News & Perspectives

Easing the Stress of Infertility
Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, Houston, Texas

Infertility and its treatment are breeding grounds for stress. Cycles of hope followed by crushing disappointment along with the high costs and low success rates of medical therapies can lead to depression, anxiety and intense frustration. Some scientists believe such negative emotions can contribute to the failure to conceive, while others contend that such feelings are probably a response to, rather than the cause of, infertility. In either case relieving the stress of infertility can only be beneficial. Doctors in the Houston area are referring their patients to a novel mind/body program at Memorial Hermann Healthcare System designed to do just that.

Parent program
Memorial Hermann is affiliated with the University of Texas at Houston, and its infertility program grew out of a similar one at Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center in Boston that was started by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard. Fourteen U.S. hospitals and medical schools now have Mind/Body Medical Institutes affiliated with the parent program in Boston, and the health-care practitioners at these affiliates all receive training at the Boston center.

Memorial Hermann’s infertility program strives to alleviate the negative emotions and stress associated with infertility by teaching women new skills and methods to restore their sense of control over anxiety and physical tension. More than 100 women have been treated since the program started in July 1996.

Relaxation response
Approximately 10 to 15 women attend 10 weekly sessions. Each session consists of a 30-minute meeting of the support group, an hour spent learning different relaxation techniques, and an hour devoted to specific topics, including nutrition and exercise.

Relaxation techniques are key. According to the institute's director, Mary Jane White, M.S., L.M.S.W., each session includes standard yoga exercises: "We don’t do anything very complex. The idea is to help them release physical tension so they can get to a place of quietness and peace and really relax the mind and body."

Another technique is the body scan. In this approach, the woman directs her focus throughout her body, moving from the toes to the top of her head, concentrating on areas that are painful or affected by a medical problem. Another stress-reducing measure is progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing a group of muscles until they are tightly contracted, holding them in this state for a few seconds, and then relaxing them as much as possible. These and other techniques help evoke the relaxation response--a state of deep rest that alters the physical and emotional responses to stress and produces a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, metabolic rate, and muscle tension.

Other strategies designed to relieve stress are covered: The women are taught various stretching exercises to ease tension; a dietitian provides information about nutrition and vitamin supplements important to women anticipating pregnancy; and an adoption counselor advises them about available adoption services.

To participate in the infertility program, a woman must receive a referral from her physician. The cost for the 10-week course is $855, which is typically not covered by medical insurance (although the infertility program at the Mind/Body Medical Clinic in Boston is covered because of Massachusetts state law).

Coincidental baby boom?
Approximately 60 to 70% of the women who attend the stress-reduction program at Memorial Hermann are simultaneously undergoing medical treatment for infertility. White reports that within six months to one year after completing the program, more than 48% of the women became pregnant. It has not been determined whether this high conception rate is a direct effect of the program, a coincidence, or an indirect effect (that is, the women may be more willing to pursue demanding high-tech therapies after they develop better coping skills). Two years later, stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions associated with infertility were markedly reduced or eliminated in almost all the women. In addition, infertility was no longer an issue for most of them--because they had become pregnant, decided to adopt, or arrived at a decision not to have children.

For more information, contact: Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, Mind/Body Medical Institute, 7500 Beechnut, Suite 321, Houston, TX 77074; 713-776-5020;
Mind/Body Medical Clinic at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 110 Francis Street, Suite 1A, Boston, MA 02215; 617-632-9530 (press 1);

Date Published: 04/09/2001
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