The Trauma of Infertility
Coping with infertility can be one of the most trying experiences you face, with the process challenging you physically, emotionally, financially – and for many – spiritually. Often, folks struggling with infertility end up experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health outcomes. Relationships and responsibilities can suffer, self-esteem can plummet, and emotional upheaval is a common effect.
A recent NY times article referred to the experience of infertility as trauma. Repeated failure, disappointment, and loss is traumatic. According to Dr. Daniel Siegel, “The simplest way of defining trauma is, it’s an experience we have that overwhelms our ability to cope.” As anyone struggling with infertility understands, the process often overwhelms our ability to cope. The fact that that we struggle with a process that comes so easily to others complicates our ability to tolerate setbacks and disappointments. Watching others celebrate pregnancy, baby showers, and baby milestones can be particularly painful. While you might be happy for your friends, it highlights what you are missing. Envy is a normal aspect of infertility. Any many struggle with infertility trauma in silence.
Coping with Infertility
Coping with infertility can feel like a full-time job. While fertility clinics provide step-by-step guidance on how to approach each treatment, they typically don’t focus much on the emotional outcomes. One important consideration for coping is differentiating what you can control versus what you cannot. You cannot control getting pregnant. You can control your behavior, including taking care of yourself physically and mentally. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Seek out support from loved ones and from those going through similar experiences. A close group of family and friends can distract you and comfort you in the throes of uncertainty or disappointment. Others who are currently experiencing or have experienced infertility will often know best how to offer support. They understand the process, the emotional roller coaster, and might know best how to offer support. Some reproductive endocrinology clinics offer support groups. RESOLVE is a national network offering support. Others may find support and connection through groups/communities on social media.
2. Have a plan. In a situation where we often feel so little control, balance optimism with knowing your next steps. Having a plan (and potentially a Plan B) can provide significant comfort, reducing anxiety and rumination. In the words of Rosa Parks, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
3. Engage in self-care. Self-care can help with fertility success, given the mind-body connection, and is also crucial as we ride the waves of successes and disappointments. Sometimes, self-care will look like taking a step back – maybe taking a few months off – from cycles and treatments to rest and recharge. Self-care might also involve taking a break from social media or other content that brings up difficult emotions.
4. Set goals and create experiences that have nothing to do with baby-making. Experiencing infertility is overwhelming and all-encompassing for many. It can start to feel like your sole purpose in life is to produce healthy eggs or sperm. Remember that you are a whole person outside of your genetic material. Do things that bring you joy, even if you aren’t feeling joyful. Make efforts to engage in behaviors that support your other values.
5. Find a therapist who specializes in infertility and who focuses on coping and problem-solving. Those struggling with infertility may benefit, in particular, from DBT, a type of therapy that focuses on mindfulness, acceptance, emotion regulation, and coping with distress.