When women discuss the disappointment that can arise from trying to conceive, they are frequently told by other parents to “Just relax and it will happen.” It must be frustrating to be told the same thing over and over again with the hunch that it is nothing but an old wives’ tale. For the truth seekers, there have been several previous studies attempting to confirm a causal link between stress and fertility but for the first time, a new study has examined the link between this association among couples from the general population.
Research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology , found that raised levels of psychological stress in women was associated with a reduced chance of getting pregnant – up to 25% in some instances – whilst male fertility remained seemingly unaffected by stress.
Data was extracted from the Pregnancy Study Online , a group of North American pregnancy planners that follows couples for a whole year or until pregnancy, whichever comes first. They followed a massive 4,769 women and 1,272 men with no previous histories of infertility who had been trying to conceive for no longer than six menstrual cycles.
The psychological wellbeing of participants was measured using a tool called the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). This involves analysing the thoughts and feelings of ten items in terms of how unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overwhelming an individual finds their life circumstances to be. These items occurred during the past month and the questionnaires included a range of demographic and behavioral factors, including race/ethnicity, household income, diet, sleep, and how often they were trying for a baby.
Epidemiologist and lead author of the study Amelia Wesselink found that women with PSS scores of at least 25 were 13 percent less likely to conceive than those women who scored under 10.
Intriguingly, the team also discovered that the chances of couples conceiving was 25 percent less likely when the male’s PSS score was under 10 – and the female score was 20 or above i.e. the man was not very stressed but the woman was.
Wesselink suggests that this is the first study to identify that ‘partner stress discordance’ (one partner is under pressure and the other is not) could affect that chances of having a baby. However, she has pointed out that at the moment, the finding is purely speculative.
‘Although this study does not definitely prove stress causes infertility, it does provide evidence supporting the integration of mental health care in preconception guidance and care,’ Wesselink has said.
In general, it is believed that chronic stress affects ovulation by changing signals to the hypothalamus, the region of the forebrain that plays an important role in releasing some of the hormones that allow the ovaries to release eggs each month. Women who are continually stressed are understood to ovulate less often, meaning that it is more difficult for them to plan baby making with the exact time that they are optimally fertile.
Previously in 2010, a study  carried out by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Oxford presented findings that supported the widespread belief that stress can reduce a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant. At that time, one of the study’s authors, Germaine Buck Louis, Ph.D., M.S., director of the NICHD’s Division of Epidemiology, Statistics, and Prevention Research said, “The question is, ‘what do you do to help women to relax?’ People often turn to alcohol or tobacco to relieve stress, but these substances also reduce the likelihood of pregnancy.” She went on to say that additional research may be needed to determine whether relaxation techniques such as meditation, biofeedback, yoga, or increasing social support can help women having difficulty conceiving.
Although the findings might be a little alarming for couples leading pressurized lifestyles and trying to conceive, the good news is that everyone is able to take a close look at their lifestyle and re-assess factors that may be contributing to any stress or unwanted anxiety. The author of the study mentioned the importance of guiding women toward stress-reduction techniques which will prove useful for the fertility journeys of women managing the work/life balance and beyond.