IVF, Stress & the Mind Body Experience

There is a large group of men and women in the world who are unable to conceive on their own. Fortunately, we live in a world where science and health can come together to help an individual have a baby. As an integrative health and wellness coach, my goal is to educate, advocate and support men and women through their fertility journey. Below, are some keys things to consider before beginning the IVF journey and research on how the IVF process can impact your mind and body.

What is In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)?

IVF is the process by which a woman’s eggs are removed from her ovaries and are injected with sperm in a laboratory. Fertilization of the egg takes place in the laboratory, and is later implanted back into the woman who will carry the growing fetus if the treatment is successful. Before this process can begin, a woman undergoes a series of hormone injections and fertility medication(s) to help produce viable eggs. Once the egg is fertilized it can be implanted by using a thin catheter through the cervix and into the uterus.

IVF Related Stressors

The risk of negative pregnancy outcome is greater in women with a history of pregnancy complication, and the risks are still present in IVF pregnancies.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is psychologically and emotionally stressful procedure, as such, women may experience stress related anxiety before, during and/or after the IVF treatment. The constant source of stress may be caused by the fear of not getting pregnant, the high cost of IVF, daily injections, required procedures, and the possibility of failure at any stage. In addition to the physical stress, the psychological stressors present may impact the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, the sympathetic nervous system, and the major “fight or flight” stress hormones which affect our heart rate variability.

What is Heart Rate Variability?

According to the American Heart Association, heart rate and rhythm are largely under the control of the autonomic nervous system. Heart rate variability (HRV) refers to the beat-to-beat alterations in heart rate and fluctuates with respiration. Thoughts, emotions, and external experiences are intertwined with the rhythm of the heart and our breathing. Constant acute stress, aging, physical inactivity can lower HRV.

Stress Hormones & Your Heart Rate: Why Should You Care?

Norepinephrine and Heart Rate:

Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that becomes elevated during stressful events. Known for its support in the fight-or-flight response, this hormone directly increasing heart rate, triggers the release of glucose from energy stores, and can result in a drop in heart rate. Norepinephrine also plays a role in the local regulation of ovarian function which can affect IVF outcomes.

Epinephrine and Heart Rate:

The roles of epinephrine and norepinephrine are very similar, However, epinephrine constricts blood vessels but dilates the blood vessels in the skeletal muscles and the liver. It causes the contraction of the heart, which increases the blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood output from the heart. Epinephrine is often associated with “fight or flight” response because it is released during stressful events.

Cortisol and Heart Rate

Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands. Cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. Cortisol is used in the body to help us wake up after sleeping. It is considered to be the main hormone in the “flight or fight” response, and too much of this hormone can disrupt reproduction, impact the immune system, and cause weight gain.

What Does The Research Say? 

There have been countless of studies on fertility and IVF. More recently, there has been an increase in the desire to learn more on whether our fertility is affected by stress. The truth is that according to the research, high levels of stress hormones does reduce the effectiveness of fertility treatments and can even impact the quality of embryos. However, there is also research that points to the fact that a certain amount of stress is good for the body, and can even support fertility. This is what we call “performance stress,” which basically means that we can often perform better when under a bit of stress.

This leads me to my final thoughts…

Stress Perception:

One thing to consider before undergoing your fertility treatment is

“How do you manage your stress?”

Begin by asking yourself what “self-care” means to you, and by thinking about how self-care can support your fertility journey. By taking a step back in this process and thinking about how we perceive our stress, manage our stress and let go of some of that stress, we might be able to increase our chances of a successful fertility treatment,  and create a greater awareness in our bodies of how our “stress habits” play a role in our lives.

Spirituality, Infertility and Rites of Passage

I like to think that I am not affected by societal expectations. The truth is that I am affected every single day. The truth is that social media makes it worse. I am genuinely happy when I hear that a friend becomes pregnant, once, twice, three times…however many times. Whether planned or unplanned, married or not. Regardless of that woman’s situation I feel sincere joy for the life stirring in her belly. It’s hard not to, I am a doula after all. I love being able to be a part of the expectation process, the birth, the tears, the fear, the sheer joy. My heart and my spirit swell with happiness for her because even though I have never experienced such joy I feel it when I hold her baby and as I slowly cradle that baby’s tiny body in my hands.

