Infertility & Stress: The Middle Way

I often find myself surfing that fine line between optimism and pessimism with patients. Somewhere on the spectrum of hope, deep investment in outcome, fear, control, letting go, surrender and acceptance. We are told that stress has a negative impact on fertility, yet anyone who has ever been through it themselves, or is close to anyone who has struggled to become a parent, knows that stress is a prominent part of the landscape on this road. It’s unavoidable.

A Harvard study reveals that people struggling with fertility issues have stress, anxiety and depression levels equal to those who are facing serious illness, like cancer and HIV. Yet, people on this crooked path to parenthood feel the pressure to ‘relax’, ‘stop trying’, ‘don’t stress, and it will happen’…

But what does it feel like to be relaxed when you are repeatedly consciously putting pieces together to try to build something that keeps falling apart? All the while striving to create the ideal conditions for said thing to grow and thrive? How do you relax when you are trying with all your heart and deepest unspeakable desire, to make this thing happen? And in some cases, how do you relax when there is so much at stake? ie. Tens of thousands of dollars in an IVF cycle?

It’s tricky.

The other day, a patient came in the day before her egg retrieval, hinged on the fear of being too hopeful about the cycle. She didn't want to get too attached to the outcome because she was scared of being disappointed again. This was not her first cycle. In fact, her previous cycle had better stats – more follicles going into retrieval, yet that cycle had been unfruitful. She had put everything into this current cycle: a clean diet, laser, acupuncture, supplements, iv’s, herbs, and above all- her positive energy and thoughts. So then how could she have less follicles than last time? The numbers were throwing her off.

She also noticed that she had disappointment and pessimism arising in her – but this was paralyzing. She fought these negative feelings because she was scared of manifesting a bad outcome. So, in tears, she was stuck. Suspended in the fear of being too optimistic and too pessimistic, giving rise to a kind of despair and panic. Which brought on another layer of trepidation, as this was not how she wanted to go into an egg retrieval.

So where to go from here?

Perhaps somewhere in the middle. Somewhere neutral. Neither positive nor negative. Perhaps stop and take a deep breath and find peace there. Take refuge in it, in the moment of that breath, where you can dwell in this space where there is no fear of the future and no regret of the past. Where there is only the mind’s attention to the rise and fall of the breath and its presence with the body. Water this peaceful seed in your mind, like you would lovingly and kindly water the planted seed of an embryo in the depths of your belly.

This peaceful moment may feel fleeting, but your breath is always right there, where mind and body can meet. You can access it anytime and any place. One breath at a time, when you direct your mind in this way, the neuro-pathways in your pre-frontal cortex multiply and the capacity to anchor your consciousness in your breath and in this peacefulness grows. This increases your resilience to strong emotion. It’s not so much the stress itself that does the damage, it's how we respond to it that is the game-changer.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says that ‘There is no path to peace, the path is peace.” He says that ‘Peace is every step.’ I feel the same way about fertility. It is a way of being, it’s not something we try to achieve. It is somewhere in the valley between optimism and pessimism, between hope and despair. It is in the valley of peace, surrender, acceptance, trust and openness. It is an invitation to the unknown miracles that life has in store for us. It is accessible in the depths of our breath, where there is stillness and freedom from the storminess of our strong emotions.

…It is where I am breathing with you, and what a true privilege it is to breathe with my patients.

Dr. Alda Ngo

Alda Ngo