As part of our free patient education series sponsored by Fertility Centers of Illinois , we offer a fun class called The Relaxation Response designed for women (and partners) who are stressed, struggling with the ups and downs of fertility challenges and willing to explore meditation as a way to calm body and mind.
To understand why meditation helps, it’s useful to understand a bit more about stress. One of our favorite holistic teachers, Deepak Chopra, defines stress as what happens when our needs are not met. For instance, if we perceive that we need to get to work by 9 and we’re stuck in traffic at 8:55 we get stressed. If our monthly bills are greater than the money we have to pay them with we get stressed. If we need a baby and we’re not getting pregnant that, too, generates a tremendous amount of stress.
To deal with stress skillfully, it’s important to recognize its rightful place in our biology. What we call “stress” – that stomach-churning, heart pounding reaction to an irritating boss or a negative beta-HCG result- is actually a valuable evolutionary mechanism that has allowed for the survival of our species. The biological stress response is called the “fight or flight” mechanism. Long ago, human survival depended on the ability to fight or run from bigger, meaner predators. The secretion of “stress hormones” like cortisol and adrenaline facilitate physiological conditions that would allow escape from a hungry saber tooth. During the stress response, blood is shunted from internal organs to the skeletal muscles, the heart and respiratory rate increase, glucose is released from muscles and liver to fuel our muscles, platelets in the blood become “stickier” to reduce blood loss in the case of injury and non-essential activities such as digestion, physical repair and reproduction are dialed back. All fine and good when we’re talking about a tussle with a tiger but in that scenario there’s resolution -either we kill the beast, escape or get eaten. But in this age of 24/7 communication, we can see that a sustained, unrelenting stress response can severely impact our physical wellbeing.
Any fertility patient who hears the words “just relax and you’ll get pregnant,” is apt to eye-roll or worse. However, increasing clinical evidence suggests that stress may impair a woman’s ability to conceive both “naturally” and with Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART). Cortisol down-regulates our reproductive system. Women who do not ovulate have been shown to have higher levels of cortisol in their blood, and a similar correlation has been noted in IVF patients, with higher levels of cortisol associated with poor outcomes. It also seems that cortisol effects fertility directly, as recent studies show that stress actually damages uterine receptivity (how prepared the uterus is to hold and nourish an embryo) in mice.
So what’s the solution? If we’re serious about improving our overall health and fertility, we must address our immediate response to stressful situations. Here are several tips for identifying and eliminating excess stress in our lives.
- Make stress reduction a part of your fitness regimen. Taking 20 minutes a day to practice stress reduction techniques will make a serious dent in your stress levels.
- Learn to breathe mindfully. The breath is a key way to “stop the bleeding” in the midst of a stressful situation. Deep, slow breathing in a stressful situation reduces the severity of the stress response.
- Practice hatha yoga . This ancient system teaches gentle stretches, breath awareness and mindfulness techniques that release tension and dis-ease in the body. Rather than “fight or flight,” yoga promotes the “rest, digest and nest” hormonal response.
- Learn to meditate. Meditation is a chance to cultivate a non-reactive mind. Often, stressful events will “re-play” during meditation, evoking their panic messages. As we learn to observe these repeat performances in stillness we short circuit their power.
- Live more simply. If stress arises when our perceived needs are not being met, have an honest conversation about yourself about what it is you really need to be happy. Try to let go of the things that aren’t so important. Recognize that all of our modern gadgets make our needs seem more immediate than ever before and try to lessen the pressure you put on yourself to respond to work and life situations in light-speed.
- Take time for deep relaxation. Practices like yoga nidra (deep guided relaxation), listening to beautiful music and spending time in nature can restore our body and mind to balance.
There’s a great saying in the yoga world, “don’t just do something, sit there!” While this advice may fly in the face of our go-go worldview, it contains deep wisdom. Stress is a reality in our lives that we cannot run away from. It’s hard-wired into our biology. Thankfully, instead of razor-sharp teeth human kind was gifted with big brains and the ability to study our own behavior. When we become aware to the negative impact of stress on our body and mind and begin to set aside time to address it, we may finally have the tiger by the tail.
Now, the thing about relaxing is that you actually have to do it. We suggest you join a yoga class or get into a community that shares the intention of reducing stress and increasing relaxation. The next Relaxation Response class will be offered at our Chicago center in March (click here to sign up) and we are also offering a yoga nidra workshop at our Rockville center this Sunday, February 28 ( click here for info ). We hope to see you there!
Be present, be positive…be peaceful! Paige