Trouble Getting Pregnant Again? Using Mind-Body Techniques for Secondary Infertility
Couples look forward to growing their families and can be in for a shock when baby No. 2 is not so easy to conceive, especially when they had no trouble before. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, an estimated 3 million women suffer from secondary infertility, a condition defined as the inability to conceive after having had at least one live birth. There are several different reasons that secondary infertility can occur. One of the most natural and inevitable is age. Our bodies change over time and our fertility decreases.
We also can’t discount the effects of stress on our bodies when coping with secondary infertility. We can’t say with absolute certainty that stress directly causes secondary infertility. But we do know that dealing with infertility almost always results in added stress on a woman and her family. That in turn can make coping with infertility treatments that much more difficult. What makes secondary infertility especially stressful is that patients have to juggle raising their families while going through time-consuming fertility treatments. Patients also may not be on the same page as their significant other about how far to pursue treatment for a second or third child.
There is a false belief that women who have secondary infertility are not as depressed or sad as women who have primary infertility. According to Dr. Sofia Gameiro, a lecturer at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University in Wales, women who still wished to have children were up to 2.8 times more likely to develop clinically significant mental health problems than women who did not. Her study showed that it doesn’t matter whether it’s primary or secondary infertility but whether or not a patient wishes to have a child or more children.
Utilizing a mind-body approach for stress relief can counter the variety of factors that promote stress.
What is a mind-body approach?
A mind-body approach is utilized to counteract the effects of the “fight or flight” response. Our bodies are conditioned to respond to a real or perceived threat with a physiological response. For instance, when a patient is nervously waiting the results of a pregnancy test, she may have a physical reaction to that stress, such as dry mouth, nervous stomach or her hands can become sweaty. Prolonged or chronic stress can manifest in several physical conditions, including high blood pressure, suppression of immune system, irritability, anxiety, depression, anger management issues, and can have an effect on how well a patient can cope with infertility. Stress management through mind-body techniques leads to a reduction in these physical conditions.
A mind-body approach can be an exceptionally useful tool as part of the treatment for secondary infertility. To counter the stresses of my patients’ daily lives and infertility, I frequently recommend the following techniques.
Mindfulness: Secondary infertility patients have their attention divided between their treatment, their children, their responsibilities at home and frequently with their careers. Being “in the moment” can seem like an impossible challenge. However, I encourage patients to focus on what is in front of them: the sights, sounds, and smells that surround them; the topic being discussed; the ideas being shared. In terms of their fertility treatment, it also means focusing on today, trying not to linger on the negative results of the past or outcomes that have not yet been determined. Focus on today, find enjoyment in the here and now, the present moment.
Breathe: The most simple, most portable, most accessible stress management tool is breathing. Many people don’t realize that when they are under stress, their breathing is affected. By taking slow, deep breaths patients can learn to control and alleviate anything that the body is holding on to.
There are several different breathing techniques that can be done in a matter of moments and can be utilized wherever. The most basic example is to breath in slowly to a count of four, and then breath out again to a count of four. After repeating this four to five times, there is a greater sense of calm.
Find good in each day: Most couples are apart all day, and when they reconnect, it is common for them to vent about a difficult co-worker, bad traffic, a fussy child or annoying salespeople. It is more beneficial – for both spouses – to share something new, something good. This piece of information can be something small in the day that sparked a smile, such as the opportunity to catch up with an old friend, a funny meme shared on social media, a momentous moment with a child, or even an interesting news article. This will help set the tone of communication for the rest of the evening.
Prayer or Meditation: Taking several minutes to slow down and focus inward can be incredibly rewarding. Some of my religious patients are most comfortable with prayer or may even seek help from their religious leader to help lead them in prayer. For others, I suggest trying guided meditation. There are several good meditation apps available for smart phones such as Headspace or Mindfulness.
Not every mind-body technique is going to be right for everyone, and in our practice, we encourage our patients to find the one that is right for her. Stress has not been definitively proven to decrease the likelihood of pregnancy through clinical trials; however, several clinical studies indicate that stress management techniques can have a positive effect. Furthermore, there is no downside to learning and practicing stress management, and the upside is promising. The benefits can have a positive and everlasting impact on our quality of life.
Melissa Kelleher, LCSW, works with couples and individuals at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut (RMACT), giving them the tools to emotionally handle their fertility challenges and make related decisions. In addition to being a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), Melissa has trained under Alice D. Domar, PhD, a pioneer in the application of mind-body medicine to men’s and women’s health issues. Melissa works with patients in one-on-one settings and in workshops. To find out more, please go to www.rmact.com.