They could be the most annoying two words a couple can hear while trying to conceive: "Just relax!"
It feels like an impossible directive. Who can "relax" when she's over 35, has miscarried twice, and is having a hard time getting pregnant again? I was wound tight as a drum, and I wanted to pull my hair out every time someone used the "R" word. When I finally came home pregnant after a trip to Paris, I dismissed any connection between my daughter's conception and French wine.
But a Boston-area fertility clinic has released a study that may connect relaxation techniques with higher levels of IVF success. The results are compelling: Patients who took part in a stress-management program led by Dr. Alice Domar during their second round of IVF treatments had a 160% greater pregnancy rate than women who did not participate during their treatment.
A survey of the women in my area who struggled with infertility yielded some apocryphal data that bears this out.
"We were told to 'just relax' multiple times when we were trying to conceive," Julianna Freed, a local mom told me. "In the moment, it is like someone telling you everything is fine while you are cryingobviously everything is not fine and being told it is is having your emotions completely discounted."
Freed tried to conceive for two years, including IUI and IVF treatments. Instead of paying for another round of IVF, she and her husband spent the money on a long-delayed 10th anniversary trip. "Lo and behold, I came home from a two-week African safari with 'jet lag' that just wouldn't quit for nine more months!" she says. "So, yes, relaxing and letting it go probably did play a role [in conceiving our son]."
Several women had similar stories: Once they changed jobs (or husbands) or removed some other major stressor in their lives, they conceived their "miracle" babies.
But for every story like this, there are just as many women for whom "relaxing" was not the cure. One local mother told me, "That was the number-one piece of 'advice' I heard while struggling to conceive. It made me absolutely despair. It took six years of medical efforts to finally conceive my twins. We took six months off from trying to conceive in the middle of the six years. I needed a break. Needless to say, 'just relaxing' for six months did not help me conceive.
"When someone gave me this piece of advice," she says, "I would just walk away. If I said anything, I knew I would lose it and just sound like a crazy, unhinged woman anyway."
I touched base with Hugh S. Taylor, MD, a professor and the chief of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Yale University School of Medicine.
"[Dr. Alice Domar's] program is far more than just telling people to relax," Dr. Taylor says. "A comprehensive [mind-body] program such as this seems to have benefits."
Dr. Taylor also recommends relaxation to his infertility patients. "However," he cautions, "it has never been proven to work as well as specific infertility treatments. It is difficult for someone with infertility to 'just relax,' as many psychological studies have demonstrated that the stress of this condition is on par with cancer."
Dr. Domar also has a very helpful article about what to sayand not to sayto someone you know who is struggling with infertility.
So while there may now be evidence that a mind-body program may have a positive impact on the success of a fertility treatment, women need to hear this from their doctorsnot from well-meaning friends and family.
Instead, how about offering an all-expenses-paid trip abroad, or at least one bottle of French wine?