Stress and infertility. Infertility and stress. These words form an all too familiar pairing. Anyone who has struggled to have a baby or who has known someone struggling to have a baby is keenly aware of the ways that infertility causes stress. Sadly, you are also aware of the idea that stress causes infertility. Things you can do to take control of your fertility treatment when it otherwise feels like an out of control experience:
One of the first social tasks that you encounter when going through infertility is figuring out what you want and need to tell others about your experience. In decades gone by, people tended to be very private about the difficulties they had having a baby or expanding their family. Sadly, they suffered alone and in silence.
Times have changed and somewhere around the 1980’s or so, infertility came out of the shadows. Celebrities and others began to place their childbearing struggles in the public light and in so doing, to lift the burdens of shame and isolation. It is now socially acceptable and familiar to tell others that you are going through IVF or having fertility related surgery. The questions these days include, “How much information do I/we want to share with others?” and “How much privacy do I/we want to maintain?”
I encourage my clients to see themselves as wise managers of information. The key, it seems, is to step ahead of your family, friends and colleagues and think about what you feel they need to know. For example, you may well decide that you want family and close friends to know that you are trying to have a baby and receiving medical care in that effort. This much information will spare you questions about whether you want to have children or even accusations that you are “waiting too long.” Along a similar note, you may want your employer and perhaps a few close colleagues to know the basic reason why you need to miss work for medical appointments.
There is a line between enough information and too much information and one way to keep stress in check is to identify that line and hold firmly to it. This isn’t always easy and you may be tempted to “over share.” After all, family and friends care about you and will ask questions. Touched by their interest and concern, you may find yourself offering details. “We are starting an IVF cycle soon.” “We just had an egg retrieval and they got 18 eggs.” “We have 4 PGS tested embryos.”
There is nothing wrong with sharing information as long as you think through the potential downside of each sharing conversation. How will you feel, for example, if others know when you are having a pregnancy test following an IVF cycle? If the news isn’t good, will it help to have others know or simply make it worse? And if the news is good, do you want others knowing it when you feel “only five minutes pregnant?”
Again, my point in designating you a manager of information is not to suggest that there is a right or wrong amount of information to be shared, but rather, for you to see yourself capable of managing that information. Stress regarding what others know will remain but will be greatly reduced with you taking charge.
“Should I eliminate sugar from my diet? Gluten? Dairy? “ “Should I seek acupuncture, begin meditating, avoid running?” “Is caffeine ok?” “Do I need to eat pineapple every day?” “Should I take off some time from work during my IVF cycle?” “And what do I do about my friend’s baby shower—do I have to go?” These are but a few of the questions that women—and men—ask themselves during infertility. Most people want to feel that they are doing all they can to achieve a successful pregnancy., I have found that for many people, making lifestyle changes during IVF reduces stress. Sadly, for others, these changes –sought to reduce stress—may actually increase it.
Much has been written about diets that promote fertility. As you prepare for IVF you might—or might not—decide to follow “the fertility diet” recommendations. Pursuing the diet may reduce your stress because you are adding or eliminating foods that impact your stress level. Or it may reduce stress simply because it offers you the opportunity to “do something” to feel that you are helping achieve success. Alternatively, the diet may prove a burden. You may find that changing your diet makes you feel that you are held hostage by your infertility. The diet may feel too restrictive, too devoid of familiar comfort foods, too costly and/or too much to have to think about.
I encourage people going through IVF to follow what they believe to be a healthy, nutritionally sound diet. For some, this may mean pursuing a “fertility diet” but for many what feels right is a mix of fresh fruits and vegetables and grains with a heathy dose of “treats” and “comfort foods” sprinkled in.
Acupuncture, Meditation And Other Mind-Body Approaches
Many reproductive endocrinologists and others caring for infertility patients suggest augmenting treatment with some mix of acupuncture, meditation, yoga. With an eye on stress, I see this, like diet, as a personal decision. Many report feeling relaxed and at peace following acupuncture and they make it an integral part of their IVF cycle. However, for others the cost, time spent, fear of needles etc may make acupuncture a cause rather than reliever of stress. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with mind body medicine and with non-Western approaches to fertility treatment so that you can make informed decisions.
Life goes on while you are going through IVF and one of your challenges is to determine when to participate and when to step onto the sidelines. Most women struggling to have a baby will say that baby showers are exceptionally difficult and many choose to avoid them. When they do, they call upon their “information management” skills and find suitable ways to explain why they won’t be there. However, looking through the lens of stress, you may come to a different conclusion: it may feel easier to attend the shower than to feel you are missing being among friends and/or family. The important thing is not whether you attend or do not attend a shower but that you feel in charge of your own decision making and not coerced by what you fear others will say and think.
As I have acknowledged throughout this blog, stress is part of the infertility experience. I cannot imagine anyone undergoing IVF and not feeling stressed. However, to the extent that you can take charge of your experience, you have a good shot at reducing stress. Much about IVF and its outcome is outside your control but there are things you can do to help you claim and retain a sense of control.
Ellen is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in infertility, adoption, gamete donation and surrogacy. She is the author or co-author of six books, most recently Having Your Baby Through Egg Donation. Ellen can be reached by clicking here.