Saying “just relax” is bad advice and it’s bad science
How many times have women trying to conceive been told: “Just relax and it will happen,” or “stop thinking about it so much.” Maybe you’ve even heard about that couple who “forgot” about their fertility struggles and miraculously got pregnant. You know that couple? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that couple doesn’t exist because de-stressing alone doesn’t solve fertility issues.
Linking stress to infertility is just ‘bad science’ and really bad advice, according to a recent article in New York Magazine. Sure, stress can contribute to fertility struggles -as the article pointed out – but it can’t be blamed entirely. There are other pieces to the infertility puzzle.
“The problem, though, is that stress alone is unlikely to be a sole cause of infertility; if you have a condition that affects your ability to get pregnant or maintain a pregnancy, no amount of de-stressing will cure it,” writes Olivia Campbell. Basically, you could be zen AF all day and it still might not happen for you. So how did this myth start?
This notion of telling women to “relax” as the writer points out is deeply rooted in historical sexism whereby societies for centuries would connect a woman’s reproductive capabilities with her psychological stress. Back in fifth century B.C. they claimed a woman’s “hysteria” made her sterile. Nice huh? The idea has been perpetuated in our still sexist society (shocker), even to present day, but the science just doesn’t back it up.
“You could be relaxing on a yacht in Bermuda and still not able to conceive,” Jennifer “Jay” Palumbo tells Scary Mommy. Palumbo is the director of member engagement at Progyny, a New York-based fertility benefits company. Her own struggles with fertility are what propelled her to do the work she does now. She says relaxing can’t hurt, but it’s about way more than that.
“It’s like telling a diabetic, that has a high sugar level, ‘don’t worry about it,’ ‘just relax,’ go on vacation and your sugar levels and your insulin will be fixed. It’s illogical,” Palumbo explains. She says there are various medical conditions that impact a woman’s ability to conceive like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), diminished ovarian reserve, ovulatory issues, and many more. Another big one that impacts millions of women is endometriosis. It’s a condition that causes a woman’s uterine lining to grow in different areas of her body; her abdomen, bladder, bowels, etc.
“Endometriosis can block your fallopian tubes. No amount of relaxing is going to unblock your tubes.” Palumbo says. “It has nothing to do with mental state and meditation.”
I was told I couldn’t get pregnant and that it’d be next to impossible. My husband and I never actively tried to get pregnant because we never thought it’d happen.
I’ve had endometriosis for years. It is a painful, frustrating, and oft-dismissed medical condition because no one can see it. The only chance of conceiving women like me have is through medical intervention. After my first laparoscopic surgery to “clean me out” (as my doctor put it) I got pregnant immediately, back-to-back. Could I have used a little relaxation in my life too? Of course. When don’t I need more relaxation? But simply going to yoga and chilling out wasn’t going to fix my problem. I needed medical intervention, which is precisely what Palumbo worries about with this antiquated and dismissive mindset of telling women “just to relax.”
“My concern is that women will stay home relaxing, and not getting laparoscopic procedures to properly diagnose their issue, or not getting hormone treatments, or exploring in vitro fertility treatments (IVF), when they might really need one or many to conceive,” she says. “Relaxing can never hurt, but I think the message needs to be – relaxing in tandem with medical assistance will help, but it shouldn’t be done in place of.”
“It’s very myopic to think that if the woman relaxes and stays at home the problem will go away, because if it’s the male who has the issues – having the woman relax won’t help,” Palumbo says. She said there could be a plethora of male-related medical issues going on like retrograde ejaculation or there could be an essential protein missing from a man’s sperm.
Surely, for many women it can feel like it’s only their issue. Many women who struggle with fertility often feel like it’s their fault they can’t have a baby. They feel like their body is failing them. And no doubt about it – physically – women often bear the brunt of fertility struggles within a heterosexual partnership or marriage, more than the man. However, there is still a very shared experience within conception struggles that sometimes gets diminished or overlooked.
“We need to redefine how couples go through infertility, it really is impacting them both going through it, in every other possible way,” Palumbo says. “It’s impacting both financially and psychologically.” So if infertility can be caused by either a male or a female, and both collectively struggle with it, how come we don’t hear anyone telling men to “just relax” (as the New York Magazine article pointed out as well)? That’s OK, I’ll wait. *Hears crickets. Exactly. This is why telling women to “just relax” needs to stop.
Ultimately, it’s important for women who are going through fertility struggles (and their friends and family) to embrace the idea that troubles with conception are medically rooted in so much more.
“No one should dismiss relaxing, but to say that’s the only thing you need rather than encouraging them to get a medical diagnosis or treatment, eh,” Palumbo says. “Never disregard a fertility issue or a medical condition that is keeping you from conceiving.”