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Coping during fertility treatment

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How to cope during fertility treatment: evidence-based strategies

When you’re trying to conceive, it can feel like every picture and post you see is about parenthood, pregnancy, and having children. This can be triggering for so many on their fertility journey. It can help to be aware of the impact infertility has on your mental wellbeing, and find ways that work for you to feel better during this time. In this article, we’ll explore the effects of infertility on your mental health, and look at strategies that may help you cope.

Key takeaways

  • Infertility can have a huge impact on your mental health. Infertility-related stress can lead to depression, anxiety, and marital strain.
  • There are many ways you can support your mental health during this time, including self-care, connection, communication, and professional support.
  • You may want to set clear boundaries and expectations for how loved ones can help you on your journey.

How infertility might affect your mental health

There’s no doubt about it: infertility is stressful. Research has shown that infertility can cause the same level of psychological stress as people coping with issues such as chronic pain, HIV, and cancer, and has acknowledged the direct relationship between anxiety and stress in infertility patients.

A 2022 systematic review concluded that infertility-related psychological issues can be significant and severe, leading to feelings of helplessness, depression, and anxiety. The review also suggested that it’s essential for healthcare providers to offer strategies for infertility patients to manage this distress.

Now further work is being carried out to define which elements of the infertility experience contribute most significantly to poor mental health and infertility-related stress. A concept analysis carried out on this topic found that feelings and fears related to infertility-related stress included:

  • Desire for children
  • Fear of the unknown
  •  Identity crisis
  • Social isolation
  • Stigma
  • Sexual stress
  • Financial strain

If patients didn’t get proper treatment or support, consequences coiuld inolve marital strain, anxiety, depression, decreased quality of life, and treatment dropout.

Males experiencing male-factor infertility have been shown to have lower sexual and personal quality of life, compared to couples where male-factor fertility is not a cause of the fertility issues. In men, the presence of major depression can lower the likelihood of successful pregnancy, according to a study carried out in 2018, although maternal MD did not impact non-IVF outcomes.

Strategies to cope with infertility

Check-in with your mental health regularly

It’s important to give yourself a mini mental health check-up frequently on your fertility journey, to identify any signs of underlying anxiety or depression.

Ask yourself: Are you feeling more disorganized than usual? Are you struggling with decision-making, even with little things like what’s for lunch? Are you struggling to take care of yourself or do things that once brought you joy? How’s your body feeling — is it relaxed, or tense most of the time?

If something feels off, it’s time to prioritize your mental health and consider professional support. Feelings of anxiety and depression are extremely common during infertility treatment, so you’re definitely not alone.

Communicate with your partner

It is essential to communicate how you feel to your partner during this time. The two of you may be feeling the same emotions, or experiencing completely different reactions to your fertility struggles. The main thing is to keep communication open and regular, so you can support each other through the rollercoaster you may be going through.

Marital stress is common among those faced with infertility, and it can lead to a decrease in overall sexual satisfaction and problems with sexual performance (which can further impact your ability to conceive naturally). Communicating and practicing other forms of intimacy during your fertility treatment can help ensure your relationship will weather this difficult journey.

Acknowledge your emotions

Many people will experience intense emotions when they discover they have fertility issues, or while undergoing infertility treatment. These can include feelings of despair, guilt, failure, fear, and shame. It is important to acknowledge these feelings rather than suppress them — that’s the first step to releasing those feelings so they won’t overwhelm you.

Learn to navigate feelings of jealousy

For most people, there is no escaping the presence of pregnancy, children, and parenthood in everyday life. It can feel so unfair that getting pregnant is so simple for some, and so complicated for others. It’s natural to feel envious of those who have an easy journey. 

Avoiding jealousy triggers can be tricky, and can damage your relationships with loved ones if not managed proactively. If you feel jealousy transforming into feelings of anger or guilt, it may help to seek out professional help in the form of counseling or therapy.

Join a support network

Building a solid support network is a great place to start when you are trying to conceive. This could consist of family and friends, but it might be useful to seek out support groups specifically for those experiencing infertility.

