Fight, flight, and fertility – A little more personal

I’ve realized I may not have done the best job explaining exactly what I meant by “what makes me me” yesterday.  So if you didn’t read that, please do.  I attempt to clarify how I think that study relates to me here as well.

I can’t seem to access the full article now, but what I remember is that the study (referenced here again) looked at fertility of women over a year and found that higher levels of alpha-amylase, the enzyme that is released under acute stress, reduced fertility over a period of the first month, but over the course of a year of trying to conceive those values had no influence.  What’s interesting is that ‘infertility’ is defined as inability to conceive after a year, not just a few months.  It seems then that yes, this enzyme would be effective in delaying conception, but statistically not for what the medical community defines as infertility.  I wonder though, if someone is under extreme acute stress for an extended period of time (unlikely but still possible), would fertility be compromised?  The article didn’t address that.

Cortisol levels were also measured, which is more of a measurement of how your body is trying to sooth itself basically.  More cortisol would maybe mean that you have experienced a lot of stress and your body is trying to recuperate.  This study found that higher levels of cortisol actually related to higher fertility, which is totally confusing.  So short term, acute stress is bad, but long term stress seems to be good?  Mixed messages much?

In life in general, I don’t buy that stress is entirely bad.  Stress makes us do extraordinary things.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I could on that project if I didn’t fear about turning in a bad version, maybe I would never have received that fellowship if I hadn’t “stressed” to get the application turned in on time, and we stressed to make the money/time commitments work to see our families when it otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.   Stress makes fathers provide for their families (how many young dads stress about finding jobs once they have children?) and it helps mothers feed their babies when they’re crying (which produces stress).

What I thought was interesting about the article is the difference between involuntary vs. voluntary stress.  Voluntary stress to me is more related to your situation:  having a stressful job, being in grad-school, being in financial/martial stress, etc.  Those are stresses that aren’t guaranteed to be constant forever and have the potential to change (although you made very well need to stay in those situations for the time being – this says nothing to the immediacy that they can be remedied) and are related to cortisol levels.  Involuntary stress is how your body naturally responds to stress, more along the lines of how we have designated “Type A” and “Type B” people.  There are people (like my husband) that it just takes forever to get them stressed out.  Then there’s me, where it seems like I have an automatic response button or as my dad puts it a “sense of urgency”.

This is why I think the part about the alpha-amylase enzyme via acute stress was what I was referring to yesterday.  It’s really interesting because your “fight or flight” mechanism really seems to be something that’s hard to control, its just automatic (hence, fight or flight). I know whenever I get in a conflict or tense situation (for example, when I am asked a Catholic theology question by my evangelical family member at a family gathering), or even right when I’m about to do any public speaking, my heart starts beating so fast, I get hot, and I feel like I’m either going to choke or throw-up.  I literally have to practice what I’m going to say until I have it memorized because my brain will cease to function from nervousness!  I have absolutely no control over that and its been with me my whole life.  Of course its debilitating in other ways (its really hard for me to give an improvised talk because of this) but I’ve learned what I need to do and considering I still have to give talks on a regular basis, I know I have improved.  But it will still never be ‘easy’ for me.

Seeing that that could be linked to not getting pregnant, well what’s a girl to do?  Beat myself up more?  These situations will always happen in my life, even if I limit them.  I know breathing exercises and centering my thoughts and focus through prayer has helped calm it down, but that heart beating thing in a sudden situation just happens anyway.  I’ve learned the best I can do when it happens is to just keep breathing and speak calmly.  It seems like you could limit a stressful lifestyle, but could you erase that immediate response mechanism?  This is what I mean by I am who I am.  It seems to me that some people are geared like that and others aren’t.  I look at my husband and he doesn’t even know what I’m describing when I tell him what happens to me!

But he has lived with me for 2 years and known me for the 2 years prior and has seen my natural responses and I guess knows me well enough to realize that this really isn’t something that I can just ‘turn off’.  And I love him for expressing to me that even if we never have kids because of it, he still loves me for it.

Anyways, I’m certain I can’t be the only sub/infertile blogger that has these issues…

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5 thoughts on “Fight, flight, and fertility – A little more personal

  1. Wow, very interesting studies. Speaking as someone who is sensitive to stress and who has been in counseling to help me manage stress better, I totally believe that our bodies’ reactions are very hard to control. Sometimes I won’t even feel stressed (emotionally or mentally) but my body shows clear signs of stress. There are ways to combat this (and sometimes we don’t realize we are making it worse, like I have a bad habit of holding my breathe which changes your pH and stresses the body), but still… hard to totally change. What a wonderful husband you have!

  2. About the cortisol.. from what I understand, after it’s too high for a while it then bottoms out (I know there is a wonderful explanation of why, but of course I can’t remember that). That’s what happened to me. Eventually I nearly stopped producing it and my levels were extremely low. That was one of the many reasons for my infertility and the last one I finally tackled. And I truly believe that becoming Clara’s mother and the incredible joy that came with that (as well as already being on cortisol) helped me to conceive.

    So when people say “just relax” I think on some level, ironically, that proved true for me. Those people just have absolutely no idea why, medically speaking, what they’re saying may possibly be right for a few of us.

    • Super interested in the cortisol thing…if you remember why, please let me know! And about feeling true, deep, incredible joy, if its anything but a smidgen like my dreams or like how I feel holding my nephew, I totally believe that would definitely fix a broken part of me. Part of me feels guilty for knowing that now though, prior to adopting. I wouldn’t want to adopt in order to get pregnant but how to factor that out of the decision?

      Here’s the million dollar question: Do you think its even possible to relax the way you did with Clara, without her? I have doubts, but I’m curious what you think, or why you didn’t beforehand….

      • Hmmm.. that’s a good question. I keep writing responses and deleting them, so clearly it’s not that simple of an answer! I’d like to think that one day I could have worked through my suffering, found joy in God alone, and overcome my despair, but remembering how it felt in the thick of it and how incredibly hard every day was, I’d have to say I highly doubt I could’ve found joy without Clara. I’m sure it’s *possible* in an all-things-are-possible-with-God sorta way. But I was in bad shape and I don’t think I was strong enough to pull myself out of it without becoming a mother.

        And if I had somehow accepted childlessness, I probably would’ve just been okay, not over-the-moon joyful. I think, for me, that complete contentment is what really fixed me (of course, that, along with three surgeries and countless medications).

        But I should also add that who knows how anyone is going to feel after adopting. I have seen others still struggle with infertility sadness afterward. I view my complete contentment as a total grace because it would have been much more like me to not be able to shake the depression, even after Clara. So I give all the glory to God for that one.

        My brain is fried so I hope that answers your question :)

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