Just like many newly married couples, my husband and I set a tentative timeline for having children. We wanted to wait — explore the world, fulfill personal goals and accomplishments – deciding to start a family on our terms. But as I watched my sister struggle with infertility, being diagnosed as pre-menopausal in her early thirties, I realized that getting pregnant on my timeline may not be easy.
I considered myself lucky, when after 7 months of trying, I became pregnant naturally. There was a sense of selfish relief, that I wouldn’t have to go through the same emotional toll as my sister. But as I learned that my pregnancy wasn’t viable, I began to sink into a depression compounded by grief and loss of the miscarriage, as well as the uncertainty of my fertility chances. Eventually, my long road of trying to naturally conceive led to fertility treatments and the increase in psychological challenges these treatments take on not only the wife and husband separately, but together as a couple.
I was surrounded by friends who had just had babies or were pregnant. I felt a private isolation and despair that not even my husband could comfort. I would hear the same unempathetic response to my fertility challenges: “I am sorry to hear you are struggling, but at least you know you can get pregnant,” referring to my miscarriage – causing well-meaning, but misguided pain. I began to retreat more, declining social outings and avoiding places where there would be families, particularly babies. Not to mention the stress of the actual treatments and how that affected intimacy.
In hindsight, I now realize I was suffering from infertility-related depression, common in the more than nearly 7 million women dealing with fertility struggles.
According to the National Infertility Association, research has shown that women with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as do women with cancer, heart disease and HIV+ status. And, in a “what came first, the chicken or the egg” analogy, additional studies have shown the anxiety and depression may reduce fertility rates – between those who had a history of depression prior to trying to conceive and those who suffered emotional stress while undergoing treatment.
Identifying and using coping skills to help manage anxiety and depression can go a long way in improving overall well-being during this challenging time, as well as potentially improve your fertility chances.
Mindfulness is a science-based practice that includes relaxation and breathing techniques, as well as cognitive restructuring of negative thoughts which has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in those struggling with fertility challenges. Mindfulness teaches acceptance and self-compassion and improvement in overall wellbeing.
Support groups offers an emphatic space to express your emotions with couples who share similar experiences. Participating in an infertility support group can provide an outlet for discussing your struggles, reducing isolation and improve feelings of connectedness during this uncertain journey. You can find a number of support groups in the Chicagoland area by visiting the RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association website at http://www.resolve.org/support/support-groups.html.
Seeking the help of an emphatic therapist can help to normalize and validate your feelings, as well as help identify negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse. It is normal to feel a range of emotions – sadness, anger, jealousy at others, hopelessness – and a therapy office is a safe space to express those feelings. Through talk therapy, you can may find helpful coping skills –journaling, identifying triggers, thought-stopping techniques, to reduce depressive and anxiety symptoms.
From my own experience, infertility struggles can be one of the hardest and trying times in your adult life, with intense feelings of shame, guilt, sadness and uncertainty. Identifying ways to feel more connected and understood can help in improving overall wellbeing and reduce emotional stress.
Erin Swinson, LPC, LMHCA, NCC
Center for Disease Control. (2016, July 15). Infertility (Data file). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/infertility.htm.
Dormar, A.D. (2007, June). Infertility and Stress. Retrieved from Resolve Fact Sheet Series: http://familybuilding.resolve.org/site/DocServer/15_Coping_with_the_Stress_of_Infertility.pdf;jsessionid=F475C90F54DC58BFBE0BCF1DAC5FF49A.app217a?docID=570
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