Managing the stress of infertility - part I

In Part I of this article on managing the stress of infertility, Anya Sizer of The London Women’s Clinic discusses the stress issues women with infertility problems face, and outlines the techniques that can be used to help manage this particular type of stress.

Fertility issues are stressful

  • “Just relax and you will get pregnant"
  • “My cousin was going through adoption when she got pregnant naturally"
  • “You should be grateful for what you’ve got already"
  • “Cheer up love, it might never happen ...”

I once compiled a list of the most unhelpful comments said to people going through infertility. It was a long and deeply annoying list. Yet the sad truth is that people facing fertility issues almost certainly will be stressed, purely by definition of the circumstances they find themselves in.

A leading psychologist from the United States, Dr Alice Domar, has reworked the stress point reading scale to incorporate infertility for the first time. Not surprisingly, for those of us who have been through it, the scale places infertility somewhere between cancer and bereavement.

Fertility issues are stressful and no amount of trying to put on a brave face is going to help. The starting point for dealing with stress should be seen as stress management rather than stress removal. It is the acknowledgement that infertility is incredibly tough and needs care and attention.

Stress management

Stress management starts with two key concepts:

  • Care can become learned behaviour
  • Stress management will always be specific to each person

Using learned behaviour

Recent research shows that there is a science to the art of compassion, whether to yourself or others. And, as with other learned behaviour, we can proactively teach ourselves to be kinder. Indeed the brain can literally imprint new neurological pathways and we can learn to live more compassionately as described in the book “The Science of Compassion” by Paul Gilbert.

One of the essential components is to realise that we can change our behaviour, and that small acts towards developing a more compassionate nature over time can make a huge difference. Proactively working towards a more compassionate state of mind will have long term effects both for ourselves and others. To be able to look at how kind we are and how we can best look after ourselves during fertility issues is a proactive, not a reactive coping technique.

Personalising it

We are all unique individuals and both our reaction to stress and the tools to help ourselves cope will be personal. I encourage patients to keep a stress log and to record what happened physically and psychologically, the triggers, and what helped. This information can then be used to determine what support is needed.

Types of support

Support falls into one of three categories: physiological, practical or psychological.

Physiological support includes controlled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, physical exercise, distraction techniques and focusing techniques.

Practical support includes identifying how you can help yourself, what types of help you think might help, who can you turn to for help, and what does and does not work for you.

Psychological support includes keeping a journal on how you feel, using mnemonics such as WDINRN (what do I need right now) to help you cope with certain situations, keeping a gratitude diary that focuses on the positives of your situation, and the ‘own best friend’ technique, which is about applying the same expectations to yourself as you would to your best friend.

Infertility is one of the toughest issues a woman can face, and stress is an inevitable part of that journey. By using a few of the stress management techniques, the journey is a little more bearable.

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