Is Stress Impacting Your Fertility? 5 Ways To Calm your Mind + Body to Support Your Fertility JourneyJul 02, 2023
“Just relax & it will happen!” everyone says.
As anyone who has been through fertility struggles will know, the idea that you can “just relax” through the process is ridiculous.
When you’re navigating medical appointments, invasive procedures, injections, hormones, family pressure, pregnancy announcements, grief, overwhelm, financial stress, time away from work, physical recovery, loss of your future plans, the strain on your relationships…it’s endless. Being able to “just relax” while you’re dealing with all of this is impossible.
Yet you constantly hear how bad stress is for your body. You’re told how much of an impact it can have on your chances of falling pregnant. So how on earth do you manage this?
In my experience as a Fertility Yoga Teacher, there are 5 ways I help my students overcome the constant cycle of stress as they’re trying to conceive. But before we get to those, it’s important to understand what stress is, and how it affects you.
Stress is not an emotional response
Stress is not an emotion. It’s not something we feel in the way we also feel happiness, sadness, and anger. Stress is a physical reaction within your body. It’s an automatic response of your nervous system when it perceives danger.
When your nervous system senses there is a threat, it signals to your brain to start pumping out cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause your heart rate to increase, your breath to shallow and your senses to be on high alert. Your brain thinks it can do something in this situation to keep you safe – maybe you can fight the danger, maybe you can run from it.
During this process, your brain also shuts down the functions that are not essential for immediate survival, such as our digestive system, our immune system, and our reproductive system. This is why people with chronic, long-term stress also experience gut issues, auto-immune disorders, and of course, fertility issues.
This is your sympathetic nervous system in activation. When this happens and depending on the perceived level of danger, we may start to notice feelings of annoyance, then concern, then anxiety, and finally panic. As you get further into a sympathetic state, your brain gets consumed with the idea that you must do something right now. You can’t think of anything else, your vision tunnels, you can’t sit still, and you can’t relax. This is one reason we go down the “google rabbit hole” and feel unable to stop. You want answers and your brain is telling you to find them immediately.
If you’re in a sympathetic state where you’re feeling irritable or annoyed, gentle breathwork, meditation or some grounding exercises may be helpful. But if you’re in an acute state & your brain thinks the danger is imminent, these tools will not be helpful. If you feel your heart racing, your thoughts are overwhelming & you can’t sit still, meditation isn’t always useful. In these cases, you need to move. Dynamic movement, brisk walking, dance & yoga are much better ways to bring you into the present and a provide your brain with a sense of safety.
Long periods of stress can lead to a dissociated state
When the perceived threat or danger is prolonged, day after day, month after month, your nervous system can move into what is known as a dorsal state. At this point, your brain is saying “we can’t escape from this danger, but I can numb you and disassociate you from the experience so you won’t feel the pain.” This state may initially feel like you no longer have any energy. You may feel apathetic, like you no longer care, you have nothing to look forward to. Your senses withdraw, you feel disconnected, you no longer feel capable, you believe everything is hopeless. You start to tell yourself “It’s too late for me…it’s never going to happen.”
Remember, this is a self-protective response. Your brain thinks that if it doesn’t react in this way, something worse & more dangerous can happen. This is why we get stuck on the thought “I can’t get my hopes up because it will be so much harder if this doesn’t work.”
So now that you’re aware of the physical reaction stress has within your body, here are 5 ways you can manage it when it happens:
5 tips to bring yourself out of a stress response
1. The first step is to recognise it
There are no two ways about it – we can’t remove the stress of infertility. But what we can do is manage the response we have to stress.
When you can start to notice the physical signs of stress (the racing heart, shallow breath, inability to sit still) you are then able to do something about them.
Your nervous system’s only job is to keep you safe. No matter where you are currently on your journey, this system also knows it got you to where you are now. It protected you and you’re alive. So as far as your brain is aware, it’s doing a fantastic job and will continue doing this.
Awareness is crucial, and finding ways to feel safe will be the key to regulating your nervous system and managing stress.
2. Get out of your head and into your body
Remember your brain can’t differentiate between: “this lion is about to eat me” and the anxiety of infertility. Either way, the response is because of perceived (not actual) danger. Therefore, feeling safe is the ticket to moving out of the stress response.
We can get carried away by our thoughts so easily. The what-ifs, the traumatic memories. These thoughts are valid but they’re not real. What is real is the environment around you. Go through your 5 senses and ask yourself:
- What can I see in front of me?
- What can I reach out & touch?
- What can I hear around me?
- What smells do I notice?
- What can I taste?
It’s not until we feel supported and safe, not just having thoughts about safety, that change starts to happen and our system starts to regulate.
3. Come back to your breath
One of the quickest and simplest ways to switch back into a parasympathetic (regulated) state is to control your breath. If one of the first responses to stress is a short or shallow breath, then an easy way to remind your brain that you’re safe is to take deep, slow, measured breaths instead.
The next time you’re starting to feel anxious, perhaps you’re in the waiting room of the fertility clinic or waiting for an important phone call, try this simple practice:
Breathe in deeply through your nose to a count of 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, exhale slowly through your nose for 8 seconds. Repeat x 5.
4. Practice Yoga
Traditionally, we are taught that the best way to work through traumatic experiences is via talk therapy (or counselling). Talk therapy allows you to cognitively process what has happened to you and understand traumatic events. This is incredibly helpful. But if you’ve been working with a therapist and you’re still feeling easily triggered, there is a reason for this.
We can rationalise and make sense of things that have happened to us, but our bodies will still hold onto that trauma. Your body doesn’t understand words. It understands movement. This is also why mantras and affirmations are ineffective for a lot of us.
In his famous book “The Body Keeps the Score,” Dr Bessel van der Kolk explains how trauma lives in our bodies and is physically stored as memories within our nervous system. He explains that we need embodied healing. This type of healing work translates loosely as speaking the language of our bodies. Yoga is an embodied language and a beautiful way to release trauma.
5. Get outside
The healing effects of being in nature are endless. Being outdoors is a fantastic way to bring the focus away from your thoughts and into your body.
The next time you’re starting to notice feelings of anxiety, make time to spend a part of that day outside. Feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair. Feet hot. Feel cold. Put your feet on the grass, your toes in the sand or the ocean. It’s another incredible way to brig your mind to the here and now…and remind your brain that you’re safe.
Remember this isn’t an exhaustive list. As you begin to make these practices a part of your life, you’ll start to develop your own ways to manage stress and anxiety. The important thing is to embrace the way you feel. Pushing emotions aside will only work for so long. Notice your feelings, then use these tips to help them move through you.
If you want to learn more about yoga and how it can help you on your fertility journey, grab a copy of my free Fertility Yoga Guide here.
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