Almost all women assume that they will be able to have children someday, even if they’re not sure they want to; the potential to have them is important even to women who never intend to use that potential. The ability to conceive and bear children can profoundly affect the way a woman feels about herself on a very deep level. So when a woman finds that she is unable to have a child, she’s often thrown into great despair and feels a sense of injustice: “Why me?” Seeing teenage mothers having no problems getting pregnant becomes almost impossible to bear, unless the woman can find some meaning in the experience and come to terms with it. The pioneering work of Alice Domar, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Waltham, Massachusetts, has clearly documented that women who’ve been diagnosed as infertile are twice as likely to be depressed as a control group, and that this depression peaks about two years after they start trying to get pregnant. And even though infertility is not life-threatening, infertile women have depression scores that are indistinguishable from those of women with cancer, heart disease, or HIV. Domar1
Though the mind/body connection in infertility has been appreciated for decades, only recently has this important link begun to be explored more seriously. As our society has become more technologically focused, the study of the mind/body connection in infertility holds the potential to help many couples, and a thorough psychological interview should be a routine part of every fertility investigation. Jeker2 When we focus only on the extremely expensive and invasive technology currently available for fertility, and forget the hearts and spirits of those going through these procedures, the results are often disappointing and even devastating.
On a personal level, many women do not get pregnant because in their hearts they really do not want to — they are afraid of the demands a child will make on them. Whenever a woman feels conflicted over birthing, children, or the restrictions that children may impose once they arrive, infertility may result. Some studies from the 1940s through the 1990s have suggested an association between infertility and ambivalence toward pregnancy and children.
The relationships between husbands and wives who are infertile have also been studied. Many of the women in these studies had an actual aversion to intercourse; they had low levels of orgasm when they did have intercourse, and they felt a marked sexual disharmony in their partnership. When these women found more suitable partners, however, they became fertile. Dunbar3 I have seen this phenomenon repeatedly in my practice, just as I have seen countless so-called infertile women conceive shortly after adopting a baby! Psychological testing done on 117 husbands in infertile couples in one study indicated that the men had a pronounced lack of self-confidence, were introverted, and had decreased social assertiveness. Hellhammer4
The fertility-stress link remains controversial in conventional science and it’s difficult to document a causal link between psychosocial distress and fertility. Though many studies do show that women with infertility are more apt to have depression and anxiety, most doctors believe that the depression and anxiety are the result of infertility, not the other way around. In any case, studies tend to be conflicting, not well-controlled, and there are no prospective studies. In their review of forty years of research on psychological distress and infertility, psychologist Dr. W. A. Fisher and his colleague A. M. Brkovich summarized the viewpoint of most conventional doctors when they wrote: “Much research has been done to try to corroborate the proposition that psychological factors may be casually related to the occurrence of infertility, but no study has been able to confirm a causal relationship to date. In fact the very assumption of a psychological distress–infertility link has become quite controversial because some feel it blames women for their inability to conceive.” Brkovich5
Despite this conventional opinion, failing to explore the psychosocial aspects of fertility is a big mistake and robs a woman of all her options. The conflicts that are associated with infertility are not at the conscious level and you can’t get at them by simply asking a woman (or a man) if she or he is conflicted about having a child! Still, there’s no doubt that subconscious fears about having a child can and do exert a powerful influence over the subtle endocrinologic processes that are required for conception. Perceived stress changes the way the hypothalamus of the brain functions, which affects ovulation. It also changes the immunologic functioning of the cells in the reproductive tract as well as elsewhere. When a woman learns how to modulate her stress effectively, her fertility can change.
There is enormous potential for healing infertility when a woman is willing to acknowledge the role of her beliefs and commit to bringing them to consciousness and healing them. The first step—and the hardest step—in healing one’s adverse subconscious programming about anything is being willing to accept yourself fully and unconditionally right now. This process involves never beating yourself up for “failing” to conceive because you waited too long, or “failing” at anything else! It’s just the opposite of blame.
I’ve seen many women get pregnant once they committed to healing themselves on the deepest levels. On of the most striking examples of this is the story of my colleague, Julia Indichova, who, at the age of forty-three, was unable to conceive a second child. She was told that her FSH level (the follicle stimulating hormone from the pituitary gland — often used to judge whether a woman is still producing fertile eggs) was too high. But her inner wisdom told her that wasn’t true. She changed her diet, began to do some deep soul searching, read everything she could, got her FSH down naturally, and eventually conceived and delivered a healthy daughter. Her book, Inconceivable: A Woman’s Triumph over Despair and Statistics (Broadway Books, 2001), tells her story. Julia now leads workshops for women diagnosed with infertility and has helped many heal their fertility and their lives. For more information go to Julia’s Website, www.fertileheart.com.
Niravi Payne, author of The Whole Person Fertility Program (Three Rivers Press, 1997) is another colleague therapist who has devoted her professional life to helping couples conceive through her Whole Person Fertility Program. (See www.niravi.com.) Her view of current fertility problems is both enlightening and empowering. It’s no accident, she says, that so many baby boomers have had problems with fertility. A series of complex psychological, sociological, and political factors has led to unparalled changes in our society in the last twenty-five years and has given rise to the decision of many to delay childbearing, thus altering the reproductive life patterns familiar to their parents and the thirty thousand generations before them. Niravi writes, “In the space of one generation, middle-and upper-class Americans decided to defer childbearing for ten to twenty years. This may be the most radical voluntary alteration of the lifestyle of all of them, and, unquestionably, there have been physiologic consequences.”
Spiritual and Holistic Options
If fertility is an issue that concerns you, I highly recommend that you explore the these psychological factors thoroughly. As you begin your journey, have your journal ready and write down any thoughts, feelings, or beliefs that arise. Your entries will become invaluable as you move toward healing your fertility.
Learn More — Additional Resources
- Mother-Daughter Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Chapter 15, “Coming of Age: Body, Brain, and Soul at Puberty”
- The Wisdom of Menopause, by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Chapter 5, “The Menstrual Cycle”
- Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Chapter 5, “The Menstrual Cycle”
- Inconceivable: A Woman’s Triumph over Despair and Statistics by Julia Indichova (Broadway Books, 2001)
- The Whole Person Fertility Program by Niravi Payne (Three Rivers Press, 1997)
- Domar, A. et al., 1992. The prevalence and predictability of depression in infertile women, Fertility and Sterility, vol. 58: 1158–63; Domar, A., et al., 1993. The psychological impact of infertility: A comparison with patients with other medical conditions, Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 14:45–52.
- Jeker. L., et al., 1988. Wish for a child and infertility: A study of 116 Couples. I. Interview and Psychodynamic Hypotheses,” International Journal of Fertility, vol. 33, no. 6:411–20.
- Dunbar, H. F., 1935. Emotions and Bodily Changes, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 595; Dickerson, R. L., 1931. Medical analysis of 1000 marriages, Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 97:529; Norris, C. C., 1912. Sterility in the Female Without Gross Pathology, Surgery, Gynecology, and Obstetrics, vol. 15:706.
- Hellhammer, D. H., et al., 1985. Male Infertility, Relationships Among Gonadotropins, Sex Steroids, Seminal Parameters, and Personality Attitudes,” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 47, no. 1:58–66.
- Brkovich, A. M., Fisher, W. A. 1998. Psychological distress and infertility: Forty Years of Research,” Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, vol. 19, no. 4: 218–28.