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LFCA Latest Issue: Friday, September 25, 2009.

Latest Post on BlogHer: Parenting after Infertility.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Just Relax

Cross-posted with BlogHer because I'm a cheater, cheater, pumpkin-eater. Unless it's pie. I don't do pumpkin pie.

Your blood doesn't clot properly thereby making it impossible for the embryos created out of your sub-par eggs (coming out of your prematurely failing ovaries) to remain implanted in the uterus, thereby necessitating conception attempts to move from the bedroom to a sterile doctor's office (and pay thousands monthly for the experience) with a cast of six male doctors staring at your vagina while attempting to manipulate the catheter on any given visit. No one can tell you how long this will take or how much money you will spend or what your body will endure.

But, of course, despite all of that, we're going to have to ask you to just relax if you want this to work.

Stress reduction has long been held up as the panacea for a host of ailments including infertility. In last weekend's New York Times magazine, Peggy Orenstein had an article titled "Stress Test" that points out the missing threads in this line of thinking:

It’s not that I think the mind-body connection is a total sham. But even where it would seem most established, say in the relationship between stress and heart disease, the mechanism is unclear. Is stress an independent risk factor or does it merely influence others, raising blood pressure or encouraging over-eating? Either way, popular mythology both simplifies and generalizes the potential harm, applying it to everything that ails us. After all, it feels true: I’m more at peace with my frenetic life after a few rounds of sun salutations. Yet, what does that prove?

I would take it a step further to say that even if the mind-body connection exists and stress levels affect hormone production, pointing out how stress affects the body and asking those in a health crisis to relax through therapy, yoga, and meditation is reductive (and, in turn, raises stress levels when you hit that brick wall). If it were truly a solution, the infertility crisis would be moving towards resolution rather than chaos as technology improves and stress reducing outlets increase.

In the end, it's a prescription that moves in a circuitous route rather than forward towards a solution. It is an empty prescription--one that states the problem without stating a true solution. It is like this: we can say that overeating leads to obesity. And we can point out ways to curb overeating including portion control, drinking a lot of water, and exercising instead of consuming food. But if these solutions were implementable, many more people would do it. No one consciously chooses to be unhealthy. Yet sometimes we truly cannot help our unhealthy tendencies, no matter how much the head battles the heart.

The reality is that we're talking about some major emotional rewiring.

It is too hard to stop overeating simply by having someone tell you to stop overeating. It is too hard to stop overeating simply because you are attending therapy or drinking two liters of water a day or even exercising with a personal trainer while eating with a personal chef. Can we do it for short periods of time--even months or years? Of course. When other factors are aligning themselves in the outside world, we can muster amazing willpower to override our natural tendencies. But we can't sustain this level of self-control indefinitely. We all have a way of moving back towards the way we deal with our stress: overeating, obsessing, consuming mind-altering substances.

Because, what all of these things have in common is the control we are desperately trying to grasp in the face of having a lack of control.

We all have our ways that were either taught or intuited that help us process life. I'm not saying that our methods are healthy. Many times, like stress or overeating, it can be detrimental to our health or push us even farther from the goal. But pointing it out doesn't make the problem disappear.

Worrying, not deep breathing, is the anxious girl's way of dealing with stress. Because what is worrying other than emotional preparation? Running through the what ifs, feeling the intensity of the emotion ahead of time, falling apart and having a long cry--these are the ways we exercise our hearts to deal with the crisis when it actually occurs. How many times does the anxious girl say that she's great in a crisis? Preparation--it's the motto of anxious ladies and girl scouts.

And that, I would say, is a more feasible goal. Someone needs to invent a therapy that doesn't go against the natural tendencies of the worrier but instead embraces them. does exist. It's called blogging. And I'd love to see a study where blogging, writing the what ifs out to their limit, sitting in front of the computer and having a good cry, falling apart completely is shown to have the same success rate as those who go against their body and unnaturally force it to relax.

Once they do that study, I'll go back to visualizing my happy space and shoving all of my infertility worries into their alloted daily hour.

Orenstein finishes the article with this thought: "Stress is our burden, our bogyman, and reducing it is the latest all-purpose talisman against adversity’s randomness." In the end, aren't we all simply searching for an answer; an explanation; the secret door that lets us out of here? And can we blame researchers for holding out this idea even if being told that unattainable relaxation will help only brings on more stress?


gabrielle said...

Excellent, excellent post. Mel, I loved it.

confession: I am trying to invest a little heavier into the mind/body connection this time around. Simply because I have more faith in my brain than my body. But you raise some fabulous points. And if you were looking for more to do or another degree, the blogging/journaling connection isn't one I have seen explored. Feels like a theory ripe for a thesis...

Lollipop Goldstein said...

Well, in full disclosure since I'm knocking it, I also am trying to start yoga right now and have been thinking about returning to meditation.

Perhaps it's just bitterness because I can't get over that hump into the relaxation state. I fall firmly in the anxious category.

luna said...

truly excellent post. you nailed the cycle well. and you know all the deep breathing in the world isn't going to get me pregnant.

bleu said...

Thank you Mel.

I can blame the researchers though, for a whole hell of a lot.

AbbyK said...

Delurking for the first time EVER(!) to say thank you for this. I'm sending this to my husband so the next time he tells me to relax I can smack him. :-) I try so hard not to stress out that it stresses me out even more. This takes away some of the guilt I feel every time I worry, as well as the frustration I feel that I can't "just relax" and be "normal", even in my yoga class...thanks.

