Hypnotherapy and infertility: Is it all in the mind?

Receiving a diagnosis of ‘unexplained infertility’ can be terrifying for couples who want to get pregnant. They can feel helpless and frustrated with this diagnosis, but in my opinion it is not the most devastating news you might receive after a fertility investigation because it means that there is no medical reason you cannot become parents.

Stress and emotional concerns are creeping higher and higher up the list of common causes of infertility. Many couples have lost faith in the natural process of conception and maintain too strong a conviction in the need for medical assistance. And with more and more women in high stress jobs it’s really no wonder that conception doesn’t always occur immediately.  Stress is a major inhibitor of ovulation and fertility and it can also affect male fertility too. 

So if you’ve been given a diagnosis of unexplained infertility (which can make up 30% of all couples), therapies, like hypnotherapy, which aim to reduce stress and increase confidence and self-esteem can instil a sense of control in the client, which in turn enables them to maximise their chances of conceiving naturally or increases their chances of success with IVF, most certainly have a place.

Studies have shown that restoration of hormonal balance and eventual pregnancy may occur through the utilisation of hypnosis techniques and implementation of positive lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise. Hypnosis is well recognised for its effectiveness in smoking cessation, weight control, stress release, and general habit changing. Interestingly, these same issues pose the biggest threats to fertility. 

Because the link between the mind and body can be so strong, hypnotherapy works best for problems when there is a psychological component. Hypnotherapy works on the premise that there are two states of consciousness – the conscious and the subconscious – which may be at odds with each other.  For example, a woman may say that she wants a baby but her subconscious fears may be stopping her from getting pregnant.

There is huge pressure on women these days to have the perfect life, body, job, partner and family, and many may have unacknowledged doubts and insecurities about motherhood and feel pressurised to conceive by those around them. It is important to find out what you really want because studies show that stress or anxiety about becoming a mother can prevent conception, so hypnotherapy can deal with doubts about your future role as a parent.

But how exactly does hypnotherapy work. It seems that hypnosis affects the hypothalamus—the neural centre at the base of the brain linked to the pituitary gland—and controls the flow of hormones in the body. The hypothalamus is sensitive to stress and acts as a bridge between the emotional and physical, turning emotional messages into physical responses that affect hormone levels. In this sense, the effectiveness of hypnotherapy on women with fertility problems is most certainly, ‘in the mind.’

Studies conducted by Alice Domar, PhD, director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Behavioural Medicine Programme for Infertility in Boston suggest that unresolved issues about having a baby can be removed with counselling and mind/body techniques such as hypnotherapy. In the first study published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association 42% of 132 infertile women in the programme conceived within six months of completing it. In the second study, published in 2000 in the journal Fertility and Sterility, 55% of the previously infertile women who met regularly in a mind/body programme conceived, compared with 20% of the control group who used no mind/body techniques and who did not attend meetings.

The research on hypnotherapy and fertility is fragmented and often appears in medical journals in the form of single case studies of individual patients. For example, a case study published in the European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis in 1994 suggested that hypnotherapy could help in medically unexplained, functional and psychosomatic infertility. Yet there is enough evidence of this kind to suggest that hypnotherapy techniques can have a positive effect on fertility. This may be because like visualisation, Autogenic training (a form of thought control) and relaxation techniques it works by harnessing the power of your mind to work for you, rather than against you.

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