May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While mental health has become a focal point for many in the past year, the stigma and silence continue, especially on the path to parenthood. Family building is an incredibly stressful experience; 55% of people feel infertility is more stressful than unemployment and 61% feel it is more stressful than divorce. That’s why Progyny hosted a webinar dedicated to prioritizing mental health on your fertility journey.
Prioritizing Your Mental Health During Your Fertility Journey.
- Alice Domar, Executive Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health and the Director of Mind/Body Services at Boston IVF
- Mollie Walker, Co-founder of Tennessee Fertility Advocates
- Georgia Witkin, Head of Member Services Development at Progyny, Assistant Professor of OB-GYN and Reproductive Sciences and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mount Sinai
Importance of Mental Health
The last year has shown as us that when our ability to predict or control our future goes down, our stress levels go up. That’s why now more than ever, we have to check in with ourselves to make sure we’re doing okay. However, those dealing with fertility challenges not only have had to deal with the uncertainties of COVID but also the uncertainties of fertility treatment.
Infertility and Mental Health
Research has shown that women facing infertility have comparable levels of depression and anxiety to women facing cancer, AIDS/HIV, and heart disease. And although discussing infertility has become less taboo in recent years, there is plenty of work to do to continue destigmatizing it.
A more recent study looked at infertility patients’ reactions to treatments postponed because of COVID-19—66% reported infertility remained the largest stressor in their lives, causing them more distress than the global pandemic. It is no wonder that therapy calls suddenly tripled as well.
The truth of the matter is this: infertility is hard, but you are not alone.
You Are Not Alone
It is common for infertility patients to feel ashamed, embarrassed, and alone. But you are never alone. This is why it is essential to remain aware of your mental state and check in on yourself. Going through infertility can be one of the hardest things an individual or couple faces, and you want to make sure you remain supportive of yourself, even when it can quickly feel like everything is your fault (trust us, it’s not!).
The Impact on Relationships
Infertility is emotionally taxing and there are many reasons relationships can get strained. Waiting for results, financing treatment, balancing work and office visits, and dealing with the side effects of medications can all add stress to your interpersonal relationships. Sometimes family members and friends don’t understand or aren’t sure what to do. Often, the person going through treatment doesn’t want advice or to hear everyone else’s story, so they try to go it alone.
However, going through it alone will often lead to greater stress and feelings of defeat. It is imperative to utilize your support system to the extent you are comfortable. Your loved ones may not know exactly what to say, but if you share what you need from them, you may find some support. Also, be mindful of implementing healthy boundaries for yourself. For example, throwing a baby shower for a friend when you are in the middle of a cycle may be a trigger. Instead of being the first to volunteer, you might want to take a step back and set boundaries that make you feel most safe.
The Benefits of Therapy
Knowing you should check in on yourself and communicate as openly as you’re comfortable is one thing, but finding the right words to describe your inner state can be another. For many, infertility is the first challenge they’ve faced that requires boundaries and space for self-care. Additionally, there are likely so many emotions occurring at once that it is hard to communicate everything you are experiencing. Both of these skills can be gained and expanded on in therapy. Speaking to a therapist is often the most helpful option, but sometimes the budget doesn’t cover it. Many free apps like Happify or Mind Body Group therapy can teach self-awareness and relaxation techniques to decrease anxiety. These can be especially helpful when waiting for test results, before an appointment, or any testing. Other self-care suggestions include crying, journaling, or praying.
When you can open up about your experience with infertility, it can feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. Validating and accepting your experience for whatever it might look like can relieve pressure from your daily life. Giving yourself space to process your emotions is also incredibly beneficial and is another reason therapy can be so helpful; having a professional lead you through your emotions can take off the extra pressure you might feel to “have it all figured out”.
Tips for Maintaining Your Sanity and Relationships During Your Fertility Journey
An infertility diagnosis is not your choice—infertility is a disease. Although it is common and easy to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty—you shouldn’t! No one asks for a cancer diagnosis either, but those patients aren’t likely to experience these feelings of shame or guilt, and neither should you.
These can be helpful when you are feeling on edge or are dreading an upcoming event (whether it be a test result call, going in for blood work or other tests, anticipating all the Mother Day posts, or baby showers). There are many apps to help with progressive muscle relaxation as well as guided meditation and manifestations. These can slow your heart rate, keep your breathing steady, and be a reminder to try and slow down.
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Diaphragm breathing
Our minds can be our greatest enemy. And although we can’t always control the thoughts that pop up, we can control how we respond to them or how much weight we give them.
- Challenge negative thoughts. For example, instead of believing a thought like “I’m never going to have a baby,” challenge it with something like “I’m doing everything I can.”
- Try journalling. This can help process your emotions on your own time and be good documentation of your journey
These can be helpful when dealing with others who don’t understand what you’re experiencing and can help you assert your boundaries.
- Prepare responses for invasive questions. For example, if someone asks when you and your partner are having kids, you could respond:
- “If you knew what I was going through, you wouldn’t ask that question.”
- “That’s none of your business.”
- “Kids aren’t in the cards for us right now.”
- “We’re struggling with infertility right now. In the future, when I want to talk about it, I’ll bring it up.”
- Share your needs with a close group, as well as what is not helpful. Some of these needs and triggers are hard to know immediately, so keeping open lines of communication will be helpful and allow you to share these as they come up.
- Unfollow anyone who is posting triggering content, or if it’s a friend, you can always mute their account.
Learning how to best support yourself and honor your emotions during a complicated and exhausting process is a process, usually by trial and error. These are only some suggestions and can serve as ideas on places to start when looking to check in on yourself.
Prioritizing your mental health is especially important during your fertility journey. For further emotional support resources, please Progyny’s education page.