Coping with the Stress of Infertility

Why infertility is stressful, and what you can do about it.

Infertility is a medical condition that can touch every aspect of your life -- from the way you feel about yourself, to your relationship with your partner, to your overall perspective on living. It can also be particularly stressful in that it creates a great deal of uncertainty and emotional upheaval in a couple's day-to-day world. If you've been struggling with infertility, you're probably no stranger to stress. But as overwhelming as your situation may seem at times, there are ways to reduce your anxiety. Here are 12 steps to focus attention on your mind and body -- and bring a calmer perspective to your life.

1. Acknowledge your feelings. The first step in reducing stress is to understand that what you're feeling is completely normal. Going through infertility tests and procedures month after month can be emotionally, physically, and financially draining. And feeling as if you have no control over your body -- or the ultimate outcome of your treatments -- can be stressful and debilitating as well. For many couples, wanting a biological child has been a lifelong dream. But through infertility, that dream has been shattered, or at least temporarily put on hold.

2. Share your questions and fears. As you deal with infertility, it helps to have people around who can help answer your questions, be sensitive to your feelings, and understand your fears and concerns. If there's a counselor on the fertility specialist's staff, you may want to speak with him or her, or you may want to join an infertility support group in your area. RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association (www.resolve.org) may be able to direct you to a local group. By meeting other infertile couples, you'll be assured that you're not alone. And, most of all, you'll find other like-minded people who share your problems, feelings, and concerns.

3. Allow yourself to cry and be angry. By all means, don't try to repress your feelings of anger, guilt, or sorrow. If you need to cry about the "unfairness" of another pregnancy or birth announcement, go ahead and do so. If you're angry and need to pound a pillow or hit a punching bag, go ahead and release your pent-up anger as well. If possible, try to plan a time each day when you can spend 30 to 40 minutes focusing on your feelings about infertility, and let the feelings come up. By addressing and releasing your emotions, you're likely to feel much better and have more energy to cope.

4. Allow yourself to grieve. Even though you hope to have a successful pregnancy, your unconscious mind has already begun grieving for the biological child you've not yet had. Since unresolved grief can be a major source of anxiety, you'll have to go through a period of mourning in order to feel better again. (Think of this period as "grieving a dream.") Whether you talk to your partner or to a trusted friend, or simply write down your feelings, be sure to acknowledge and work through your grief -- and then let it go.

5. Keep a journal. A journal can be a comforting friend who's never too angry, upset, or busy to listen. Best of all, it's available at 3 a.m., when you wouldn't dream of calling a friend. As you record your thoughts, you may also uncover some insights you didn't know you had.

6. Stay connected to family and friends. Another step in reducing stress is to build a bridge back to your family and close friends. Though you may feel a strong connection toward friends or acquaintances who are having fertility problems, it also helps to allow those who are closest to you to offer their love and support. If your friends and relatives are uninformed about infertility, you'll need to educate them about what you're going through. You might recommend a good book on the subject, explain how certain remarks are insensitive (even if they're unintentional), or let your loved ones know how you want to be treated. For instance, you might say, "Let me cry when I'm upset," or "I can't really talk about baby showers right now."

7. Communicate with your partner. Infertility can take a toll on a marriage, often causing unspoken resentment, feelings of inadequacy, sexual pressure, and tension between couples. What's more, a man and a woman might respond differently to the crisis, with men acting more emotionally distant and women more openly distraught. If you feel that the stress of infertility is causing a rift between you and your partner, it may help to seek out counseling. Even a few sessions with a good counselor who is knowledgeable about infertility can help you regain your footing as a couple and help you move forward again -- together.

8. Try a little tenderness. Another way to reconnect with your partner is by reestablishing intimacy in both nonsexual and sensual ways. For instance, you can make your partner a special meal or drink, buy him/her a fun present, get tickets to a concert or athletic event, or simply hug, hold hands, go for a walk, or give and receive relaxing back rubs. You can also enjoy sensual contact that doesn't lead to intercourse, by taking a shower or bath together, giving each other a massage, or stimulating each other's genitals, either manually or orally.

9. Get informed. One of the worst instigators of stress is uncertainty about the future. And if you've been through many months, if not years, of infertility treatments, you've no doubt lived with uncertainty for a fairly long time. To alleviate some of your questions (and uncertainty) about the future, it helps to actively do some research on your present situation and options. For instance, you can stay current on your medical condition and treatments, research all of your infertility options, and think about alternatives (such as adoption) and whether they would work for your family. Though you can't gaze into a crystal ball and see the future, you can arm yourself with knowledge -- and achieve a certain peace of mind for now.

10. Find ways to reduce stress. The best way to calm your anxiety and lift your spirits is to rely on tried-and-true coping strategies you've used in the past. Some people, for instance, find that taking an invigorating walk or starting a new hobby helps them release tension. Others discover that reaching out to loved ones, meditating, praying, seeing a therapist, joining a support group, exercising, doing yoga, or collecting information about their problem helps them to feel better. Still others find solace in turning a negative situation into something positive or reminding themselves to "get through one day at a time."

Experts advise that you find and plan to use at least two coping methods every day. They also suggest that you don't stop on the first day that you wake up feeling "normal." Responses to infertility tend to fluctuate from day to day; and what seems like a respite of peace and calm can be upset by the onset of a menstrual period or another baby announcement. Using stress-management techniques on an ongoing basis, however, can help prevent anxiety from getting out of hand.

11. Learn to breathe. Another good way to calm down is by practicing deep-breathing techniques, either alone or with your spouse. One exercise involves sitting comfortably, with your eyes closed, and taking long, slow, deep breaths. Breathe in and out through your nose (or in through your nose and out through your mouth), filling your diaphragm and chest with air. Feel the pleasure of filling yourself up slowly and calmly, then releasing the air. Try this exercise for five minutes whenever you're anxious, or with your spouse before talking about infertility. Being relaxed can make the conversation between the two of you feel less tense and more focused.

12. Watch your diet. Because you've spent so much time, energy, and money on infertility treatments, you may have neglected your general health. It's possible, though, that at least some of your stress and malaise may be due to health factors -- particularly your diet. If you're going through a period of tension and anxiety, try to cut down on your intake of sugar, salt, saturated fats, and white flour. You'll also want to reduce or eliminate from your diet chemical additives, alcohol, and caffeine, including colas, coffee, black tea, and hot cocoa.

In the end, there may be days when nothing seems to work, and you'll still feel drained and distraught. How do you get through these moments? Anticipate that times like these will occur, and try to accept them as best as you can. Also take comfort in knowing that the coping skills and stress-management methods that you're learning now will hold you in good stead for years to come -- and may even prepare you for parenthood!

Sources: RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association; American Society for Reproductive Medicine; MayoClinic.com; The Couple's Guide to Fertility by Gary S. Berger, MD, Marc Goldstein, MD, and Mark Fuerst

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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