Infertility – The Emotional Side

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I have been doing Infertility Counselling with patients of the Barbados Fertility Centre (BFC) for the past 10 years. In that time, I have worked with thousands of individuals and couples who have shared their struggles with me. Today, I’d like to share some of the most common emotional reactions with you and to discuss some general tips for coping with the emotional pain associated with infertility.

The British Infertility Counselling Association reminds us, “Having a child is a major life event for any individual or couple. When this proves difficult to achieve and requires some form of medical intervention, it may become a major life challenge.” The use of assisted reproductive technologies touches upon social, ethical, emotional and cultural issues, which can complicate the decision-making process. Following are some reactions that patients struggling with infertility have shared via social media:

These are just a few examples of the multitude of emotional reactions. The one word I connect with most as a therapist is GRIEF. Each and every period, each failed attempt is a loss, and that brings with it the shock and denial, anger, bargaining and depression that come with grief. In time, you’ll move towards acceptance, but the process can’t be rushed and you can’t prevent yourself from experiencing painful and unwanted emotions.

Many patients have also expressed feelings of isolation. When others around you seem to fall pregnant so easily, you feel as if you are the only person in the world who can’t! It can feel like a very lonely struggle.

Bitterness is also common. Every invitation to a baby shower or birthday party brings up feelings of loss. Every event you attend with other parents is tough; get a group of parents together and it seems all they’re able to talk about is their children. When you’re the only non-parent in the group, those conversations are excruciating!

And of course infertility can have an impact on our romantic relationships, our marriages. Our sex lives lose all spontaneity, and this impacts our connection with our partners.

And stagnation! Don’t you feel stuck sometimes? Don’t know if or how to plan vacations, moves, home renovations, or anything else in your life because you’re unsure as to if or when you’ll be pregnant, or maybe you’ll need to save that money for another IVF cycle…

Negative feelings cannot be avoided. But you can learn to cope; to manage them in such a way that you’ll be able to stick with it until you achieve your goal. As such, at BFC we often recommend counselling to help you address all possible implications of this decision before proceeding with treatment. Counselling aims to provide direction and help improve clarity in the decision-making process. Most of us will initially turn to family or friends for guidance, but there are times when we choose not to seek their involvement in a particular decision, or times when these usual sources of support are too involved to provide an objective view. At these times, it can be helpful to seek the assistance of a qualified professional in a confidential setting.

In addition to the standard implications counselling sessions, a lot of my work with patients at BFC comes from an approach known as Mind/Body medicine. This is a treatment approach that complements conventional medicine. The two work in harmony to provide a greater level of well-being than either might achieve alone. With it’s focus on relaxation, stress management, lifestyle choices, cognitive restructuring, and self-care, Mind/Body medicine could be part of the solution to your infertility struggles.

The coping strategies that follow are NOT designed to help you get pregnant. You will need to work with your medical team towards that goal. What I intend to do today is offer some suggestions to assist you in taking back control of your lives. Each of you will need to decide for yourselves how much you are willing to put into this – infertility treatment is not only emotionally draining, but also expensive and time-consuming. At some point, some of you may decide to redefine your future, and that’s ok.

But for now, I want to encourage you to remain goal-oriented. Decide on your goal: is that to have a child or family? Use your own words and state your goal positively. Work towards accepting that your path toward that goal may not be quick, easy or how you imagined it would be. And then commit to taking action. Explore ALL possible avenues. You may be a good candidate for IUI or IVF, but don’t stop there. Start to think about whether donor eggs or donor sperm might be good options for you. Have you considered adoption as an option? Look into EVERYTHING; even if you ultimately decide not to go that route, it helps to have the information.

I mentioned earlier how isolating the process can feel for many individuals and couples. Please remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. Find a friend, a counsellor or a support group you can share your thoughts and feelings with. It helps to talk about it. And tell others what you need from them. Friends and family members who have not experienced difficulties conceiving themselves will have a hard time understanding what you’re going through. Their attempts to help can sometimes be quite unhelpful. Help them to help you by clearly communicating your needs. Try saying to them, “Please just listen and don’t try to give me advice,” or “I just need a hug.” Whatever it is you need from them, that’s ok. And in most cases, they’ll be glad you asked. They are also feeling at a loss as to how to help.

Infertility is definitely a struggle; there’s no doubt about that. But your struggle doesn’t need to become your identity. You can ensure this by setting boundaries:
– Set boundaries with others by giving yourself permission to say:  “No thank you.” To those baby shower and children’s party invitations. You don’t have to give an excuse, just explain that you aren’t able to make it.
– And set boundaries around your treatment by continuing to live your life: Spend time with friends and family. Do things you enjoy.

Finally, I want to encourage you to take care of your mind and body:
– Get enough Sleep.
– Eat well and often enough, try not to overdo those comfort foods of highly processed carbohydrates and sugars as they can impact our moods.
– Get some Exercise, if for no other reason than the release of endorphins – your mind and body could do with some ‘feel-good’ chemicals right now!
– Engage in some self-nurturing activities; whatever that might mean for you – a warm bath, a trip to the beach, listening to music, spending time with friends, etc.
– As suggested earlier, try to take a task-oriented approach to problems; set your goals and commit to taking action toward those goals.
– Distract yourself from negative preoccupations.

And whatever happens, please remember that – with or without a baby, you are valuable, you are a whole person, and you matter!

Lauren Marshall, M.A.
Clinical Psychologist

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