Stress and unexplained infertility

Louise Goddard-Crawley writes.

New research confirms what I have seen first-hand – our minds could hold a key to unlocking fertility.

Infertility affects as many as one in seven couples worldwide, with solutions being sought via nutrition, stress reduction, elimination of harmful toxins, charting ovulation and, for many couples, artificial reproductive techniques like IVF and hormone treatments. Here in the UK, unexplained infertility accounts for approximately 25 per cent of the phenomena. It is thought that 40 per cent of women going through IVF have been ‘diagnosed’ with unexplained infertility.

It is generally accepted that the effects of infertility are deeply psychological and emotional. What we have failed to do, until recently, is pivot our perception of stress as an effect into being a cause of infertility, and therefore neglected to treat it through interventions focused on the mind, rather than the body.

What has been uncovered recently are intriguing links between neuroscience and the immune system. Researchers have now found the ‘missing link between stress and infertility’. Published in Journal of Neuroscience, led by Professor Greg Anderson of the Centre for Neuroendocrinology, the research has confirmed in laboratory testing that a population of nerve cells near the base of the brain (the RFRP neurons) become active in stressful situations and then suppresses the reproductive system.

This discovery is closely aligned with the field of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). The main thrust of PNI is that the state of someone’s mind can have a profound impact on their body’s immune systems – either in a positive or a negative way. By simple extension of both PNI and the recent RFRP research, unexplained infertility is increasingly seen as an auto-immune disease.

The impact that stress has on reproduction and the immune system has deep ramifications for the future of medical research, the treatment of diseases, our attitude toward handling stress, and, crucially, the role it plays in fertility. I believe our state of mind has a direct effect on our immune system, health and wellbeing. When things go wrong in any part of this intricate and interconnected system, it may get reflected by the other parts. It can become a vicious cycle of decline in function and efficiency. As soon as a positive change occurs, the whole system improves. We therefore want to create some upward momentum in the interconnected system, and that’s where therapy comes in.

Health can’t always be holistically understood by biology and medicine. After all, we are more than just pathologies. Many of us have heard about couples going through IVF who, as soon as they stop trying, fall pregnant. The moment they resign themselves to the fact it’s not going to happen, they release the pressure on themselves and they’re off! The fact that they stopped consciously trying points to something happening at a psychological level.

It is only by taking a deeper and holistic approach to unexplained infertility that we may be able to start explaining the unexplainable. Put simply, there may be events in life that need to be brought from the unconscious into the conscious mind. In therapy we understand that stress can mean unresolved conflicts, or unconscious anxiety. Through processing, understanding and containing, from a place of compassion, we can begin to resolve what may feel unresolved. Consequently, we reduce stress.

My biggest frustration is that I generally see people in therapy to help them deal with the effect of infertility. Even though it may sound controversial – I believe that this approach can help with a potential cause of infertility.

If we can resolve whatever may have caused distress in the past, present or perhaps even a fear for the future, it clears a way for the unconscious mind to catch up with the conscious one – the one that wants to become a parent. Until now, the mind hasn’t played a role in treating unexplained infertility.

To me it’s clear that stress, unconscious anxieties, anything that is not fully processed or ‘worked through’ psychologically will impact unexplained fertility. But what is your experience? Are we bogged down as a profession in dealing with stress as an effect of infertility? Have you, like me, found that by helping patients with stress, it can clear a mental pathway to fertility?

Louise Goddard-Crawley
Counselling Psychologist
[email protected]

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