How is this related to fertility? Individuals and couples dealing with fertility issues typically experience very high levels of stress and anxiety.1 Unfortunately, studies have shown an association between anxiety, elevations in cortisol (your body’s stress hormone) and fertility problems.2 This suggests that the actual stress of infertility may further hinder an individual’s or couple’s chances of conceiving. Mind-body techniques aim to address the mental and emotional wellbeing of an individual or couple trying to conceive and in doing so, help to reduce any role that stress may be playing in preventing them from falling pregnant.
Before I go on to explain some of the more common mind-body techniques, it’s important to be aware that high-quality evidence to support the use of these techniques in the setting of infertility is currently limited. This is because the effects of how we think and feel on our health can be difficult to measure. However, the research that does exist is certainly thought-provoking. There are also many passionate testimonials from individuals and couples who believe these techniques improved their overall health and wellbeing, and contributed to their success in getting pregnant by helping them to cope better with the challenges they were facing. Thus, while these techniques may not directly improve pregnancy rates, fertility specialists often offer them as an adjunct to other treatment in order to help patients/couples better manage the emotional toll and relationship stresses of fertility treatment, including IVF.
Some of the more popular techniques include:
These techniques involve refocusing your attention on something that is calming to help relax the mind and body. There are many ways to achieve this, including breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques have been linked to reduced negative emotions in a range of patients, and more specifically, have been shown to reduce levels of anxiety in women undergoing fertility treatment.3 They are a good option because they can be practised almost anywhere and at little or no cost.
CBT is a form of psychotherapy (‘talking therapy’) that focuses on how our thoughts influence how we feel and what we do. It involves helping the patient to recognise negative and often repetitive thought patterns like “I can’t have a baby” or “It’s my fault that we aren’t conceiving”, and challenging them. In doing so, it encourages the individual to assess how realistic or rational their thoughts are, to be aware of the impact their thoughts may be having on how they are feeling, and to try and replace these thoughts with more helpful, positive ways of thinking. CBT may not directly change your ability to conceive but it may help to improve your perspective on the challenges you are facing and your overall outlook – thereby reducing stress and anxiety.4
Mindfulness refers to a state in which we are able to maintain a very clear focus on our present thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. It teaches us to be ‘in the moment’, so that we are less overwhelmed by past experiences and future concerns. A recent study demonstrated higher rates of pregnancy with IVF when women practised mindfulness, compared to those who did not.5 There is also strong evidence that mindfulness-based stress reduction can lower the levels of stress hormones in our body, and that being ‘more present’ can help a woman to better frame and process her experiences with fertility treatment.6
Infertility is often a silent struggle and despite its prevalence, many women choose not to share their story with friends or family. If you are experiencing this, it can be helpful to identify someone who can empathise with you and provide a healthy outlet for any confusion and sadness you may be feeling. Social support has been found to be particularly helpful in cases where women are feeling isolated as a result of their infertility. There are now also many organised groups where people with fertility issues can come together to discuss and share their experiences, including face-to-face groups, peer support programs and online discussion forums. There is good evidence that participating in support groups can reduce distress and anxiety, improving both your quality of life and chances of pregnancy.3
It is well recognised that physical activity can reap huge emotional benefits through the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones called endorphins. These hormones can act as both a pain reliever and happiness booster. Australian guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as walking or dancing, on most days of the week. If possible, some vigorous exercise, like cycling or running, should be performed at least once a week. Research into the effects of exercise on fertility has found that moderate exercise decreases the risk of miscarriage and increases the chances of conceiving in women undergoing assisted reproductive technology.7 Vigorous exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of ovulation problems.7 Regular exercise can also lead to weight loss, which can help improve fertility if you are carrying extra weight.8
In conclusion, while further research is clearly needed in this area, using mind-body techniques throughout your fertility journey can certainly contribute to your physical and mental wellbeing as you strive to become pregnant. Here at Newlife IVF, we aim to provide individuals and couples with a genuinely supportive experience as they undergo fertility treatment. Our class-leading IVF counsellors are also available to meet with patients 1:1 and/or in organised group sessions over the course of their treatment journey. To make an appointment with one of our fertility specialists or to get a second opinion, call Newlife IVF on (03) 8080 8933. Alternatively, you can book online via our appointments page.