More than 6 million women in the United States have difficulty getting or staying pregnant, and they are increasingly open about how hard that can be — especially online. But while infertility isn’t the taboo topic it once was, mental health support still isn’t what it needs to be for the subject. Research shows, for example, that depression levels in patients dealing with infertility can be comparable to those seen in patients dealing with cancer.
So how do you take care of yourself when you’re grappling with something so grueling, so personal, and still so misunderstood? Here are five simple self-care tips to try:
1. Tell yourself — and others — that it’s OK to feel stressed.
The connection between stress and fertility struggles is complex and something that reproductive experts are still trying to understand, in part because there simply isn’t a great way to study it. But that probably won’t stop friends and family members from opining that stress causes (or at least contributes to) infertility.
“It’s very counter-productive,” said Dr. Suleena Kalra, an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the University Of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “It’s just kind of one of the worst things you can tell a couple who is trying to do everything right ... that if they would just relax, it would happen.”
Remind yourself — and anyone who shares an unsolicited “so and so stopped worrying and she finally had a baby” anecdote — that there isn’t a straight, causal line between stress and infertility, and it’s perfectly normal to feel stressed out while you struggle to grow your family. Telling yourself that — and empowering yourself to shut down anyone who insists it is the root of your issues — is a small act of self-care.
2. Ask yourself: Is this a fact or a fear?
When you’re dealing with something like infertility, which in so many ways is totally outside of your control, it’s typical to feel like your mind is constantly racing, and like it is always going, going, going to the worst-case scenario, said Pamela Kelberg, a clinical social worker and member of the Penn Fertility Wellness Team. She encourages patients to ask themselves whether they’re focused on a fact or a worry.
“It’s helpful to ask themselves, over and over again, ‘What do I know?’” she said — as opposed to what are you simply worrying about. Is the thing you’re fixating on a hypothetical fear? Bring yourself back, then, to the most recent information you got from your trusted health care providers, and try to stay focused on the facts you’re facing, rather than your worries.
3. Stay away from babies and pregnant women — and don’t beat yourself up about it.
“There is no nobility in forcing yourself to attend a baby shower when you are suffering,” Erin Tierno, a clinical social worker and founder of Online Therapy NYC, who specializes in fertility-related issues. “Give yourself permission to opt out until such time as you have the capacity to consciously hold the validity of your pain alongside of positive feelings for your loved one [or] friend’s family-building success.”
Tierno said women often work so hard to try and feel happy for others that they inadvertently end up attacking and shaming themselves for feeling jealous or sad. Those are totally normal reactions to have. If you can’t face a baby shower, don’t go. If you are having a hard time seeing friends’ newborn photos on Instagram and Facebook, take a break. That’s not selfishness; it’s self-care.
4. Set clear limits around fertility talk.
Yes, it helps to have plenty of time to talk about what you’re going through with your partner and any friends and family you’ve chosen to confide in. But it can also be really helpful to set aside time when you make a conscious effort not to talk about it.
“Call it a fertility break,” urged Kelberg. “That can be a weekend off. Or you say let’s take an hour, let’s take a walk, let’s see if we can set aside some time not to have the same conversation.”
Resolve, the national infertility association, suggests the 20-minute rule, where you say you’re not going to talk about it for more than 20 minutes on any given night.
5. Don’t go it alone.
Every expert who spoke to HuffPost for this story emphasized how isolating infertility can be — and how valuable it can be for women to connect with others who really get it. Is that a support group? A therapist who specializes in this field? Maybe just a friend who is a really great listener and who helps you feel less emotionally depleted.
Tierno recommends checking out Resolve or the American Society of Reproductive Medicine as jumping-off points for finding mental health experts who focus on this area and who are up on the most recent research.
“When people feel less alone — and when they see other people who are on this journey — I think that helps them feel hope,” Kalra said. “And that is such an important piece.”