You’ve been struggling with infertility and want a baby so badly that you have to cross the street to avoid every pregnant woman you encounter, or when a friend announces a pregnancy you vacillate between the need to congratulate her and the very real desire to scream.
Coping with infertility is frequently compared to dealing with cancer when it comes to levels of stress experienced by the woman or couple. Besides seeking medical help, what else can you do to keep stress levels at a tolerable level? Here are some suggestions:
1. Get educated. For most women, understanding the treatment process and the real chances for pregnancy help return some sense of control in an arena when everything just feels completely out of control. I try to engage my patients in an ongoing dialogue during the evaluation as well as the treatment process. I also try to maintain a realistic understanding of the odds for pregnancy –whether a woman is trying naturally, artificial insemination or IVF—as the chances vary significantly based on the woman’s age and health history. If the woman has a partner, I also try to engage that partner in the process so they can work more as a team to combat infertility.
2. Consider meeting with a therapist (clinical social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist) specifically trained in helping women and couples facing infertility. Not only can cognitive behavioral therapy help alleviate anxiety and distress surrounding infertility, but it also might help with pregnancy chances. Here is a study from the British Medical Journal that backs this up with some interesting findings: (http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/5/1/e006592.full.pdf).
3. Stop beating yourself up: I frequently explain to patients that infertility is not their fault: age, genetics and many unexplained factors contribute to this health issue afflicting even the most health-conscious and high-functioning individuals. Nora Spielman, LCSW, a private practice psychotherapist in NYC emphasizes to her patients that “there is no magic pill that will make the stress go away, so while they should do what they can to mitigate it for their own comfort, it is an unavoidable part of this process so try to allow, accept, and forgive it.” But does stress adversely affect infertility? I often say to patients that, if stress was a major cause of infertility, no one in the modern era would get pregnant. The majority of studies examining this question have not been able to show any significant effect of psychologic stress on pregnancy rates.
4. Meditate and breathe. Take a few minutes out of your stressed-out, frantic day packed with work, home life and fertility treatments. Easy to follow apps like the Meditation Studio; HeadSpace; or, a new one geared specifically towards individuals with infertility―FertiCalm ― walk you through the steps to escape the mental fray.
5. Try fertility focused acupuncture: Angela Le, L.Ac, founder of Fifth Avenue Fertility Wellness in NYC finds that “many patients who receive regular acupuncture attest to feeling a significant drop in stress levels when going through fertility treatment. Acupuncture has been shown to increase blood flow, stimulate the immune system, as well as the release of serotonin and endorphins. Getting acupuncture on the day of your embryo transfer can help not only reduce nervousness and anxiety before and after the procedure, but a helpful treatment for improving chances of conception. Lastly, acupuncture provides a weekly reprieve from the cumulative stress that builds throughout the infertility experience, and a chance to reflect on how you are dealing with the process.”
6. Sleep. Le also encourages her patients to get a good night’s sleep: “there is no replacement for sleep when we’re talking about stress and the time the body needs to repair itself each day. Not getting enough sleep causes a change in your hormones, your menstrual cycle, and your overall stress and anxiety levels that lead to even more stress. I recommend my patients get to know their bodies and understand how much sleep they need naturally, and try for that as much as possible. The quality is also very important, deep sleep requires no lights, no noise and no disruption when possible.”
7. Eat healthy—most of the time. A balanced diet (along with a safe fitness plan) that helps you maintain a healthy BMI will not only help you feel better but also may help your pregnancy odds. At the same time, it can be stressful trying to adhere to a strict exercise/diet regimen all the time, so give yourself allowance to cheat on occasion—skipping a workout or ordering some cheese fries—just not every day.
8. Lastly, but perhaps, most importantly, if you’re going through this infertility process with a partner, don’t forget about him/her. Partners experience almost as much depression and anxiety as the patient going through fertility treatments. Sharing each others’ fear and concerns privately and/or with a therapist may help lessen the stress of infertility.