JamieD said...

I am going to print this post, laminate it and carry it in my back pocket at all times so I can whip it out for every person that tells me I need to relax. Maybe I'll make a key chain out of it.

Julia said...

I do find it extremely annoying to hear people say "you need to relax" or "you can't live/go on like this." Um, yeah? Some of us have real things to worry about. Real medical things that went wrong and can do so again. And however we deal is the way we deal.
Plus, yeah, relaxing, I am sure, is just as good as heparin. No, really.

kate said...

Hmm. I have a lot of strong feelings about this, specifically because regardless of the direction of the causal relationship, there is very clearly a tie between mental stress and physical malfunctions of the body, at least from my own experience.

I've been on a training regimen to get myself into shape for running long distances, but despite the incredible increase in physical activity, I've yet to lose a pound. My body tones up EVERYWHERE except the dreaded belly.
Coincidentally, the week after I started training, I went back to school full time while continuing to work full time. And that's when the headaches started.

And so, as I look on line (ever in pursuit of my online MD), I begin to notice the number of studies that relate to cortisol levels and adrenaline levels and fatness, specifically in the belly region. And the extensively researched ties between headaches and stress levels showing that by chemically increasing stress, the body reacts by causing throbbing pain in the temples.

And then I remembered a book I read years ago regarding dealing with exhaustion and illness and all the myriad ways it's tied to stress, and how stress can be increased or decreased by manipulating the availability of certain amino acids and how depriving a person of GABA can result in far increased stress, and even induce a severe panic attack.

And so, as for me, I'm wholeheartedly convinced that there is a direct link between stress levels and a TON of various medical maladies. I don't think I believe that simply slowing down will solve problems, but I do think that attempting to release anxieties can help to alleviate some of those issues.

I'm probably completely and totally wrong (see above online MD...), but I'm definitely giving the relaxation thing a try. At worst, I figure I will have wasted a few months pretzeling myself into yoga poses and staring blankly into space while I meditate, and at best, I can come out the other side possibly less chunky 'round the middle and with fewer physical pains. I think it's worth a shot.

BUT... at the same time, I realize how absurd it can sound to espouse these fruity ideas that have no tangible, proveable, concrete proof. What can I say? It must be the infertile in me that makes me incredibly susceptible to far-fetched internet-published research, eh? We do love a good 'theory', right? Can't hurt, might help could well be my mantra...

kate said...

After reading what I wrote, I think I need to clarify that I in NO way think that relaxation is equal to various fertility drugs, or that it is the single solution to infertility- only that I, personally, can't help but notice specific physical manifestations of an increased stress load.

Sorry if that wasn't clear. I, too, get PLENTY irritated by the "relax" commandment, as if that will somehow solve 18 months of infertility.

loribeth said...

I loved the original article, & you have expanded upon it brilliantly.

That said, I do love yoga, & I do find it relaxing. ; )

Nic said...

Suits my mood exactly. Thank you. And yes, I find blogging a wondeful outlet, and it's the only thing that truly reflects the vagaries of my mood. I don't think I am capable of 'relax'!

Shinejil said...

Here, here, Mel! One of your best posts, imho.

I found that forcing myself to engage in relaxation activities as a means to an end (pregnancy) made me very, very stressed out, esp. because I totally failed month after month. Whereas if I just do yoga, go for a walk or run, spend 15 minutes breathing and staring into space for the fun of it, I feel great.

It's been such a relief to let go of the magical thinking re: the mind/body connection to IF and just resign myself to the fact that I can't fix myself. It's improved my life big time and helped me find some peace, even if I still suffer from the sorrows of IF.

Jess said...

Why the eff don't you do PUMPKIN PIE? Are you NUTS?

I LOVE the post, though, if not your pie preferances. :)

calliope said...

perfectly timed post. I was just looking on youtube for some good meditation videos. I KNOW we are supposed to relax, but how does one turn of the brain? I can tell myself to relax all day but even in my still moments I am mentally active and plotting.

I have a friend that meditates every day. She wakes up early and sits on her floor and just counts.

It didn't work for me. sigh...

& as an odd aside: my word verification is "tmonk". Did you rig this?? heh.

Isn't it pretty to think so said... mean the drug induced coma I was planning on starting next week, won't help with implantation?

Samantha said...

there was actually a brief in Newsweek in last week's issue about the therapeutic effects of blogging. I think you're on to something!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you! I just found out tonight that one old friend and his wife are expecting their second child any day, and that a close friend is pregnant already after 2 months of "not trying". We had wanted to be PG together... no such luck given my issues. I held it together for the phone call with my friend, and then burst into tears when I walked into the bar to meet my husband and some other friends. I am also sick and tired of people telling me to "just relax, it will happen." Um, especially when you are basically not ovulating, we don't even have a shot because there is nothing ready to be fertilized! So we're contemplating medical interventions, and the possible work complications of the treatments... yup, super-easy to relax!!! Ugh. Anyway, thank you again for writing this...

Io said...

I like this post. I read Peggy Orenstein's article and my first thought was - I bet Lolly writes something great about this!

Deathstar said...

Speaking as a Buddhist here, I wish that mind/body connection would have turned out a little better for me in the babymaking department. Speaking as a blogger, this has lead me to a really good place, through sharing and connecting with others. Which is as Buddhist as you can get.

Bea said...

It does, it causes more stress. I always found the best way to get rid of the stress was to move through it and out the other side, as you've said.