Can you guess the two commonly linked words related to the infertility journey?
Infertility. Stress. (Not surprised, were you? Some news flash – right? )
Infertility and the Effect of Stress Hormones
It is quite easy to understand how stress accumulates during the challenge of infertility; and in case you haven’t gotten the memo, stress isn’t particularly great for our spirits, our overall health, or for creating the nurturing environment in our wombs for a baby.
Stress builds as we figure out how to reconcile our expectations of how life was supposed to go versus what is happening right now. Stress builds as we figure out how to tell our friends and family. Stress builds as we navigate pesky questions like, “when are you planning to have kids?” or “have you considered adoption?” Stress builds as we sit down to balance the budget and determine what types of treatments we are willing to proceed with.
The stress hormones, a.k.a., the fight-or-flight response, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine, are triggered, for example: by the sense of pressure you feel when parents and grandparents openly express their desire for grandbabies; the greater levels of analytical thinking needed to investigate all options; or the hard work of keeping it together at work when you get your period. These hormones wreak havoc as they flood into your system from the adrenal glands; they constrict your blood vessels, raise your blood pressure and increase your heart rate. None of these changes (along with some others) create the best internal atmosphere for growing a baby. Babies need healthy, oxygen-rich blood pumping into the placenta and they need for your blood pressure to be low and steady in order for your body to do what it needs to do.
Stress Buster #1: Seek a Change of Pace
Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School researcher and expert on the relaxation response and founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, recommends the next time you begin to feel warning signs that stress may be getting the better of you, like feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, sadness and the overwhelming need to cry, or headaches, insomnia, or however stress shows up for you, it is time to escape the downward spiral into destructive stress, and take action and change your pace.
A change of pace can be any activity which helps you break out of your habitual and stressful thought patterns: soaking in a hot bath, taking a walk in the woods, listening to music – preferably music without words, prayer, meditation, yoga, cooking or baking, or going on a long run.
The reason a change of pace is helpful because, according to Dr. Benson, these new and different activities not only help will sever past patterns of thought and emotion, but they also promote a helpful biochemical shift in your brain and body. Little puffs of nitric oxide begin to permeate your brain and body to counteract the stress hormones. Simultaneously, your brain begins to release calming neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins. As a result of these secretions, the blood vessels dilate (or open up), the heart rate decreases, the stress response fades, and inner tranquility takes over.
Wow! Sign me up!
A Double-Dose of Calm
Truthfully, as an outdoors girl, my personal recommendation is to get outside; go lose yourself in nature. Since as a runner and cyclist, I am particularly addicted to those calming neurotransmitters known as endorphins, I love how simultaneously, being in nature and running can give me what I term, my double-dose of calm.
What if you are not a runner or cyclist?
Never fear, there is a way for you to get your double-dose of calm, too.
Two Easy Steps:
1. Get Outside. Being in nature helps sever our normal thought patterns simply because the visual feast – the colors and textures and size and shape of trees, flowers, hills, mountains – shifts us from linear to holistic thought patterns. It is our focused, linear, analytical thinking that gets our brains feeling so busy and stressed out. Even if all you do is lie on a blanket on the lawn, your first dose of calm is on its way.
2. Get mindful. Your second dose of calm comes from letting go of thoughts. Focus on your breath, focus on a cloud, or focus on a mantra. Ruminating on your worries, anger, sadness or frustrations does not give your brain the break it needs to send out the comforting little puffs of nitric oxide which ultimately active your happy hormones: dopamine and endorphins.
A quick way to get mindful, even during a slow stroll around the neighborhood, is to take a camera. The simple act of focusing my thoughts on what elements will create a beautiful photo helps me to let go of worry, ruminating, or other habitual thought patterns. I’ve found setting the intention of noticing nature as a work of art worth documenting, deepens my appreciation of the world around me, and opens up the space in my brain and body for a transcendent experience.
And who wouldn’t want that?
NOTE: Resource referenced for this post: Benson, Herbert, M.D. and Proctor, William, The Break-Out Principle: How To Activate the Natural Trigger That Maximizes Creativity, Athletic Performance, Productivity, and Personal Well-Being. New York: Scribner, 2003.