Understanding the psychology of fertility

Your psychological state can affect your fertility and hormones.
Your psychological state can affect your fertility and hormones. Photo: Laurence Monneret

One in six Australian couples is affected by infertility. But even that large number isn't the full picture of fertility issues experienced by women and couples.

The bigger picture of fertility includes up to 25 per cent of women of child bearing age who are affected by polycystic ovarian syndrome, and around 10 per cent with endometriosis.

That's a lot of women struggling with the physical implications of what often boils down to hormone imbalance.

While these are physical issues, some practitioners are looking at a possible mind-body connection – that is, how your psychological state can affect your fertility and hormones.

Cath Corcoran, who describes herself as a fertility psychologist, worked for many years as a psychologist in hospitals and private practice, but shifted her focus when she began working with people using IVF.

"People who are going through IVF need to debrief about going through this stressful experience," Corcoran explains. "I felt there was still another layer to their conception and fertility issues, so I started helping people release some of the psychological hooks that are behind some of these issues."

One of the biggest factors Corcoran finds women dealing with is stress. "A lot of women I see are high functioning, and they aren't actually aware that the stress is impacting on their body and fertility," she explains.

We all need to take better care of ourselves, she suggests. "When you're not making time for yourself, and when you're working at a 7 to 10 out of 10 all the time, you're not realising how high the stress levels and cortisol levels in your body are," says Corcoran. "It's important to take time for yourself and have some down time."

There are also other psychological factors that can cause issues. These include partners being on a different page (one wants children desperately while the other is nonchalant, for example), or someone having worries based on their past or current relationship with their own parents.

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"Some of the stuff sits there unconsciously and creates a block, and as soon as you're aware of it and start having couples counselling or discussions, it can actually make you feel a lot more at ease," says Corcoran.

Research into this field is yet to catch up, however anecdotes are positive. "I have the evidence in my own clinic that people are able to get pregnant after working through psychological strategies in conjunction with whatever they're doing for their physical fertility and conception," says Corcoran.

It's certainly an interesting field to watch, in the hope we can learn to combine safe holistic views to helping the many women and couples with fertility issues.

Practical ideas for managing your fertility mental health

  • Manage your stress. We all have it and we all deal with it differently, but stress can be a thorn in the side for many people. "When you don't have a regular cycle, it can be related to stress," says Corcoran. "The stress can knock your hormones out of whack, so have a look at your stress management tools."
  • Communicate well with your partner if you're trying to conceive. "Couples need to ensure they're on the same page and you need to voice any fears or concerns you have, even if they're tiny," Corcoran says.
  • Delve into your past. It could be time to deal with any past issues, like fears from a first pregnancy or birth, your relationship with your parents or things you're worried about handing down to your own future children. "Voice and journal these, so you're not trying to push the feelings down and ignore them," advises Corcoran.
  • Sleep! "If you're not getting enough sleep, then your cortisol and insulin are peaking while your dopamine and serotonin are down," Corcoran says.
  • Exercise regularly. Corcoran says, "Exercise is about staying healthy, but also about getting your hormones in sync, because it will burn the cortisol and adrenalin."