If you’re trying to conceive (TTC) and things aren’t happening as quickly as you’d hoped, it’s totally natural to feel stressed or anxious. But it’s possible you’re also starting to wonder, Can stress cause infertility? Can anxiety stop you from getting pregnant?
The answer to that is a tricky one.
We know that experiencing reproductive struggles can leave women with high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression (see this 2016 study, for example). But the picture is far more mixed when researchers study whether or not stress actually impacts your chances of conceiving.
What is clear is that taking care of your mental health is hugely important – whether you’re TTC, expecting a baby, or just in general.
So, let’s look at the possible links between stress and infertility (reproductive struggles) and explore some ways to give your mind a little TLC.
Can stress cause infertility? The big question
Stress and your body
What we often forget is that our bodies still think we’re sat in a cave trying not to be savaged by a saber-toothed tiger or trampled by a woolly mammoth.
When you get stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. It quickly releases stress hormones like cortisol, which prompts those anxiety symptoms like your heart beating super fast or your breathing becoming shallower. This is all part of your body trying to protect you from danger.
So, how can stress affect getting pregnant?
Well, if the stress is really intense, your stress hormones will send a message to the “non-essential” systems in your body (in other words, the bodily functions that might hold you back when running from that tiger). It tells them to shut down for a while. And one of these systems is your reproductive system.
The connection between your brain and your ovaries gets disrupted, so the message “Time to release an egg!” doesn’t get through.
The result? You might have a menstrual cycle where ovulation is delayed or skipped altogether, resulting in irregular or missed periods. And this can make it harder for you to time sex (or insemination) to coincide with ovulation.
This is usually only a temporary problem, though. In fact, if ovulation is only delayed, you could still get pregnant that cycle – just a little later than expected.
Other things to look out for when you’re stressed are:
- Sex drive. Stress can really spoil the mood. And less sex (unless you’re TTC via insemination) = fewer chances of making a baby.
- Lifestyle factors. When we’re stressed, self-care can suffer. We might drink more alcohol or have lower quality sleep – and a negative impact on our health can also impact our fertility.
Other links between stress and fertility
There might be further links between stress and fertility, but the evidence isn’t so clear:
Rate of conception. Some studies have found that women with higher stress levels are less likely to conceive. But others found no difference in conception rates between women with high or low stress. (See this 2010 study vs. this 2019 study.)
Implantation. Can stress prevent the implantation of an embryo? Possibly. It’s thought that abnormal levels of the stress hormone CRH could impact the lining of your uterus.
Blood flow to your reproductive organs, such as your fallopian tubes, might be affected by catecholamines – compounds produced by your nervous system during times of stress.
Ultimately, infertility (reproductive struggles) is a complex issue that can be affected by a lot of different things: your overall health, age, lifestyle factors, and, no doubt, many things that scientists don’t even know about yet. Stress is just one potential piece of the puzzle.
So, if you’re already feeling stressed or anxious on your TTC journey, try not to get too stressed about the stress (uh-oh, we’re really going round in circles now…).
How can you reduce stress if you’re TTC?
Let’s finish with a few things you can try to boost your mental health when you’re TTC:
Removing other sources of stress. Other than fertility-related anxiety, is anything else dragging you down? Maybe work stress or conflict at home. Is there a way to improve the situation?
A change of scenery. Perhaps you (and your partner, if you have one) could take a trip somewhere. It might help you get a fresh perspective on life, and you could spend some time doing things you enjoy.
Relaxation techniques. Think meditation, yoga, journaling – whatever works for you.
Taking care of your body. What’s good for your body is good for your mind. Try taking some moderate exercise (walking, swimming) each week, and treat yourself to some nutrient-packed meals.
Therapy or group support. Research suggests that group therapy with other women going through reproductive struggles can reduce stress, and may increase your chance of conceiving. But simply talking about your experiences with other women who are TTC might help ease your anxiety, too.
And remember, we’re rooting for you!