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Managing Stress - For Fertility and Beyond

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a blog by Suzanne Rico, March 19, 2014 When someone tells you the key to getting pregnant is to “just relax” you probably want to grab them by the neck and shake a few times—and of course your stress level goes through the roof because, damn it, it’s just not that easy!

But the research does not lie. A 2010 study showed that women with high levels of a stress-indicating enzyme in their saliva were twelve times less likely to get pregnant than women with low levels. And this carried over to women with no infertility issues: higher stress biomarkers were linked to increased time to get pregnant.

But managing stress should be a lifelong pursuit--not one that lasts until you get knocked up--because, believe me, the real stress starts once the baby is born, when you realize that having a child is like having your heart on the outside your body, vulnerable and exposed. I was guilty of thinking that once I had a baby in my arms, my stress level (pushed sky-high by trying to balance a high-profile job while enduring multiple IVFs and miscarriages) would plummet. But these days, when my boys squabble, throw punches, or one breaks an arm (which he then breaks again on the day he gets his cast off) I feel choked by stress and revert to the sun salutations, deep breathing techniques, and Qi Gong that helped so much when I was trying to have them. Stress is a killer for everyone—not just those trying to have a baby.

"The goal in Chinese medicine is not just to help get someone pregnant or to get rid of pain, but to get into balance and stay in balance so we can live a healthy, illness free life," says Jeanie Bussell, head of acupuncture and Chinese medicine for the Tiffani Kim Institute in Chicago. "When a woman is in balance, everything should function properly, including her reproductive system. We need to stay in balance so we can live long and enjoy our families but also so we can model healthy behaviors and attitudes for our children."

Bussell is right. The other day, my youngest son (the one who has twice broken his arm), surprised me with a question. “Mommy, what is stress?” he asked, the subject perhaps on his mind because the one year anniversary of my mother's death--his grandmother--was upon us and I'd been sad and short-tempered. “Well, honey,” I began, trying to simplify this complex subject while not dumbing it down, “it’s when something is difficult to handle and it makes you feel bad--kind of like you're going to explode." This answer was lame but Adrian's face lit up in understanding. “Like having a baby, Mommy!" he exclaimed, “That’s stressful, right?” I don't know where he got this, but I had to laugh because yes, it was. And that laughter made my stress level fall right through the floor.

"One should think of life as a ship sailing," says Bussell. "If you’re off course now, the longer you wait to adjust, the longer it will take for you to get back on course. If you make the necessary changes now, then there will be a greater portion of your life in which you can enjoy good health and happiness. There are many challenges as we age, not just fertility."

With the goal in mind of handling all life's challenges as positively as possible, I asked Bussell for some strategies to get us there.

"Almost all of us need to learn to slow down," she said. "Life is like a marathon, but most of us treat it like a sprint. Our current culture does not promote or value resting or nourishing and this is why so many women get burnt out so quickly. We need to find time to recharge our batteries on a daily basis, not just on vacations that we may go on once or twice a year. We do not need to carve out a huge amount of time to recharge. Schedule a little time daily for things such as lunch without checking emails, listening to favorite songs, taking a short nature walk, laughing and smiling, or just simply closing our eyes and being aware of our breath. With more time and effort, meditation, restorative yoga and Tai-chi are also wonderful rejuvenating options."

And perhaps most importantly--and something to remember for the long haul--we need to rid ourselves of the expectation of perfection.

"We need to make mistakes to learn--and for others to learn from," Bussell reminds us. "We should be more forgiving of ourselves."

Remembering to give ourselves a break--from infertility, judgement, children, whatever!--just might be the first step toward stress reduction that lasts a lifetime.


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