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The Mind-Body Connection in Fertility & Pregnancy

Author // Marcy Axness, Ph.D.

One of the biggest challenges we face in creating the lives we want is that our basic attitudes and perceptions of the world were shaped in the earliest days, months and years of our lives, long before we had a chance to form our own opinions. Through the process of “implicit learning,” wordless messages and lessons accrue via repeated experiences within our key relationships, as nonverbal regions of our brains distill the constant principles underlying those experiences.


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For example, you’re a baby, and you’re hungry. You cry, and before too long someone picks you up, soothes you, and feeds you. As this happens again and again, some of your “perception templates” are shaped like this: I have an effect on my world… People are there for me… I can trust… Being close to someone feels safe and good. Our basic understandings of who we are and what the world is all about are a series of “neural perception templates” shaped by our earliest experiences with the people and world around us.


Fertility

Our trillions of brilliant cells continually survey the environment and adjust to best prepare us to thrive (or maybe just survive) in our current circumstances. Through this nonstop cellular dialogue, our inner life (mental, emotional, spiritual) becomes reflected in our biology, including the delicate hormonal balance of fertility. For instance, chronic stress is associated with diminished fertility. Why? When you experience stress, hormones inform your bodymind that there is a threat “out there.” You may be familiar with the fact that a woman will stop ovulating and menstruating if her body fat drops below about 22 percent. This is because her bodymind’s intelligence, so intimately entwined with Nature’s plan for species survival, perceives that a baby conceived in such circumstances could easily suffer malnutrition. Similarly, a woman’s chronic perception of stress in her life reports to the bodymind that the environment may not be optimal—or even passable—for generating new life that will thrive.

Our endocrine, immune and nervous systems are intimately connected and are influenced by our every thought, attitude and emotion, especially the ones that we’re not aware of having. Keeping in mind the implicit perception templates with which we become programmed during our early months and years, some of our most potent attitudes and responses to life are automatic and reflexive. Now is the time to really look at your inner responses, dialogues and perceptions with the question: Do they invite growth and life, or not?

Some of our most critical early programming has to do with our reproductive capabilities, much of which is formed decades before we decide to begin a family. Along with parental attitudes about the body and its creative functions, as young children we perceive and internalize basic attitudes about such things as: how babies come into our family (with ease, difficulty, crisis, etc.), whether children are loved and valued in our family, and whether having a child is safe and desirable in our family.

Our endocrinology (hormonal profile), so critical to healthy fertility, organizes to “enact” whatever our mental and emotional perceptions dictate. (For example, a hypnotized subject touched on the forearm with a piece of chalk—but told it’s a lit cigarette—develops a raised, red “burn,” and study subjects given a harmless substance, but told it is something to which they’re highly allergic, suffer asthma attacks.) Furthermore, research finds that our healthy mind-body balance is especially affected by “feelings we don’t feel”—unconscious emotions often related to unrecognized neglect, trauma or loss in childhood. Here are two examples of this at work in women who went on to have healthy, full-term babies. (For the purposes of privacy, their names have been changed.)

Ellyn had been trying for a long time to get pregnant, and although there was nothing medically wrong, it just wasn’t happening. An adoptee, Ellyn had wordlessly learned a fundamental mind-body lesson throughout her growing-up years: Women in our family don’t get pregnant. After working with a counselor to consciously reconnect with and “claim” the fertile part of her past—her birth mother whom she had met some years earlier— Ellyn was finally able to conceive.

Maya suffered repeated miscarriages, and her doctor could find no physical cause. In charting her family history it became painfully clear that she and her sister had been “throwaway” children, left behind in their native country when their parents emigrated seeking a better life in America. Maya gradually came to understand how she was reenacting—in a classic mind-body way—what her mother had done: She allowed herself to get pregnant but then “gave the children away.”

Sometimes inner shifts happen more spontaneously and mysteriously. We have all heard stories about “infertile” couples who spent many years and thousands of dollars on reproductive technologies with no success, then adopted a baby and soon conceived naturally by surprise. People who offer infertile couples the infuriating advice “Just relax!” point to these stories as evidence for their theory. Yes, hopping off of the “conception-go-round” may have decreased stress and nudged their hormonal profile into a more conception-friendly zone, but it may also have to do with their biology adjusting to reflect their new feelings, behaviors and devotions: They had become fully engaged in mothering and fathering, and just maybe their endocrinology shifted to reflect and meet that environmental circumstance!

One of my favorite stories is of a 43-year-old woman who had gone through a year of grueling rounds of IVF, two miscarriages, and finally got the dismal “expert diagnosis” that she was too old and “all of her eggs were bad.” She decided to get some cats. After getting her cats, she proceeded to “smother them with unconditional love.” Six months later she was pregnant with her son, who is now a healthy 10-year-old.

It may be important to do some inner investigation into the invisible answers you may be carrying to basic questions about how fertility, pregnancy, birth and children were perceived in your family of origin, so that you can journey ahead into those realms fully free, right down to your biochemistry, and make the healthiest choices. (As a bonus, engaging in the creative process of mastering your own inner life is the best preparation not just for conceiving a baby, but for parenting in general!)

Once we realize how we carry on a continual dialogue with our biology—consciously and unconsciously—we can aspire to cultivate an inner ecology that is truly fit for life.


Pregnancy

Scientists now know that a pregnant woman’s moods have a significant impact upon birth outcomes and on fetal brain development. Statistically speaking, women experiencing significant, chronic fears and anxiety about their pregnancies are at higher risk for delivering prematurely. (Remember, “chronic” means “persistent…more often than not.” Occasional stressful moments are a normal part of pregnancy and fetal development—it is life!)

In terms of her baby’s development in the womb, if a mother is constantly filled with anxiety or stress during her pregnancy, the message communicated to her baby (via stress hormones) is that they are in an unsafe environment—regardless of whether or not this is actually the case. The baby’s brain will be wired to prepare it for the unsafe environment it perceives it is going to be born into, and is more likely to be a fussy infant—hard to soothe—and later, a more temperamental child—short on attention, impulsive, “a handful.”

Parents need to recognize that the unceasing question being asked by the baby in the womb, continually answered via the mother’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors, is this: What kind of world am I coming into, Mommy, through your eyes? Then they can begin to understand how important it is for the pregnant mother to feel supported, loved, safe—and most especially, to experience joy—so their baby can arrive as healthy as possible, ready to love and learn!


Pathways Issue 40 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #40.

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