Almost as soon as they got married, Teresa S., who had just turned 35, and her husband, Bill, immediately got busy trying to have a baby. Despite pretty concerted efforts, one month went by without a positive pregnancy test, then two, then three... Soon Teresa started, as she candidly admits, "freaking out."
"I had done everything I could to be fit and healthy to get pregnant, and it wasn't happening," she says. "Everyone kept telling me that I needed to relax more, go on a belated honeymoon, just put having a baby out of my mind, and then—boom—I would probably get pregnant when I least expected. My doctor even floated the idea that being so stressed out could be hurting my fertility."
So, in addition to worrying about why she wasn't pregnant yet, Teresa then began to worry that her inability to stop worrying was making her infertile.
"I was a complete mess," she remembers.
Does this kind of "no way out" cycle of anxiety sound familiar? As Amanda Schaffer writes at Slate.com, when it comes to fertility in the 21st century, more and more women who have difficulty conceiving are starting to believe their own distress—or stressing out about stress—may be at fault.
"And who can blame them, when even fertility centers urge them to create a 'stress-free environment,' Schaffer writes. "And of course, with pregnancy, the worry doesn't end—it's just beginning. Scattershot reports link anxiety to miscarriage or preterm birth with random speculation, as in: Will Kim Kardashian's divorce stress hasten the birth of her baby? Will emotional symptoms during pregnancy cause developmental delays? A finding here, an anecdote there—women can easily get the wrong idea."
Indeed! But is there really anything to worry about? If we look at what recent research has turned up, the good news seems to be that moderate levels of stress and anxiety don't wield as much power as many of us fear. Schaffer highlights a few key studies:
- When it comes to fertility, women like Teresa may be able to breathe a little easier. According to a 2011 UK analysis of over 3,500 women undergoing IVF, a woman's emotional state before IVF had little bearing on whether or not she became pregnant. As Schaffer notes, "women with more extreme levels of anxiety or depression were just as likely to get pregnant ... as women with milder levels."
- During pregnancy, stress is often signaled out as a risk factor for miscarriage or preterm birth. But again, when it's low to moderate stress we're talking about, the case for this connection does not appear very strong. For example, in a study that involved over 78,000 Danish women, those who reported higher levels of life stress and anxiety when they were 30 weeks pregnant did tend to give birth earlier. However, the difference was pretty minimal: The women with the highest life-stress scores delivered their babies, on average, about two days before women with lower scores.
- And as far as lingering stress in pregnancy causing problems for your baby down the road, that, too, is up for debate. Research is more mixed on this one, but one study found that 2-year-olds exposed to their mother's stress while in utero, including depression or anxiety, actually scored higher on child development tests. Other studies have found similar signs of more advanced mental development in babies exposed to maternal stress.
It's clear that when stress and anxiety are severe, such as what women living in war-torn or famine-stricken countries can experience, there are real dangers associated with these emotions. But for the rest of us? It may be a smart move to stop worrying about worry.
A leading US prenatal researcher, Janet DiPetro of Johns Hopkins, is so certain that mild-to-moderate stress is a non-issue for most women that she wants to stop studying it. "I'm trying to get out of the stress stuff!" she tells Schaffer.
When Teresa and her husband conceived after their fourth month of trying, at first she felt "like we had slipped one past the stress goalie."
Then, when it finally sunk in that she was expecting, she thought, "I realized how all that stressing out over stress had been way too... stressful! And I vowed not to get myself in that fix again. I now just try to go with the flow and it seems to be working."