Just relax…

For anyone with any experience at all of fertility problems, there’s a general understanding that probably the worst thing someone can say to you is “just relax…”, and yet this is the advice a TV doctor gave on ITV’s Lorraine programme. Dr Hilary Jones apparently said to a caller who was asking for advice after three unsuccessful rounds of IVF;  “What I would say is, and this is probably the hardest thing to do, is just relax about it. There have been so many people that I’ve known who’ve gone through several rounds of IVF and nothing happens. And when they’ve given up, and gotten on with their lives, it miraculously happens naturally… Sometimes stress itself can have a very negative effect. So try living your life as normally as you can.”

I suppose this just shows why you should stick to asking fertility specialists for advice rather than a TV doctor, but there has been an understandable backlash from fertility patients and the charity Fertility Network UK. There is certainly a lesson to be learned for TV producers about the risks of getting a GP, who is by nature a generalist rather than a specialist, to offer advice to those who have already been treated by experts in any field of medicine. But should any doctor, even if they are a GP rather than a specialist, be telling people to “just relax” or suggesting that stress might be to blame for infertility? Apart from anything else, we all know that fertility problems cause huge amounts of stress – and that telling someone who is trying to conceive to “just relax” is about as helpful as telling them to get a dog, go on holiday or any of the other helpful advice that non-experts in the field like to pass on.

There is another problem here though, and that’s to do with blame. Suggesting that your stress levels might be responsible for your blocked fallopian tubes or endometriosis is nonsense, and yet many people do end up feeling that it’s their fault they can’t conceive in a culture which encourages you to believe that you can make the difference to outcomes by thinking positive, clean eating or complementary therapies. The truth is that none of these things are going to unblock your tubes or get rid of endometriosis, and for a medical professional to suggest that getting pregnant might miraculously happen naturally if you just relax is quite bizarre.

Even the response has been interesting, with Woman & Home covering the issue with a headline “Lorraine’s Dr Hilary faces backlash following ‘insensitive’ comments during IVF discussion’. They were not ‘insensitive’ comments but insensitive comments – and that’s the understanding that we still need to change!

Are you too stressed to get pregnant?

I’ve been meaning to write about this ever since the publication of research which suggested that women who were stressed were twice as likely to have fertility problems. I’ve always felt that it was infertility that caused stress rather than the other way round, but this study suggests there are some links between stress and fertility problems. Of course, there is nothing more likely to make you feel stressed than the suggestion that your stress levels may be having an impact on your chances of getting pregnant.

The authors themselves are keen to point out that “high levels of stress are clearly neither the only nor the most important factor predicting one’s ability to get pregnant”.  However, doing what you can to reduce your stress levels when you’re trying to conceive can only be a good thing.

I was prompted to write about this today as I was sent a link to an article headlined “Yoga may be the answer to infertility”. It referenced the survey, and then quoted an expert who said that yoga would help to “battle” infertility. In the next paragraph the “expert” was introduced as, perhaps unsurprisingly, a yoga therapist but, in an attempt to boost her scientific credibility, it managed to mention the fact that she was also a former science teacher!

I am sure that yoga can be incredibly helpful for all kinds of things, and would certainly recommend it to anyone feeling stressed out by their fertility problems – but the idea that yoga is the “answer” to infertility is not terribly helpful. The solution to stress that comes with infertility is not a convenient one-size-fits-all therapy, but will differ according to every individual.

I think the one thing that really matters here is to appreciate that infertility causes stress, and that anyone going through fertility problems and treatment is going to find it extremely difficult to be calm and relaxed throughout. It’s only natural to feel stressed – and although it’s a good idea to make time for whatever helps you to combat stress, it’s equally important to understand that what helps one person may not help another so don’t ever feel that not shelling out for a particular relaxation therapy is going to reduce your chances of getting pregnant – it won’t.  What matters is doing what you like and what makes you feel better.