Talking to others with infertility will help you deal with feelings that you are alone in this struggle. You can find support groups online (try Facebook groups!), or ask your fertility clinic for recommendations for local and virtual support groups.

Practice self-care

Self-care doesn’t always mean “treating yourself” with material goods or soaking in a hot bath with cucumber slices on your eyes (although it can!). You could learn a new hobby, take more walks in nature, practice yoga or exercise, or start a gratitude practice.

The point is to take time to look after your own wellbeing and do things that make you feel healthy and fulfilled. This is especially important during times when you have a lot of external stressors, such as during fertility treatment.

Try mindfulness

Mindfulness can be defined as a focus on what you’re experiencing right now, without judgment, as opposed to letting your mind wander to anxieties about the past and future. It sounds like a simple task, but that does not make it easy, especially if you are used to multitasking.

Think of mindfulness as a muscle that needs repeated use to get strong. Meditation can help you build this skill. In time, you will see it becomes much easier to be present. But mindfulness is not only practiced in the lotus position on a meditation cushion. You can also practice learning to be present in the current moment while you go about your daily life routine.

Some examples: If you find yourself stressing about upcoming fertility procedures, try to focus on the cup of tea you’re making and its sensations. Try to be fully present with friends rather than thinking about your to-do list. Think of your mind as a computer screen with too many tabs open — imagine closing down all the pages except for the current one and focusing on the task at hand.

Find a (healthy) distraction

Fertility treatment can feel all-consuming. Redirecting your focus to work or other projects can give you a break from overthinking while you complete your work each day and foster a sense of accomplishment to boost your self-esteem and confidence.

One study looked at the effect of various coping strategies for managing infertility-related psychological issues in infertile patients, including:

  • Seeking social support
  • Avoidance
  • Maintaining a positive attitude
  • Problem-solving

The results were surprising, indicating that avoidant coping behaviors could buffer the negative effects of infertility-related stress, while problem-solving approaches actually exacerbated certain stressors.

Get the right (amount of) information

You have a multitude of information about fertility at your fingertips, and it can help to learn about the next steps in your fertility journey.

However, it is also important to note that too much information can be overwhelming. Plus, a lot of info on the internet won’t apply to your individual situation — or might be straight up inaccurate. When in doubt, enlist the help of your care team to direct you to the reliable sources of information related to your current challenges.

And if constant Googling is wearing you out, try to put your phone down and trust the experts that are managing your treatment.

Seek out professional fertility counseling

Some therapists and counselors specialize in working with clients who are experiencing infertility, pregnancy loss, and related issues. It may help to seek a fertility counselor who already has background knowledge about how infertility treatment works.

Many fertility clinics will be able to recommend fertility-related counseling and support to help you through this journey. You could consider getting counseling individually, as a couple, or both.

How to talk about infertility with your loved ones

A 2021 study looked at the associations between infertility-related stress and family cohesion, and found that family support plays a significant role in reducing this form of stress. Talking about infertility with loved ones can be a great step forward in helping your mental wellbeing, and creating a circle of support, during this time. However, it can be tricky to navigate the conversations around infertility in a way that doesn’t add to anxiety for you.

Here are some tips to help you on your way:

  • Think about who you decide to open up to, and consider which family members will be most supportive on this journey. Share your thoughts with your partner so you are on the same page.
  • Decide how much information you are planning to share and how much support you would like in return.
  • Don’t be afraid to set honest boundaries with your loved ones. This could include asking family not to mention adoption or stories of “miracle babies,” or not to bombard you with the results of their personal research. It could also include asking them to give you a heads up before talking about others’ pregnancies or babies.
  • Be clear about what you need from your family. That could be someone to listen, someone to distract you, or more hands-on support like company to and from fertility-related appointments.

Remember that mental health can play a vital role in your overall health. Whether it’s carrying out self-care or spending time with a professional, make sure you prioritize your well-being when trying to conceive.

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