You withdraw. You go down the google rabbit hole. All these things are your brain’s way of saying “I’m just trying to keep you safe.”
Being in this constant state of “fight or flight” has a huge impact on your overall health:
- Your immune system suffers & inflammation levels increase
- Excess cortisol interrupts the delicate balance of hormones needed for ovulation (and implantation of a healthy embryo)
- Constant spikes of adrenaline mean you overreact to minor inconveniences (extreme anger at someone cutting you off in traffic, bursting into tears at something seemingly insignificant, feeling overwhelmed by noise, light & touch)
If this feels like a lot, then that’s because it is. We were never meant to live in a prolonged state of fight or flight. The anxiety can be overwhelming.
So where on earth do you start if you want to move out of this?
Moving into safety starts with your physical body
An extended period of stress often results in unconscious numbing. Your brain shuts off the signals of your physical & emotional needs so it doesn’t have to expend extra energy attending to them.
Numbing can look like: withdrawing from certain people & social situations, mindlessly scrolling on your phone, burying yourself in work, or comfort eating foods that don’t make you feel great afterwards.
Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself. If you’re not truly aware of what your body needs, if you can’t read those signals, then you can’t take care of it.
But when you bring the awareness back into your physical body, when you pay attention to movement & physical tension, this is where things can start to shift. Mindful movement like yoga allows you to discover tension that you may have held for so long, you’re no longer aware of it. When physical tension is released, the feelings & emotions associated with it can also start to let go.
The nervous system tightens up your nerves & the surrounding muscles in response to danger. When you’ve been in a state of fight-or-flight for a long period of time, your body never gets a chance to relax completely. We often feel this tension in our shoulders, hips & our spine. The practice of yoga brings your attention to all these areas (and more). It can show you the difference between how you felt when you woke up, and after a 30 minute session focusing on gentle releases.
But it’s the consistency & regularity of a movement practice that really makes a difference. After months or years of living in a dysregulated state, your body needs time & constant reminders to know that it’s safe.
The significance of your breath
We’ve all been in a situation where your autonomic nervous system has kicked into fight or flight – your heart rate increases, you breathe faster, you can’t sit still, can’t focus, your anxiety levels skyrocket. It’s hard to get out of this state when you feel so out of control.
But - you have complete control over the single most powerful tool your body needs in order to come into a state of regulation:
You can’t control so many of the automatic responses your body has to perceived danger. But you can control your breath. When you recognise the signs of dysregulation, you have the option to change how you’re breathing. Slower inhales, longer exhales, repeat.
And just like movement, the more often you do this, the more often you can remind your brain that you’re safe. And combining the two (as we do in yoga) amplifies this enormously.
Meditation is magic
Think of meditation as a workout for your brain. When you workout a muscle at the gym, it changes. It grows & becomes stronger. The same thing happens when you “workout” an area of your brain.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (around the front of your brain) is the area involved with concentration, your ability to manage your emotions & mental state, and experience feelings of happiness & joy. So when you “workout” this area of your brain, your capacity to access these things becomes easier.
Meditation can come in many forms, and no type is better than another. It’s about finding what works best for you. The aim of meditation is presence. It’s not about stopping your thoughts or clearing your mind. It’s about becoming completely aware of yourself in that moment. When thoughts arise, you become aware of them, then you let them go.
Some find it easier to do this through guided meditations, others prefer to sit in silence. I particularly like moving meditations, where you focus on your breath & ask your body to move gently in a way that feels in tune with this.
Meditation is central to yoga. In both stillness & movement, the focus is always about you in that present moment.
The power of the placebo effect
When we think about all our mind is capable of in terms of protection after facing trauma, we can see how powerful it truly is.
But this means your brain is capable in other ways, too. And my favourite way of demonstrating this to students is by explaining the placebo effect.
Before a big pharmaceutical company can sell a new drug to the public, extensive studies & tests must be carried out. They do this through a “double blind” study, where participants are separated into 3 groups. One group is a control group & takes nothing, the second group takes the drug, and the third group takes a placebo (a “fake” drug). But the participants don’t know if they’re taking the real drug or the fake one.
What studies have shown time & time again is this: those who take the placebo get better. People who think they are taking the medication start to heal. Their results always improve over the control group who didn’t take anything.
How else can we explain this other than acknowledging the power of your mind?
You have the ability to change your thoughts, your physiology, and your responses to situations. And that’s where applying mind body techniques, such a yoga & meditation, becomes so powerful. When you think you’re getting better, you actually are.
Why this is about so much more than just a positive pregnancy test
The changes to the brain that occur as a result from ongoing stressors in our lives & traumatic events are far more reaching than we often realise. So many of us assume that once we’re pregnant, this will erase the years of struggle it took to get there.
But that’s not how it works.
Studies show that the brain physically changes with trauma. As our brains try to ward off scary situations, we also lose our capacity to feel fully alive & appreciate what we have.
This explains why so many of us lose our sense of purpose when we encounter infertility. We lose direction & we question our abilities at every turn. We miss who we used to be.
This doesn’t just disappear once you have your family. Remember, trauma robs you of the feeling that you have control over your life. The challenge is to re-establish this. To rebuild the ownership you have over your body and what happens to you.
Trauma effects the entire human organism – your brain, your body & your mind. It continues to defend against a threat that belongs to the past. Healing (and moving forward) means being able to find ways to interrupt this continued stress response & reestablish feelings of safety.
Yoga isn’t a magic pill. It isn’t a quick fix. But it’s an accessible & invaluable tool that’s available to everyone. And I’ve seen its powers work miracles. More times than I can count.
If you want to learn more, join me inside my complete Fertility Yoga & IVF Program. I'm honoured to share these practices with you.
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