Discover the psychology of fertility and how emotions affect fertility health
What often isn’t talked about is the fact that this is a two-way street: your emotions also dictate your hormones, and this is particularly evident when we look at fertility health. Fertility is about more than having babies: the term refers to a wide range of health considerations in your reproductive system, including hormone balance and your body being in optimal health.
Fertility is about more than having babies: the term refers to a wide range of health considerations in your reproductive system, including hormone balance and your body being in optimal health.
Fertility issues are rife in Australia: infertility affects one in six couples, while 10 per cent of women experience endometriosis, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) affects up to 21 per cent of women of childbearing age.
Fertility is generally considered to be purely physical, but there’s certainly a mind-body connection that comes into play. Your psychological state can affect your fertility and hormones. “We’ve separated the mind and the body and tend to think they don’t work together, and up until recent times the emotional aspects of our health haven’t been measured (in relation to physical health) in our Western culture,” explains Chinese medicine practitioner Nat Kringoudis.
An imbalance in fertility hormones is your body’s way of telling you something is going on — and it’s up to you to become a detective and peel away the layers to discover what that message is.
How emotions affect fertility health
Your thoughts and feelings have more impact on your overall health than you give them credit for, and your hormones are no exception.
Kringoudis says this is an aspect that surprises people who come to see her about their reproductive issues. “When someone comes to see me about their fertility health, there are physical things that need to be looked at, like how well their cells are working, liver health, gut health — all those sorts of things,” she says. “But there are people who will do all those things and nothing changes, and that’s because there’s one more box to tick and that’s the person’s emotional health.
“Our thoughts and feelings about ourselves actually shape our own reality. If those thoughts and beliefs aren’t serving you, that will lead you further down the infertility road than we’ve ever realised before.”
The idea of psychology linking with fertility is one that has hit a chord with Cath Corcoran, who became a fertility psychologist after noticing the underlying issues in IVF patients at her psychology clinic. “I felt there was still another layer to their conception and fertility issues, so I started working with a whole lot of people and within the first six months there were eight women who ended up getting pregnant with the work that I was doing,” Corcoran says.
Self-care means something different to everyone, but it’s important to take regular time out to do whatever it is that makes you feel relaxed and happy.
A lot of the psychological issues we’re facing in fertility, Corcoran argues, are due to not only the stress in our lives but a lack of coping mechanisms. “A lot of women I see are high functioning with highly paying jobs, who aren’t actually aware the stress is impacting their body and fertility,” she explains.
“When they’re not making time for themselves, when they’re working from seven to 10, they’re not realising how high the stress levels and cortisol levels in their body are and how much time they’re not taking for themselves to have some down time.”
Men, too, play a role in the picture of fertility and its psychology. “Not only might males have an issue physiologically, it’s also psychologically, where a woman’s partner is fairly nonchalant about whether they have children or not,” says Corcoran. “They’re trying to conceive with that mindset and so, not only can they not make a baby physically but emotionally they’re not feeling supported in going through that process.
“Some of the stuff sits there unconsciously and creates a block and as soon as they’re aware of it and start having couples’ counselling or discussions, it actually makes them feel a lot more at ease.”
Improve hormone health through your mind & emotions
There’s a number of ways to look after your hormone and fertility health.
- Become aware of your emotions
“Ninety-seven per cent of our thoughts are unconscious so, if you are looking in the mirror every day and thinking negative thoughts, you are going to create more of what you see,” says Kringoudis. “You need to break free from that emotional label you have placed upon yourself.”
How can we tap into that? “If there’s a particularly dominant emotion running in the background, that’s your body’s way of telling you something,” Kringoudis suggests. “Sometimes you need someone to help you become aware of that, and identifying the thoughts and feelings that you’re having is something to explore further.” If we can switch the negativity, things can change quite quickly.
- Practise self-care
Self-care means something different to everyone, but it’s important to take regular time out to do whatever it is that makes you feel relaxed and happy. For some, self-care is about creating the space in their lives to look after themselves and rest. “Many people need to set boundaries with [others] and I will talk to them about learning to say no to people, and that by saying yes to other people they’re saying no to themselves,” Corcoran says.
There are other important elements of self-care, too, such as doing things you find fun, connecting with friends and family, having some time alone to recharge and finding some relaxing outlets.
- Get sleep & exercise
Sleep is so important and it’s about more than just shutting your eyes for eight hours. Your entire day affects how you sleep, so it’s important to get your body tired out during the day and then give your mind time to switch off before going to bed at night.
