Stress is familiar to infertility patients. Some find treatment so stressful that they simply give up, others are so affected that their relationships crumble. Yet stress need not be unavoidably destructive. Liz Coward-Evans, fertility counsellor at the London Women’s Clinic offers advice on how to cope with the pressure of infertility and its treatment.
Why infertility patients suffer from stress
The need to have children is recognised as a strong natural force explained by a variety of social, biological, cultural and psychological reasons. Moreover, this need is so fundamental that when - and if - we decide to start a family we inevitably expect that we can do so whenever we choose. So when there are difficulties in conceiving, it can rapidly become a life crisis and the emotional pain with feelings of loss can be immense.
The investigation of infertility can have a number of worrisome and stressful effects on an individual or couple, the most prominent of which are:
- The medical pressure (what will the diagnosis be?)
- The emotional pressure
- The financial pressure (can we afford treatment?)
- The uncertainty of what the future holds (a life without children?)
- A sense of isolation
- Anxiety that life is out of one’s control
- Growing resentment and anger
- Feelings of inadequacy and guilt
These are all responses commonly reported by infertility patients, and responses too which are often associated with stress. Fortunately, there are many strategies, techniques and skills to learn to help cope with the pressure of these stressful situations.
How to help control stress when undergoing infertility treatment
The good news is that stress can work for you. After all, we need a certain amount of stress even to get us out of bed in the morning and on with our daily lives. The key is to stay motivated and stimulated - and this has a lot to do with how we THINK.
The visible signs
In a stressful situation, our bodies fail to cope with the high levels of adrenaline produced. We sometimes have a huge expectation of ourselves that we can cope with anything, but this, of course, is just not true. Stress can build up slowly, such that even a small event can trigger tears, or even anger, as we reach a saturation point. We may feel unwell, have butterflies, feel sweaty, breathless, hot and cold, anxious, panicky, tired. We may lose our appetite, have skin problems, or have no wish for sex.
Ten tips for dealing with stress
1. Calm the mind, relax the body
Stop and remember to breathe. Here is a healing breath:
'Sit or lie down. Do this at any time. Slowly breathe in through your nose. Hold the breath to a silent count of four. . .1-2-3-4. . . Open you mouth and slowly breathe out to a silent count from eight. . .8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Repeat this again if you feel you need to.'
You will feel instantly calmer and in control of your thoughts and feelings.
2. Get in touch with yourself
Start a journal and write down your thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, worries, goals - or do some drawings, colourings, doodles, write poetry, stories, songs, or make lists. This will help you to get in touch with what you are feeling and ease the pressure on your mind.
3. Put your life into perspective
Think about the four main aspects of your life - work, play, health, and relationships. Are they of equal importance to you? Are the different segments equally important to you? Is one segment overpowering you? What is there and what is missing?
Do you nurture all the different parts that make up your life?
Make it your aim to lead a more balanced life. Have a break at mid-day, a change of routine, and go for a walk outside. Responding to feelings of stress can help to lessen its long-term effects and build-up. Try to persuade your body to relax, which can be your first line of defence. Take a healing, relaxing breath, or simply say to yourself, 'I can handle this'.
5. Take control
Give yourself the space you need and deserve to regain control of your life. Spend some time, say an hour, thinking and being as pro-active as you can in devising ways of dealing with what may be the cause of your stress. Search for the positive and focus on that. Try to see problems as challenges. Concentrate on the present. Remember, we have a choice over what may affect us. Even situations we do not like can be tolerated with a certain degree of calm.
6. Build a support network
Emotional backup can be found in your family, partner, friends, employer, GP, counsellor, complementary therapist, or online. Make a list of who you have on board in your support network, people you can approach for help or just a chat. This will alleviate any feeling of isolation you have, and give you strength and energy.
7. Get physical
Take some exercise as part of your daily routine. You will be strengthening your heart, improving your breathing, encouraging your circulation to work efficiently - and feeling good in the process. Try walking places, running, yoga, dancing, golf, cycling, anything that gets you moving.
8. Learn some meditation and mindfulness
Meditation will help you to reach the best possible inner feeling of calm, in order to cope effectively with the problems and pressures of everyday life. You could buy a CD with some meditation or relaxation exercises. Or you can try some simple exercises listed in the box (below).
9. Get a good night’s sleep
Instead of counting sheep, try to:
- Read a book or listen to music
- Write in your journal or make lists earlier in the evening
- Avoid tea, coffee, and alcohol late in the evening
- Have a bath by candlelight with maybe a few drops of lavender oil
- Avoid a stuffy atmosphere, open a window
- Have a warm milky drink or a herbal tea before bed
10. Enjoy life
Try to enjoy life and not to get caught up in the whirlwind of stress. Try to be happy about the present, and let the future simply unfold. Try to be positive and optimistic, calm and relaxed, saying to yourself that, whatever happens, you will still be OK. Use all your coping skills and be ready to cope with any challenges that are ahead as you journey through life.
Stress management improves pregnancy rates
A study described at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine found that IVF patients who took part in a 'mind/body' programme increased their chances of pregnancy. While the stress-free programme appeared to have little effect on the outcome of a first treatment cycle, women who were trying to get pregnant a second time had a 160 per cent greater pregnancy rate than those receiving IVF treatment alone.
'This study shows that stress management may improve pregnancy rates, minimizing the stress of fertility management itself, improving the success rates of IVF procedures, and ultimately, helping to alleviate the emotional burden for women who are facing challenges trying to conceive,' said the investigator Dr Alice Domar.
Those who failed the first IVF cycle and attempted a second round of treatment benefited most from the stress management - with 52 per cent of the mind/body participants becoming pregnant versus only 20 per cent of those who doing nothing.