It’s kind of funny to think that as a pre-teen and most of my adult life I was against having children for myself. I remember sitting in church camp at the age of 13 and praying to God that he would never give me children. My thoughts were always very mature and I knew that in my heart I was not ready nor did I want to bring a child into the world when I was still too selfish to care for anyone else.  My little selfish heart felt so strongly that I knew that even as an adult I would feel this way.

Now at the age of 29, after being married for almost 5 years, I am feeling this strange bubbling inside of me. Even though there is the “unspoken” pressure to have children my stubborn self won’t do it just because my mother, husband, sisters, etc. ask me to or tell me that “it is time to have children.” First of all, stop it. Just because we are close does not mean you can tell me when I should have children. Furthermore, I would not say that it’s my biological clock because I think that is a crock of shit. No, what I am feeling is this overwhelming urge to love more deeply. I don’t mean love my husband more because the love for him is not the same as this other type of love. I don’t know how to describe it but to say that it is what I imagine what my mother’s love is for me; a tiny glimpse into how God loves us. This “maternal love” that feels so heavy inside of me reminds me of my grandmother. I feel it so deep inside of me it’s like my roots, or my ancestry is crying out for nourishment. I feel this on occasion in my waking life, but it is in my dreams that I feel it the most. This feeling in my dreams occasionally lingers about in my mind as I go about my day. These messages that linger often feel like someone or something is trying to speak to me. As I sleep I accept these visions as true and real, but in my waking life I disregard them as just dreams. My inner critic chocks it up to just wishful thinking and reminds me that I never wanted children in the first place. Who knows, maybe this isn’t even about children.

Perhaps it is that my infertile womb wants what it cannot have. I don’t know.

But my dreams tell my soul a different story; one of deep, unexplainable love. I don’t know.

Maybe the deep rooted love my soul craves isn’t for a physical being. Maybe the deep rooted love I crave is for a deeper spiritual connection and to be reminded of those who came before me. Maybe this infertile womb has a greater purpose; a deeper and more meaningful purpose that cannot be filled with the same joy experienced by the women around me.

Miscarriage and Grief

I have been thinking a lot about the grieving process. Specifically for women and couples who have lost a child.

I have read countless articles on the topic. Through this research I came across some statistics that left me wondering how I can support women going through this process.

It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies end in a miscarriage (one of the most common occurrences in pregnancy) 

A lack of knowledge, particularly for those who had not had a miscarriage before, resulted in them feeling shocked by the physical process and anxious about what was happening to their bodies

for many women miscarriage was a lonely and isolating experience

this loss is often not acknowledged by the community because there are no rituals that can be performed, this is often referred to as a “silent event” or an “invisible death”

Care following a miscarriage has been described as one of the most neglected areas in the training of health professionals.

It is surprising to me that despite the frequency with which miscarriage occurs it has only been in the last 10–15 years that research has begun to identify and explore the consequences of early pregnancy loss.

So, what does someone like me who has never experienced this type of loss do with this information?

How do we support women in our community who are going through this “silent event?”

How do we take this very common silent loss and transform it into something that creates meaning and is acknowledged?

As a women’s health advocate  I have been exploring the various techniques available that have been shown to help in difficult emotional situations. One technique to explore is the use of guided imagery. 

Guided imagery used in a clinical setting is a 3 step process:

1—developing self-awareness of both behaviors and internal events (e.g., stressful thoughts increasing your heart rate).

2—new, adaptive thoughts (images) are introduced to replace the distressing ones.

3—the person is encouraged to generalize the newly learned thoughts and behaviors outside of the clinical setting, in real-life situations.

Regardless of what techniques have been shown to be helpful, each experience is different and each response to grief varies. As a friend, partner, or relative, helping her find a way to memorialize the baby may help her cope with the loss. In addition, respectfully asking if the baby has a name, offering to help around the house, bringing her meals, going for walks, spending time with her and listening to her. Above all, letting her find her own way of grieving and respecting her process.