Although there is some debate about the best definition of stress, I like to characterize it as any demand on the physical and/or psychological resources of a person. In daily life, most of us manage fairly well in meeting the challenges of our basic needs like food and shelter, going to work, and managing our personal business. The demands of infertility treatment, however, can overwhelm even the most resilient individual and leave the person feeling depressed, anxious, and out-of-control. Patients often share with me that they never dreamed trying to conceive a baby would make them feel so stressed out. In fact, research has found that women undergoing infertility treatments report distress levels equivalent to cancer patients! It is well documented that emotional distress levels rise as the intensity and duration of infertility treatment increases.
To manage stress more effectively, you need to understand your body's stress response and how it can, under certain circumstances, be useful and adaptive. A physiologist at Harvard, Walter B. Cannon, was the first to describe the "fight or flight" response. When we perceive a threat, the "fight or flight" response kicks in to ensure our survival. This primitive response is hard-wired into our nervous system and cannot differentiate between true physical danger (like a saber-tooth tiger chasing us) or emotional danger (someone yelling at you on the freeway). When we perceive a threat, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. These "stress" hormones cause your heart rate to increase, your blood pressure increases, your auditory acuity increases, your pupils dilate, and blood is diverted away from your extremities and digestive system and redirected toward major muscle groups. All of these changes allow you to have maximum physical strength and heightened perceptual skills to either fight off your attacker or flee the scene in order to survive. Primitive man needed quick bursts of energy in order to survive. Even today, the flight or flight response can be very useful in emergency situations. Everybody has heard of stories where people demonstrate super-human strength in crisis situations. Being able to lift a car off of a trapped victim is an example of the fight or flight response in action serving a positive purpose.
The problem in our modern world is that we continue to respond to all kinds of social or emotional stress in the same manner. There have been estimates that our fight or flight response is activated as often as 50 times per day! Most of us begin the day being jolted into awareness by the shrill sound of our alarm clocks. We then rush to shower and eat breakfast and then "fight" traffic on the way to the work place. Demands on our time and energy continue all day long. By the time most of us get home, we are tense, irritated, and exhausted. Chronic or persistent stress occurs when the stressors are unrelenting, as they can be while undergoing infertility treatment. As long as the stress response remains "turned on," you will be at an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, increased risk of heart attack or stroke, and increased risk of depression and anxiety. Chronic stress can damage almost every system of the body, and it can worsen conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, and chronic pain. Chronic stress can cause suppression of the reproductive system resulting in amenorrhea and failure to ovulate in women, impotency in men, and loss of libido in both.
Coping with Stress
So how do you cope with all of the added stress during infertility treatment? Research has shown that the best way to manage stress is to learn a variety of stress reduction techniques. These techniques activate the "relaxation response" that serves to bring the nervous system back into balance by slowing down the heart rate and essentially restoring the body and mind back to a calm, relaxed state. Practicing relaxation techniques during treatment will enable you to rid your body of the harmful effects of stress. Managing stress properly will give you the strength to handle the physical and emotional demands of infertility treatment. There are many different stress management techniques (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, cognitive restructuring) and you will need to do some experimentation to determine what works best for you.
Any new patient at CARE is entitled to a complimentary psychological consultation. Let us help you put together your own personal stress management plan!