IVF treatment is definitely a stressful and intense period in life for patients. They invest a lot of their precious time, money and psychological capital into treatment which – unfortunately – works the first time only in a minority of cases. For many, it is a long struggle full of loss – from failed attempts, through negative pregnancy tests, to miscarriages. No wonder it is said that going through fertility treatment unsuccessfully can feel equal to going through chemotherapy – they’re just at the same level of depression.
It is crucial to remember that every infertility case is different and while some patients may need only one IVF cycle to get pregnant, others (and there are more of them!) will have to go through several attempts to realise their dream of parenthood. Fertility treatment can be unpredictable and it is extremely important to be prepared both mentally and physically for everything it entails.
Infertility diagnosis and IVF treatment always take emotional toll on patients. A lot of them perceive infertility as a loss, and processing loss is painful and emotionally gruelling. The famous “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) perfectly map out the journey fertility patients have to go through – and emotional distress rarely ends even after a successful pregnancy. It is especially true for patients who undergo egg/sperm donation treatment. They cannot stop asking themselves questions such as e.g.“will my child be disappointed when they learn the truth” or “what will be my feelings towards my baby”. All these doubts and uncertainties are highly confusing and lead to even more challenges and concerns.
Patients under stress typically have physical symptoms such as e.g. insomnia, headaches, fatigue or gastrointestinal symptoms. They also experience irritability, worry, sadness, hopelessness, confusion and anger. If these symptoms continue, they may even result in health-related problems, like an increased risk of hypertension or decreased immune function. And although all of this is perfectly understandable and common on such an emotionally-demanding journey, it is also crucial for IVF patients to take care of themselves mentally. One should always try to figure out their feelings first and deal with them before taking on even more challenges related to IVF treatment.
Infertility is a brutal roller coaster of emotions and – unfortunately – it may have a destroying effect on the relationships with a partner, family and friends.
Although these are women who undergo most of tests and medical procedures, men do feel stressed and emotionally drained as a result of infertility diagnosis and IVF treatment as well. However, male and female perception of the problem and the reactions to it may be completely different. It often happens that couples may feel out of step with each other. They don’t understand each other anymore and do not work as a team. But still, they have to make efforts to understand each other’s needs and remain close and connected – in spite of different points of view. A good idea is to do enjoyable activities together and schedule time for each other every day – when you can e.g. go for walk and talk through everything that happened to you that day. However, it is important not to devote all your free time together to discussing your IVF treatment. In fact, you may arrange 20-30 minutes for it a day and no more – this, according to psychologists, is the best way to minimise the negative impact IVF experience may have on your life as a couple.
When it comes to one’s family and friends, the misunderstandings may result from the fact that other people just do not realise what IVF patients are going through. It may happen that people who just want to be helpful, say hurtful or intrusive things completely unintentionally.
In such a case, it is good to simply tell others what you need – give them some directions on how to talk to you and how to help you in this one of the hardest periods of your life. Additionally, think carefully about what you want to disclose to other people. It is especially important when it comes to egg donation treatment – remember that if you tell many people about your experience, you will have to make sure to tell your babies early in life about their birth story. You do not want them to learn their origins from strangers, do you?
Apart form the support of one’s closest friends and relatives, it is also good to have a regular opportunity to process all treatment-related information and emotions – most preferably with a trained infertility counsellor. Counselling is a highly recommended step in IVF treatment, allowing a patient to talk openly about their problems and feelings in a confidential environment. It helps to understand all the implications of treatment and offers support when it is necessary – e.g. after an unsuccessful IVF cycle.
Infertility and challenges of IVF treatment – as all traumatic experiences in life – may bring about depressive symptoms. And the worst thing to do in depression is to isolate oneself form the outer world. Joining a support group – offline or online – can be a massive help in such a situation. It is worth to look for local infertility support groups, either with fertility clinics or some non-profit organisations and associations. Nowadays one can also find a lot of emotional support online, either at online forums or Instagram /Twitter/Facebook communities related to infertility treatment. No matter which option you choose, being able to talk about your experiences with other people going through the same process is of great therapeutic value. Other IVF patients can also provide you with invaluable information and tried methods for keeping calm and carrying on through your stressful times.
In order not to be consumed by negative emotions, IVF patients can also start to train their minds in order to feel a sense of overall wellbeing. This can be achieved with relaxation exercises (such as yoga) or with meditation. Nowadays there are a lot short meditation techniques that are easy to learn thanks to e.g. reliable meditation apps, such as HeadSpace or Calm. They help to reduce stress and anxiety and ensure more restful sleep.
Mediation can also be helpful in practicing mindfulness. The goal of mindfulness is to focus one’s awareness of the present moment. By doing this, we prevent ourselves from thinking about the past which cannot be changed and the future which is still unknown. Thanks to it, patients can relate to their infertility from a new perspective – without judging and blaming themselves.
Complementary therapies such as acupuncture or reflexology can be also helpful in making IVF patients feel relaxed and less stressed. However, it is important to realise that all these activities will not increase the likelihood of pregnancy or guarantee the success of IVF treatment. Their role is to make patients happier and help them get through treatment with a positive mindset – and as such, their positive impact is indisputable.
Although nowadays a lot is being said about IVF and all its possible treatment options, there is still not enough awareness of the ways patients can support their minds during this physically demanding and mentally draining time. And the truth is one should never ignore the role of the emotional support in one’s own fertility journey – as it is not only your body but also our mind that needs to be treated and cared for. In order to improve their treatment experience and achieve the most important goal, IVF patients must realise that their minds and bodies are connected. In other words – it is simply not possible to ignore one and expect the other to work efficiently.