Guest post by Alice D. Domar, Ph.D.
I published a study many years ago which showed that women experiencing infertility had equivalent stress levels to women with cancer, HIV+, or heart disease. And several studies published since then have shown the same thing – the impact of infertility has the same impact psychologically as a potentially life-threatening disease. What we didn’t ever imagine would be the impact of infertility plus a global pandemic.
How does one cope juggling the fear and anxiety caused by not one but two simultaneous crises?
There has been some research already reported on stress levels of women with infertility during the beginning of the pandemic. Although some of the research showed increased stress levels, largely stemming from treatment cycles being delayed or cancelled last spring, our research at Boston IVF has shown that our patients actually rated infertility as a greater stressor than the pandemic (outside of about two weeks during the surge). It’s not surprising; the desire to have a healthy baby is stronger than almost any other.
But given all the life changes and loss we have had to adapt to for almost a year, it is not surprising that we have seen patient requests for psychological counseling double since March. We are living in a time where specific coping mechanisms are necessary to maintain some semblance of emotional health.
Here are some ideas that you can use to decrease distress.
Begin a relaxation practice
Most people are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and the best antidote is to counter it with meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, etc. There are numerous apps but the ones I recommend include Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer. Most of the popular apps allow you to download them for free for a week to try them out. Research shows that even if you only practice once a day for 15 minutes, you will achieve a carry-over effect and will start to feel more relaxed throughout the day — after only a couple of weeks of practice.
All of the images we see on social media and on the news of people gathering together despite countless warnings about the dangers of infection proves how social we are and how desperately we need to be near to others. Though gathering together physically isn’t safe at the moment, there are many alternative ways to meet our social needs. Go on social distancing walks, use the telephone or video platforms, email, text messaging, and social media to connect with friends, family, and others. And remind yourself that this is truly temporary. With the vaccine, herd immunity is on the horizon, and we just need to stick it out until we get there.
Take good care of your body
This is so important for those who are trying to conceive. All we hear about is how alcohol sales are soaring, how baking ingredients are sold out as people rush to the kitchen to make their favorite bread or dessert, and how working remotely is decreasing physical activity since there is no reason to move at all. Health habits can have a huge impact on fertility in both men and women, so make sure to limit alcohol use, avoid any nicotine use or exposure, monitor caffeine intake, and avoid THC/CBD products.
In terms of food, we counsel our patients to follow the 80/20 plan. If 80% of what you eat is the good stuff (nuts, veggies, berries, lean meat, fish, whole grains, etc) the other 20% can be the comfort foods you might be craving – chocolate chip cookies, mashed potatoes, meatloaf, or Ben and Jerrys. When you are at the grocery store, carefully choose the treats you want as your 20%.
There are other ways to take care of your body. Choose to wear your favorite perfume or lotion, even if you are working from home. Shower and dress, even if you are sitting at your computer all day.
Continue to take a prenatal vitamin.
My husband calls me a pathological optimist, and I am sure that comes through in my counseling. But there is a reason for it. Fertility treatment has never been so successful – for many patients, a single IVF cycle can bring more than a 50% chance of success.
You wouldn’t be undergoing treatment if there wasn’t a kernel of hope deep inside you. You just need to think of ways to nourish that kernel.
One way is to counter automatic thought patterns. So for example, if your mind keeps repeating negative phrases such as “I am never going to have a baby”, try instead to challenge that thought, even if you don’t yet believe it. If you knew you were never going to have a baby, you wouldn’t be trying so hard. Try thinking about something that you do believe, such as “I am doing everything within my control to get pregnant”.
I have created a number of videos on various stress management tips: here is one I did recently on tips to overcoming stressors during fertility treatment.
Please take good care of yourself, nurture your mind and body, stay safe, make wise decisions, and maintain confidence that we will all get through this.
Alice D. Domar, Ph.D is the Executive Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, the Director of Integrative Care at Boston IVF, and an Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology, part-time, at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of numerous books including “Conquering Infertility” and the co-creator of the app FertiCalm (new version coming soon).