Over the past 30 years, the demand for infertility services has risen significantly due to factors like decreasing sperm counts, shifts in family planning due to socioeconomic factors, advancements in surgical and laboratory techniques, LGBTQ+ rights, and greater awareness of available options. This increased demand has spurred research into the psychological impact of infertility and related treatments. Coping with an infertility diagnosis carries a genuine emotional burden that should be acknowledged and discussed. It’s essential to understand that these emotions are not uncommon. Depression rates can reach up to 54%, and anxiety rates as high as 28%.
Parenthood is one of the major transitions into adulthood for many and the stress of not being able to achieve that goal is associated with a significant amount of emotional turmoil. Those diagnosed with infertility often experience anger, depression, anxiety, marital problems, sexual dysfunction, and isolation. It’s very common to experience stigma, a sense of loss, and low self esteem. Women generally show higher levels of distress, but when infertility is attributed to male factor, those feeling are comparable. People experience a sense of loss of identity and can feel defective or incompetent. The important thing to understand about the emotional turmoil is that you are not alone and there are ways to help.
Infertility is not binary. You are not “fertile” or “infertile,” but instead, a diverse range of biological attributes, genetic markers, hereditary complexities, medical conditions, ages, past surgeries, and so much more that make up one’s fertility potential. Using this binary language can be harmful and stigmatizing to those trying to conceive. Instead, getting this type of diagnosis is only a starting point to where you can finally begin your journey of seeking advice and assistance from fertility specialists to bring new possibilities and hopes.
We live in a society that continues to designate value to all people by their reproductive capability, which means struggling to conceive is commonly associated with feelings of shame and inadequacy. Having difficulty conceiving is no one’s fault, or something to beat yourself up over; it’s merely a routine diagnosis that has a great deal of treatment options. Infertility is common, but discussing it still remains incredibly difficult.
People feel immense pressure to be able to have their own child. Part of that is because we’ve grown up in a society that tells us that’s how it’s supposed to be. We learn very little about reproductive health growing up, and the subject is often brushed over in school. TV, news, commercials, advertisements, family, magazines, etc., have pushed the idea of “natural conception” into our heads from such a young age that anything outside of that “norm” is considered taboo. If there is difficulty having a child, people often feel like a failure, and it’s such an intimate thing that people live in silence and don’t share their struggles.
As we grow up and people around us begin to have children, the pressure can intensify even more. We fear bringing it up with our parents or even our doctors because we don’t want to disappoint the people we love and respect. For those unable to conceive due to surgeries, gender identity, or sexuality, accessing safe care and non-discriminatory clinics can feel like a mountain that’s too high to climb. People may feel infertility makes them broken, and it’s very easy to become depressed. Signs of infertility-related depression include thinking about infertility all day long, being racked with guilt, feeling worthless or ashamed, persistent feelings of sadness, isolating yourself, no longer enjoying activities you once did, frequently feeling anxious or having panic attacks, easily becoming frustrated or angry, having trouble concentrating or remembering, your relationship beginning to suffer, struggling to have sex, turning to drugs or alcohol, overeating or undereating, being unable to sleep, or even turning to thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
If you’re experiencing any of the above, we here at Mate want you to know that you aren’t alone and you have a village that’s here to help you through this entire journey. Getting an infertility diagnosis can bring on similar levels of anxiety and depression to getting a cancer diagnosis. Treating the mind is just as important as treating the body, and we want to provide you with some tools and information to help you through this difficult period. Coaching, therapists, and support groups are some of the ways you can receive help.
If you know someone going through infertility treatment or trying to conceive, there are a few big no-no’s that you should never say. Getting diagnosed with infertility causes enough anxiety and depression without external forces like family, friends, and partners’ expectations. If you want to be supportive throughout this journey, you need to know what not to say. Mental health issues are prevalent throughout this community, so support systems are integral to getting through difficult times. If you’re reading this and you are the patient, send this to your mother-in-law, grandparents, families, friends, or anyone who might be supporting you during this tough time.
Let’s reduce the stigma so that couples feel more comfortable talking about infertility, perinatal loss, miscarriage, and treatment in general.
Avoid making comments like:
“Enjoy this time, trying is the fun part.” “Just relax and it will happen.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “If you have more faith, it will happen.” “At least you know you can get pregnant (after a miscarriage).” “Maybe you’re not meant to have kids.”
Instead, offer words of support. If you don’t know what to say to someone going through treatment, make compassionate statements like:
“Infertility is so challenging. Do you want to talk about it?” “I wish you didn’t have to go through this.” “How are you doing? I am always here for you.” “I’m so sorry for your loss, I’m bringing dinner over.”
You can also say nothing and just give them a hug.
It’s really important for patients to understand that psychological stress, anxiety, and depression do not cause infertility. Many people believe that experiencing mental health obstacles directly impact your fertility, but there is no science behind this. Don’t blame yourself for infertility because it’s not your fault. Here are some tips to help you cope.
When you’re undergoing fertility treatment, there will be people who don’t know the right thing to say or do. Because of how emotionally difficult treatment can be, it’s important to have a strong support system. Coach family and friends on how you want to be supported. There are a ton of online forums or in-person support groups too. You can be your own biggest supporter too, talk to yourself and give yourself words of affirmation. Keep reminding yourself that there is always a way.
Exercise is a great way to release endorphins and it can make people feel happy and make it easier to cope with what’s going on around us. Getting outside and going on a walk or a jog can be therapeutic and help you release stress.
It’s impossible to change the past and you can’t predict the future. as nice as it would be to have a crystal ball, unfortunately that doesn’t exist. Don’t focus on should have, could have, would have. Don’t worry about something that hasn’t even happened yet. It’s present behaviors that you can control and actions you can take to reduce stress and anxiety.
Jumping into work or a project can provide an effective distraction from the stress and anxiety you face from infertility treatment. Staying busy and active can give you a sense of accomplishment, boost your self esteem, and confidence. Try to pick up new hobbies or even pamper yourself. Take that vacation you’ve always wanted to, go out to dinner or try changing your surroundings.
All this means is creating new views and outlooks. It’s a process for identifying and understanding unhelpful thoughts and for challenging and replacing our automatic thoughts. If you can change your automatic thoughts, you’ll be able to influence your emotions and behaviors. Replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations. It’s about choosing to think in a new way which can result in new behaviors and feelings. Cognitive restructuring is a process, not a single technique, and this is just the surface of what it means. Try working with a cognitive behavioral therapist to work on restructuring your thoughts. Turn your negative thoughts around into positive self-fulfilling prophecies.
There are three D’s to check for which may signal psychological distress.
If you feel like you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, try the strategies mentioned here or don’t be afraid to seek medical help from mental healthcare professionals. There are therapists and psychologists trained to help people through this difficult period.