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Beyond the Physical: Mental Health on Your Fertility Journey
In Psychology Today, Dr. Georgia Witkin Ph.D., author of The Chronicles of Infertility: How to Strive and Thrive, discusses the importance of mental health while dealing with infertility.
First, the upside about mental health and fertility. Psychological stress does not cause infertility. Although a Celmatix study found that more than 70 percent of women believe mental health problems can have a negative effect on fertility, there is no science behind this belief. Even when your cycle is affected by physical stress (like a marathon) or emotional stress (like overworking), the disturbance is time-limited and self-correcting.
Infertility is usually related to age, underlying physical conditions, or behaviors that temporarily interfere with fertility, so stop blaming yourself.
Now, the downside about mental health and fertility. Although stress doesn’t cause infertility, infertility often causes stress. Multiple studies have found that infertility in both women and men often increase stress, depression, and anxiety. In fact, recurrent pregnancy loss (RPL) can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, here are some coping suggestions that might help you on your fertility journey.
Give yourself a mental health check-up - Look for the three “D” s. They are often signs of psychological overload:
- Disorganization - The pen was in your hand and now it’s gone from the face of the earth. Even worse, when you spot it, it’s right in front of you.
- Decision-making difficulties - Not the big decisions, like who to vote for, but the little decisions, like what to order for lunch.
- Dependency needs - Wishing for others to take care of daily life we used to enjoy.
If you have even one of these symptoms, its time to make your mental health a priority and try the strategies that follow.
- Focus on the present. You can’t change the past, so stop reliving the “should have's” and “could have's”. You can’t control the future either, so stop pre-living worries and anxieties. Try to stay in the present because it’s the only place you can really choose to behave in ways that can reduce stress and anxiety.
Practice self-care. That means treating yourself even half as well as you treat your family and friends. Get enough sleep, exercise, time alone, and time with others to make yourself feel cared for. Practice being your own best friend!
- Talk to yourself. Give yourself a pep-talk because what we say to ourselves is powerful. If others remind you that there’s always a way to build a family, it usually has little or no effect. But if you remind yourself that there’s always a way, your mood will usually lift. Try it!
- Talk to others. There are many reasons to be reluctant about discussing infertility with family, friends, or in the workplace. You may want to keep medical issues private because you don’t want unsolicited advice, you don’t want to hear everyone else’s fertility stories, or because you feel there is a stigma attached to infertility. You may worry about keeping your job or even keeping your dating options open. The result is that you may feel isolated just when you need understanding and support. Use national fertility organizations like RESOLVE, or resources from your fertility clinic for finding others to talk to in confidence. Emotions are far more manageable when they are said aloud than when they’re buzzing in your head.
- Focus on your work. As stressful and preoccupying as fertility treatments can be, work can provide an effective distraction from the persistent anxiety you may be feeling from infertility. Staying busy and active with projects can distract you, give you a sense of accomplishment, and help boost your self-esteem and confidence.
- Try cognitive restructuring. Cognition refers to thinking; restructuring refers to creating new views. Together these terms tell us that we can choose to think in a new way and the result can be new behaviors and feelings. For example, when we focus on hopeless thoughts, we convince not only ourselves but everyone around us that hope is not worth wasting energy on, and our inertia can make it true. This thought process is one of the major reasons patients drop out of fertility treatment. On the other hand, if we choose to be hopeful, we are more likely to approach problems with strategic behavior that leads to results that justify our hope – positive self-fulfilling prophecies.
- Check for Depression. Mild depression may make you feel tired and sad. More severe depression may mean frequent crying, loss of appetite, and despair. All signs of depression should be taken seriously and addressed to make sure that the suffering is alleviated as soon as possible. Whether it is triggered by hormonal therapy, recurrent pregnancy loss, treatment failure, financial or relationship stress, there is help. Speak to your physician about a referral for therapy, support, and/or medication. A change or break in fertility treatment may help, too.
You may not have control over the physical effects of fertility treatment, but you can take control over many of the psychological effects. What you think and what you do shapes what you feel, so choose thoughts and behaviors that reinforce your sense of control. Work and play will help you cope with this journey, so don't wait until you are overwhelmed. Make your mental health a priority now.