Now, however, I can say these assertions with a little more confidence, thanks to some new research. A study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility (found here) found no relationship between levels of stress women experienced before IVF and their treatment outcome. As you might expect, they did find a relationship between treatment failure and a higher number of IVF cycles and higher levels of emotional distress. The study's authors concluded:
IVF failure predicts subsequent psychological distress, but pre-IVF psychological distress does not predict IVF failure. Instead of focusing efforts on psychological interventions specifically aimed at improving the chance of pregnancy, these findings suggest that attention be paid to helping patients prepare for and cope with treatment and treatment failure (Pasch, et al, 2012).
As a clinician who works with individuals and couples experiencing infertility, I wholeheartedly agree with this conclusion. To many times, clients come to me with a deep-seated worry that they are the architects of their own misery, and that their desires to have a child have caused their fertility problems. Of course, it doesn't help that many people hold this mistaken belief, and are constantly telling them to just relax and stop trying.
I'm afraid my own field of psychology is partially to blame for the theory that emotional conflict causes infertility. I remember when I first started realizing I had an infertility problem, I did a search in the psychology literature on infertility. I discovered a case report of an infertile woman, who was allegedly cured of her infertility once she finally worked through her unconscious conflicts about motherhood. I was upset upon reading this--although I didn't feel I was excessively conflicted about becoming a mother, could my unconscious be keeping me from getting pregnant?
Luckily for me, a few moments later I had to get back to work, to perform a diagnostic evaluation on a woman who was suffering from mental illness and drug dependence and who had several children, none of whom were in her custody. She was rife with conflict, conscious and unconscious, about motherhood, and yet her reproductive organs appeared to be working just fine. That experience, combined with my knowledge about the giant endometrioma that had set up camp on my ovary, allowed me to shake off some of these worries. I knew somehow that feelings of conflict or mild upset couldn't be interfering with fertility--that just couldn't be right.
Too often, when we don't understand a medical, physiological problem, we tell patients that it is caused by a psychological factor. For example, until we realized that ulcers were caused by a bacterial infection, we blamed stress and emotional distress for their development. I predict that the more we come to understand the different underlying cause of infertility, the psychological explanation will fall by the wayside. Until then, it is important to remember that although there is no conclusive evidence that stress causes infertility, there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that infertility causes stress, anxiety, and depression. Thus, as the study's authors conclude, our focus should be on treating these "side effects" of infertility, not on subtly blaming infertile individuals for having these feelings in the first place.