Women struggling with infertility often experience high levels of stress that
often consume their entire lives and lead to severe depression. Now, a
program in Boston is helping women overcome their depression and shows other
For years, the idea of having children of her own consumed Valerie Mei's
life. "It affected my work. It affected my home life. It affected every day getting up, getting dressed, going to bed," she says.
When she couldn't get pregnant, depression set in.
Mei says, "It's like the domino effect, so-to-speak. You have one thing going
on and it affects everything around you. That's what was happening."
Maryann Martin felt the same way. She says, "I think I was feeling
desperation. I know I was feeling desperation. I didn't know where to go.
I didn't know what to do."
Martin eventually turned to psychologist Alice Domar, Ph.D. She works with
women whose stress may be affecting their ability to conceive.
"It may interfere with ovulation or it may interfere with implantation. I
mean, there's a very delicate balance of hormones that are needed for
reproduction," says Dr. Domar, of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston.
Dr. Domar teaches women how to deal with stress using relaxation techniques
and stress management.
"As they go through the Mind/Body program the depression goes away. If you
accept the theory that depression contributes to infertility it makes sense
that as the depression goes away, they should get pregnant," she says.
Forty-two percent of the program's participants conceive within six months.
It worked for Mei.
She says, "If I didn't go through program I wouldn't have my girls. I know
that because I was in such a state of depression that no matter of all the
technology that's out there today would not have worked on me."
But after 10 years, her dream has come true, and she has Emily and Olivia to
show for it.
Dr. Domar says her success rate is close to 98 percent because that's the
percentage of women who recover from depression. There are currently
Mind/Body programs running in states around the country.
Stress and Fertility Research Summary:
BACKGROUND: Approximately 6.1 million people in the United States struggle
with infertility. While the causes vary, the problem can often lead to
depression in women who desire a baby. Many couples turn to in-vitro
fertilization, but this is expensive and doesn't work for everyone. The more
difficulty they have getting pregnant, the more depressed the women often
get. Researchers say this is like a double-edged sword, because there is a belief that stress can play a role
in trouble with the conception.
THE LINK: Alice Domar, Ph.D., of the Beth Israel Deaconness Behavioral
Medicine Program, believes there is a connection between depression and
problems with fertility. She suggests that when you're depressed, the body
senses a problem and prevents pregnancy as a protective mechanism. The
problem is that women often don't realize the connection because they are so
wrapped up in simply trying to get pregnant, and the depression can worsen
without attention paid to it. The other problem is that women who are trying
to get pregnant may avoid taking anti-depressants for fear of harming a
Other research suggests a biological connection. Chronic stress can increase
heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and muscle tension as well as
weaken the immune system. Now researchers say it can also reduce the quality
of the egg, delay the release of the egg, prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, and even lower the levels of the hormones needed for an
embryo to thrive.
LOWERING STRESS: New research shows that if a woman reduces her levels
of stress and depression, she may be able to conceive. Domar teaches her
patients to use relaxation techniques to calm the body and mind. She
encourages her patients to formally relax by taking deep breaths and focus
on their breathing. She suggests breathing for 20 minutes at a time. If
you don't have time for this, Domar says try a mini-relaxation by taking a
deep breath, counting to four, exhaling for a count of four, and repeat a few times. She also says to focus on your body and determine where the muscles
are tense, then concentrate on relaxing them. Finally, Domar says to change your emotional state. By paying attention to negative thoughts and turning them around, you will get rid of a great deal of emotional and physical distress.
PROOF POSITIVE: Two studies point to the success of relaxation techniques
for women with fertility problems. One found that of 132 women who went
through the mind/body program, 42 percent conceived within 6 months. The
other found 55 percent of women who went through a mind/body program conceived,
compared to only 20 percent of the control group.
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