The webinar is hosted by Lisa Schuman, Director of the Center for Family Building and Director of Mental Health Services at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut. According to the saying ‘You don’t know that you don’t know’, she and her group (www.familybuilding.net) offer a lot of information to people undergoing fertility treatment. They lead many counselling projects and have a whole program created for patients in order to make the fertility journey easier for them.
Lisa has worked at several fertility clinics for over 23 years and during this time (as well as during her own fertility journey) she’s made some valuable observations. She admits that there are many things that have changed for the better in terms of fertility treatment: medical procedures and processes that are much more automated and more patients’ friendly than 20 years ago.
But unfortunately there are still some holes in the industry and patients do not get enough information and psychological support they need. Like, for example, is there a relationship between anxiety and depression and infertility? Does stress cause infertility?And, on the other hand, does infertility cause depression/stress? Answers to all these questions are really anticipated by patients and during the webinar, Lisa proceeds to dive into them in details.
First of all, Lisa starts with dealing with some harmful myths. No matter how many times doctors tell people they’re not responsible for their infertility, women still do feel guilty and responsible for it. That’s the biggest misconception and it has never been proven that any type of anxiety or depression influences a person’s infertility. However, infertility and infertility treatment are associated with stress. Going through the treatment unsuccessfully can feel equal to going through chemotherapy as they’re at the same level of depression. As you go through the treatment you get more and more depressed. It triggers the so-called ‘Fight or Flight’ response – a psychological reaction in our body that occurs to an actual or potential threat or danger. As a result, the cortisol levels (the stress hormone) build up in our system and we experience different symptoms of stress.
Lisa differentiates three types of stress-related symptoms: physical, psychological or behavioral. Typically people have physical symptoms such as: insomnia, headaches, back pain and neck pain, fatigue, abdominal pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, shortness of breath, etc. Psychological symptoms are: irritability, worry, sadness, hopelessness, confusion, anger, forgetfulness. As all these symptoms go on, we have all these related health problems, like for example increased risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, decreased immune function and hastened aging. When you know what your own stress-related symptoms are, you can start to work on some strategies to help yourself.
According to Lisa, men and women react differently to stressful situations in their life. When men are stressed, they tend to watch TV more and drink alcohol more. They always try to fix things, get a diagnosis and move on, in other words – do things they need to do in order to help themselves. Women, on the other hand, are very different. They tend to exercise less, eat more junk food and plan for every possible scenario around the corner. All of this above is not healthy for any relationship. Couples may feel out of step with each other. They don’t understand each other anymore and don’t work as a team. They don’t have the same perception of the world anymore.
But just because people are experiencing different things, it doesn’t mean that they do not love each other. Lisa assures that it is completely normal that you do not always see eye to eye on everything. But still, you have to accept your different points of view and make efforts to understand each other’s needs and remain close. It’s good to do enjoyable activities together, go for walk regularly, try to stay connected. Couples should not let this experience pull them apart but they should try to schedule pleasurable activities together. And when it comes to fertility treatment discussions, they should not last longer than 20 minutes. This way it is possible to minimise the way this experience influences the whole life and poisons everything.
Lisa all the time highlights the basics: we cannot control the external world, we can only control what’s going inside of us and how we are going to respond to the outside world. In fact, there are a lot of things you can do to help yourself in this one of the most stressful periods of your life.
First of all, there is counselling. It is highly important as you have regular opportunity and place to process all the information about the treatment, its next steps and possible ways to manage your relationship-related problems. A person should not isolate themselves with depression. You should get out to the world, talk with others and be open.
You can also start to train your mind with meditation, yoga and relaxation exercises in order not be ‘hijacked’ by your emotions. There are a lot short meditation techniques that are easy. In fact, there are a lot of helpful apps, like FertiCalm, HeadSpace or Calm. They are all guided and easy to use mediations. Lisa suggests to try them to feel a sense of relaxation and and overall wellbeing. If you feel that meditation is too hard for you, can turn to yoga, called moving meditation. It is also a good idea to start journalling – in this way get all the feelings out of your body and put it down on paper. Find a solution that works for you and don’t get down on yourself. Always respect yourself, that’s the most important rule.
Lisa also gives us some practical tips to use in everyday life. During a fertility treatment, patients are just passengers – these are doctors who prescribe a protocol and have control over the treatment. Of course it may feel frustrating because you cannot do anything about it.
That’s why it is so important to find rules and activities that are within your control and make them part of your weekly plan. When you start to incorporate them into your daily schedule, they may make you feel a little more empowered, like you’re taking your life back a little bit.
Discard, delegate or delay – when you feel your life is crazy and you have so much going on, just start discarding, delegating and delaying your responsibilities. Simply take some of them of your ‘to do’ list and delay them to the next month.
Find 5 things to feel good about every day – write them down in your journal to make them even more effective. The feeling of gratitude will help your attitude. The good things may be simple: sunshine, heart speeding at your chest, best friend you can talk to, job you love, etc.
Put a lot of good in your life – schedule some enjoyable activities along with the protocol of your treatment: theatre visit once a week, hiking, new language class twice a week, etc. It’s good to put those things in your calendar because they may motivate you lo leave home and meet people.
Follow 80/20 rule of eating well – in other words, try to eat well at least 80% of the time. Remember that little bit is better than nothing. It’s helpful not just to your body but also to your state of mind.
Do more exercise – and do it in any way you can: you can walk, swim, work in your garden. Just do something to get outside and help yourself just a little during the treatment process. Generally, it’s good to find enjoyable ways to feel productive and not isolate yourself.
Finally, Lisa advises how to successfully ‘manage the damage’ with friends and family and keep relationships in tact. It may happen that people who just want to be helpful, say hurtful or intrusive things to you. The reason for this is that they simply do not understand what you’re going through and how hard this experience might be. Simply because they haven’t been there.
Lisa suggests to always tell people what you need – give them some directions, especially to those who really care about you and whom you may want to have in your life later. Tell them you’re going through a lot at the moment and you do not want to go into details right now. However, if you have the news, you will tell them. Think carefully about what you want to disclose to others – and remember that if you tell many people about your egg donation experience, you have to make sure to tell your babies early in life about their birth story. You don’t want others to do it for you, do you?
According to Lisa, you should never hesitate to share your real feelings with your friends and family. Tell them openly that you are not able now to e.g. attend baby showers or others’ kids’ birthday parties, but you love all of them and wish them all the best. Then people will not feel offended, they will know it’s nothing personal.
Summing up, always remember that you have more control that you think. Although you feel helpless, you should use all the skills and methods that can help improve your treatment experience, your relationship and help you feel better overall. All of these activities will not only make you healthier and happier but they can also help you get through treatment and achieve your most important goal.
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