Infertility can take a terrible emotional toll on women and couples. Disappointment and heartbreak may go on for years, and by the time a patient seeks out fertility treatment their emotional reserves may be very low. Deciding to attempt IVF is a major life step, and while it brings with it a renewed sense of hope and purpose, it can be an intense experience for everyone involved. Managing the stress and the emotional rollercoaster of fertility treatment isn’t easy, but it is possible. With the right self-care and support you can thrive through this journey.
The risks and stresses of IVF: you are not alone
There is so much to think about when you are considering IVF. The potential rewards are incredible, but the accompanying risks can be daunting. When you are discussing something as personal and emotional as adding a baby to your family, the classic “pros and cons” approach to making a life-changing decision can feel totally inadequate, and yet there are some risks that you must take into account. Dealing with these dualities isn’t easy.
While IVF is extremely safe, you may worry about the possible physical side effects of the medications or procedures. What if you get sick? Will you end up having to take more time off work than anticipated? The financial commitment of IVF is considerable: how much can you really afford? It can be painful to feel that you are “putting a price” on something invaluable, and very stressful to make such an investment with an uncertain return. At the time when you are most need of support, the rigors of fertility treatment can strain even the strongest relationships. Partners may feel helpless or excluded and struggle to articulate their experience. Family members and friends can inadvertently make insensitive or hurtful comments and suggestions. Some patients wrestle with moral or religious concerns about IVF, and if their church does not approve of fertility treatments they may deal with the stress and alienation of concealing this important part of their lives from their community.
Even if you escape these possible risks, the truth is that an IVF cycle may be stressful in and of itself. The sense of unfairness and disappointment that can come from dealing with fertility troubles may actually increase rather than decrease. It may seem like a contradiction, but it is common for the experience of IVF to trigger these feelings in especially intense ways. Shame and guilt for “failing” to conceive and carry a baby without medical help may occur, even though so much of the old stigma around infertility has been overcome. You may question choices you made in the past and blame yourself for the situation. Even if you know intellectually that infertility is not your fault, feelings of inadequacy can feel inescapable and crushing.
Many patients find themselves feeling a lot of anxiety around starting the IVF cycle. Everything becomes very “real” at this point. Fear of having to self-administer shots is common, and if you already have a phobia of needles it may seem overwhelming. Taking new medications and experiencing new medical procedures isn’t easy, and the entire process of fertility treatment can seem invasive. Finally, the biggest stress for most patients is the fear that the cycle will fail. While fertility treatment can transform your chances of a successful pregnancy, it is an unfortunate fact that there are no guarantees. It is not uncommon for a woman to go through multiple attempts before getting pregnant, and with so much invested emotionally, physically, and financially the disappointment of an unsuccessful cycle can be crushing.
On top of all of this, patients can be very hard on themselves for struggling emotionally at a time when they feel they should be happy, thrilled, excited and hopeful. Just realizing that this is a common experience among IVF patients should help you feel less alone. IVF can be tough, and it is normal to struggle at times. Acknowledge your feelings and offer yourself compassion and kindness.
How to cope with the stress of IVF
While the risks and emotional cost of IVF are real, they are not inevitable and they do not need to be overwhelming. There is so much you can do to minimize the stress you experience throughout the process. There may be some difficult days, but it is possible to go through IVF feeling comfortable and hopeful.
- Choose your IVF treatment team carefully
- A good IVF experience begins long before the first dose of fertility medication or the first procedure. When you are looking for a fertility clinic, start with some basic research. Pay attention to success rates, especially for patients with a similar profile to your own. When you visit, see how comfortable you feel with the whole team. Good communication is one of the most important factors here: do you feel comfortable asking questions? Are the answers clear, and does the team take the time to make sure you understand the information?
- Educate yourself
- Knowledge is empowering. Learn as much information as you can about the IVF process and be fully informed. Knowing what to expect at every stage can do wonders for your anxiety. Ask your medical team as many questions as possible to alleviate doubt or fears: don’t worry in silence.
- Map out financial costs of various treatments and cycles before beginning treatment
- Dealing with the financial side of IVF before you begin is so important. Consider if you have the option of undergoing another cycle or treatment if the first one is not successful. It will be much easier to make a healthy, considered decision now instead of at a time when you may be dealing with severe disappointment.
- Anticipate decisions and prepare for decision-making
- Being ready to deal with difficult decisions goes beyond the financial realm. Anticipate potential problems down the road and think about how you will approach them now.
- Find a mental health professional that specializes in fertility issues and/or join an IVF support group
- Having a time and space that is exclusively devoted to working through the emotional experience of IVF can be transformative. This type of expert, completely non-judgmental support can help you work through your emotions, lift you up when you are feeling discouraged, and offer much-needed reassurance as you move through IVF.
- Discover stress management techniques
- Yoga, meditation, mind-body practices, breathing techniques and massage are all highly effective ways to reduce and release stress and build resilience as you go through IVF.
- An absorbing hobby can provide a welcome escape from the realities of life and IVF. Putting aside time to be creative and have fun is so important.
- Seek out supportive family members or friends and rely on them for emotional support
- Give your loved ones the chance to help you through this experience. It is important for you to feel understood and supported by the people close to you.
- Work together with your partner
- Communication is vital, and so are boundaries. Schedule time to talk about IVF and times to NOT talk about IVF. Both are equally important. IVF can feel all-consuming, and you both need a break occasionally. On the other hand, not setting aside time to talk about IVF can mean that important things are left unsaid.
- Decide beforehand what your hopes and expectations of each other will be. Do you want to be together at all appointments, on the day of the pregnancy test, or when expecting a call from the doctor?
- Couples counseling might be a good option. No matter how solid and strong your relationship may be, IVF it hard on couples. It is a safe space where you can both be supported, where you can be honest and open about what you are experiencing.
- Date nights are a valuable way to reconnect with each other as a couple, away from the stress of fertility treatment. Make a commitment to go somewhere special, experience something new together, and appreciate each other as individuals.
- Keep all other areas of your life as simple as possible
- IVF can seem like another full time job, and with its emotional and physical demands you are unlikely to have a lot of energy left to spare for other projects. This is not the time to move, commit to big undertakings at work, or find a new job. Give yourself space to breathe.
- Make sure to arrange time off or changes in your work schedule beforehand. Negotiating an afternoon to head to the clinic on short notice can be fraught. Eliminate this source of stress by planning ahead with your employer.
It may not be possible to remove all stress from your IVF experience, but these measures will help more than you might imagine. The most important thing to know is that you’re not alone: your dilemmas, worries and fears are common, natural, and shared by IVF patients all over the world. Above all, remember that attempting fertility treatment is a strong and courageous act. No matter what the outcome of your IVF cycle may be, you have taken charge of your life and dreams. You have succeeded in doing all that is within your power to have a child. That is something to be very proud of.