“Just Relax, and You’ll Get Pregnant": What the Research Says About Stress and Infertility

By Alice D. Domar, PhD

Since the beginning of time, women and couples struggling to conceive have been subject to a litany of ”well-meaning” but hurtful comments suggesting that if they would simply cheer up, a baby would magically appear. 

“Just relax, and you’ll get pregnant.” 

“It will happen when you stop trying.”

As a clinical psychologist with over 34 years of experience as a fertility therapist, I have performed decades of research on the relationship between stress and infertility, and I can definitively say that infertility causes stress. In fact, in a recent study of 352 women and 274 men undergoing infertility treatment, 56% of women and 32% of men scored in the clinical range for depression, and 76% of women and 61% of men scored in the clinical range for anxiety. 

But does stress cause infertility? At this point, we still don’t know the answer to that question, but it has been proven that infertility does cause high levels of emotional distress. So while science might never be able to truly determine if stress can make treatment less successful, we do know that the negative feelings associated with infertility can truly decrease one’s quality of life, weaken coping strategies, and make it harder to stay in treatment.

Instead of continuing to debate the topic, my opinion is that we need to instead focus our time, energy, and resources to determine how best to psychologically support fertility patients by providing them with the physical and emotional care they need. Enter the Mind/Body Fertility Program for Infertility. 

A little bit of background: in 1987, there was a small research study at Columbia that showed that women who participated in a stress management/relaxation program had far higher pregnancy rates than women who were randomized to a control (no treatment) group. At the time, I was being trained by Dr. Joan Borysenko on how to run mind/body groups, which were being offered to individuals with a wide variety of medical issues, including cancer, heart disease, MS, chronic pain, and anxiety/depression. We were seeing incredible improvements in both physical and psychological symptoms in our patients, so it made sense to create a similar program for women experiencing infertility. 

The Mind/Body Program for Infertility officially began in September of 1987, and after just six months, we were seeing about a third of the participants successfully conceive. (Remember, at the time, IVF success rates were only about 5-10%). We were also seeing vast reductions in depressive and anxiety symptoms. 

A couple of years later, I received government funding to do a randomized, controlled trial on the program, which further proved its effectiveness. More than 50% of the participants in the mind/body program went on to have a live birth, compared with only 20% of the control group. The mind/body participants also had significantly greater improvements in emotional symptoms. Another, later study on people undergoing IVF found, once again, that those who participated in the mind/body groups had more than a 50% pregnancy rate, compared to 20% in the control group.

I went on to run the Mind-Body Fertility Program For Infertility for over three decades at Boston IVF, helping countless fertility patients learn how to better manage their stress and develop lifelong coping skills. So, when I teamed up with the lovely folks at Rescripted, we thought, why not bring the program online so more patients can have access to its many benefits? 

Mind-Body Fertility by Rescripted is a six-session, research-based, small group counseling program, composed of 6-12 fertility patients and a licensed, trained mental health professional. It is also completely virtual. 

Research has shown that group counseling programs of six or more sessions are the most effective. We also recently did another study on patients who did an online version of the mind/body program. Those who were randomized to the online mind/body group had a pregnancy rate more than 4 times that of the no-treatment group and reported significant decreases in distress. So, we feel very comfortable in saying that Mind-Body Fertility will be effective in reducing stress and potentially improving pregnancy rates in the participants. 

What I think is so unique about the Mind-Body Fertility program is that each session has a different theme. Each week, participants will learn a variety of relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and autogenic training, as well as how to do “mini” relaxations, which are amazingly effective at reducing anxiety for things like blood tests, ultrasounds, and injections. 

Throughout the program, participants will be introduced to a wide variety of stress management strategies to help them counter negative thoughts such as “I will never have a baby,” or “the infertility is all my fault.” There is a session on the impact of lifestyle habits, including the science of the efficacy of acupuncture, diets, and supplements; and there is a session on coping with negative emotions, such as jealousy, grief, and anger. Finally, participants will be given tools for better, more effective communication with their partner, friends, and family members, while making friends in the process. 

I think it’s important to note that his program is not a support group. In a support group, people talk about how hard infertility is. In this group counseling program, the assumption is that infertility is hard, and the focus is on learning ways to feel better, physically and emotionally. It is a mixture of experiential, group discussion, and brief lectures. 

There is something truly powerful about being in a group of other people who “get it.” They understand the two-week wait; they know all too well what it’s like to get your period after a failed cycle; and they understand how challenging it is to see pregnancy announcements, no explanation necessary. Infertility can feel isolating, but through Rescripted’s Mind-Body Fertility Program, participants will feel less isolated, more normal, and have a chance to both offer and receive support.

All of the group leaders are licensed mental health professionals who are experienced in all facets of infertility, and all have been personally trained by me. There are only a few hundred mental health professionals with this specialty, and 33 of the best are part of this program! It’s also only $25 per therapy hour, compared to the National average of $200, because we truly believe in accessibility for all. 

While we can’t guarantee that all of our participants will be pregnant after the six-week program, there is an excellent chance that you will feel better and learn lifelong skills in the process. If you want to learn strategies for how to cope, decrease stress and anxiety, and develop resilience while also increasing your odds of conception, click here to learn more about Mind-Body Fertility by Rescripted.

I wish you the very best of luck on your journey!
Ali

Dr. Alice D. Domar is a pioneer in the field of mind/body medicine with over 34 years of experience as a fertility therapist. She has conducted decades of ground-breaking research on the relationship between stress and infertility, and Rescripted is proud to be bringing her world-renowned stress-management program to you virtually.