Humans are well adapted to handle life’s challenges. If our bodies sense a threat they rise to the occasion by altering our physiology with a shot of adrenaline and an uptick in heart rate to prepare us to either fight or run for our lives. Stress can propel us to do amazing things – top a sales record, nail a field goal from the 50 yard line, or solve a tough engineering problem.
But, stress is not supposed to be a day-in-day-out thing we live with. Biologically, stress uses up resources. It suppresses our immune system, breaks down tissues and throws our hormones out of balance. As we recover from stressful events, our body builds itself back up and returns to a balanced state.
Perhaps for this reason, stress has been shown to be a fertility killer in both men and women. In a 2009 study of male medical students, average sperm count dropped from a baseline of 55M/mL at the beginning of the semester to 39M/mL during their final exams. As stress increased, sperm count decreased. Others studies have shown that work, personal, and perceived stress can all take a toll on sperm quality.
Stress doesn’t only impact sperm. It has also been shown to decrease testosterone, lower sex drive, increase erectile dysfunction and lower sexual intimacy between partners. In short, stress is a major buzz kill and it can have real effects on your sex life and your reproductive health.
Men’s Reproductive Health Expert Dr. Paul Turek says it best: “Being stuck in traffic is a form of acute stress, similar to being told that your check bounced, you missed your deadline, or you’re late for that important business meeting for which you planned so hard. Going back 100,000 years, this is same stress associated with being chased by a rogue wooly mammoth. Either way, modern or ancient, the human body responds the same way: by stimulating adrenaline and activating the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system. Blood is directed to where it is needed most—the heart and muscles–and not to the penis.” His recommendation “Get to know your wooly mammoths.” In other words, identify your sources of stress and slay them.
Here are a few tips that may help you lower or manage the stress in your life:
Preparing for parenthood is an opportunity to examine your life and look for opportunities to lower your baseline stress level. Maybe it’s a big change – like moving or changing jobs or maybe just a few small changes like cutting a few extra things out of your schedule or shifting your mindset to be more content with your current life. Cutting back can create a void which may feel uncomfortable. But taking small steps to create more space for you and your partner now will allow you to strengthen your relationship and have more energy for whatever lies ahead. You’re in this together, and if you’re looking to improve your work-life balance we recommend favoring the “life” side for time being.
But what if most of the stress is coming from the inability to get pregnant? The process of trying to conceive in and of itself can be very stressful for both partners. Timed sex, lack of control over the process or the emotional wear and tear of a negative result month after month can wear you down.
Reclaiming your relationship: There are several strategies that couples use to reclaim their relationship and improve intimacy while trying to conceive. Open dialog and creating a space for honest feelings is a good place to start. Celebrating who you are as a couple and doing things you love together is another. For more tips on intimacy while trying to conceive, check out this post on sex and fertility.
Gaining some control over the process: The other major source of stress while trying to conceive is feeling powerless about the situation. Why isn’t it happening? One of the best remedies for this is to get educated. Understanding what can contribute to fertility issues on each side can help you build a game plan for things that you can actually do to help improve your chances.