“I use the analogy that it’s like an equaliser on the stereo system: if you’re not getting enough sleep then your cortisol and insulin are peaking and your dopamine and serotonin are down, so you need to do activities that are going to push those up and bring the others down,” says Corcoran. “Exercise is about staying healthy, but also about getting your hormones in sync, because that will burn the cortisol and adrenalin.”
It’s only with proper rest that your body can heal itself and operate at its optimal levels.
- Watch your self-talk
When you’re going through a condition like PCOS, infertility or endometriosis, it’s easy for the negative self-talk and blame to kick in. “When it comes to having a condition, we need to detach ourselves from the label,” says Kringoudis. “You need to realise that you have infertility, but you are not infertility, just like you have fingernails but you are not a fingernail. If you can remove that label, it’s very freeing and it opens up what you want to create: instead of focusing on the illness it becomes about where you want to go and how to find health. It’s easier said than done, but once you do that, it will snowball.”
- Reduce stress
Stress is the ultimate cause of many physical issues, including a decline in fertility health. Unfortunately, many of us don’t realise just how much stress we put our bodies and minds through simply by going through life in a state of unawareness.
“Stress keeps us in the perpetual state of fight or flight,” says Kringoudis. There are many ways we put stress on ourselves, including through high pressure, busyness and rushing around, not giving ourselves enough downtime and also a lack of exercise and self-care and not eating foods that nourish us well.
Just as each of us does not experience stress in the same way as another person, the solutions to relieving it are not a one-size-fits-all approach. “Stress relief is about finding the right outlet for you, whether it’s meditation, mindfulness, yoga or another form of exercise. Explore it, get curious about it and then grow it,” Kringoudis advises.
- Be intentional
If you are wanting to have a baby, try to become aware of what that means to you, your partner and your unborn child. “It’s about consciousness of the process: what sort of things will I be handing down to my child?” explains Corcoran.
“Look at the psychological patterns that each person has, because you’ll be passing that down to your child. None of us is perfect, but if you’re conscious that you didn’t like the way your household was always yelling or that your mum did all the work, for example, make sure your partner is aware that these are your fears. Really look at your past relationships with your parents.”
Dealing with past issues is going to set you up for not only better chances of conception, but also greater success in your own family down the track.
- Write it out
Suppressing feelings — both old and new — isn’t doing any favours to your fertility health. “I’m a big fan of journaling, because I want people to get their stuff out,” says Corcoran. “Stop trying to hide it; stop trying to suppress it. It’s about getting out those fears.”
Expressing emotions and dealing with them suitably can be very powerful. Corcoran explains, “Some people have secondary infertility related to fears from a first pregnancy or birth, and they feel disempowered. I get them to voice and journal about that so they’re not trying to push it down and ignore it.”
- If you can only focus on one thing …
Ironically, one of the most important aspects to focus on for your psychological hormone health is, in fact, physical. If you need one place to start in dealing with your fertility or reproductive health, your gut is it, simply because it’s the key to both physical and emotional health.
“Your gut is your emotional centre and you have thousands of receptors in your gut that influence how you are feeling,” says Kringoudis.
Digestive health can be looked after through eating well, managing stress, exercising regularly and increasing the good bacteria in your gut (for example, taking probiotics and eating fermented foods).
The toll of infertility
One reason the field of fertility psychology is tricky to navigate is the overwhelming emotions experienced by those facing infertility and fertility health challenges.
One study out of the US reports that, of 200 couples studied at a fertility clinic, half of the women and 15 per cent of the men said infertility was the most upsetting experience of their lives.
... infertility affects one in six couples ...
Another study of almost 500 women experiencing infertility indicated that women with infertility feel as anxious or depressed as those diagnosed with cancer or hypertension, or someone recovering from a heart attack.
This shows the necessity to deal with psychological challenges involved in fertility issues, as well as the more obvious physiological issues.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the most common fertility issue in women and its effects are all-encompassing.
About 34 per cent of women with PCOS have depression (compared to only 7 per cent of women in the general population) and around 45 per cent have anxiety (compared to 18 per cent of the general population).
The physical symptoms of PCOS include excess hair growth, hair loss, acne, weight changes and fertility problems, and it can also negatively affect mood, self-confidence and body image.
Holistic awareness — including physical health, psychological health and psychosocial factors — is the key to managing PCOS.
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