"Just relax!"

On this page we will look at some cognitive biases, and how they lead to myths about conception.

That's nuts!

Humans are pattern seeking animals. Our brains have evolved to try to make sense of the world around us. Unfortunately, sometimes they work overtime, making connections that don't actually exist in reality. For example, I know a couple that successfully conceived on their second month of trying. My friend Dave knew we had been struggling, so he pulled my husband aside and said "I'll let you in on the secret - Brazil nuts! I've been eating them like crazy, and it sure worked for us!"

Unfortunately, things aren't so straightforward. Dave's brain was trying to figure out why conception was so easy for him, but not for us. One difference between him and my husband is Brazil nut consumption - maybe that's related? However, when you think about it, eating nuts is only one of thousands of ways in which our situations differ, and probably one of the least consequential. However, our brains don't think that way. They cling to tidy explanations over uncertainty whenever they can.

"You're just trying too hard"

Does the following story sound familiar?

I have a friend Jane who was also having troubles conceiving. Jane and her husband tried for ages without success, and one day just decided that it was never going to happen. You'll never believe it – the very next month Jane got pregnant! It was all the worry that was preventing conception. You just need to relax, and then it will happen.

This is probably the most common piece of unhelpful advice for those trying to conceive. There are several problems with this story:

  • As with the Brazil nuts, this story is purely anecdotal. It is our brains desperately trying to understand the underlying reason why Jane fell pregnant that particular month. There are hundreds of possible explanations, with a simple coincidence being very likely. There is no evidence to believe stress had anything to do with it in this case.
  • Another problem with this style of reasoning is known as confirmation bias. After telling you this story, your friend might say "... and I've heard tons of stories just like this!" The problem is that the story isn't representative, since the alternative stories (couples who conceived while stressed, no conception even after giving up, etc.) don't get told as often. This makes it seem like the link between stress and conception is stronger than it is.

Stress

No studies so far have found a strong and conclusive link between normal levels of stress and lack of conception. Here is one way to think about it: our ancestors lived through times of violence, war, famine, disease, plagues, genocide, etc. They certainly didn't have it easy, but somehow they managed to keep having children. Lots of them.

One problem with the "you're trying too hard" style of thinking is that it implies you are doing something wrong, and this can lead to self-blame: "it's my fault we haven't conceived yet – I'm too stressed!". In actual fact, you aren't doing anything wrong, and stress probably has nothing to do with your troubles.

In reality, all couples struggling with fertility are put under a lot of stress. I'm yet to meet a single person who was trying to conceive who didn't worry about it. With all of the other things you have to worry about, at least you can take "stress over being too stressed" off the list.