For me, the pain of infertility hit me when I heard my friend’s son saying ‘Daddy, Daddy!’ I thought I may never hear someone call me ‘Daddy.’
After my wife’s eight year journey to full fertility health I was diagnosed with infertility. We didn’t see that one coming!
We did however go on to conceive naturally just ahead of starting ICSI. I want to share some helpful strategies based on my personal experience of double infertility and my professional experience as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist, helping women and couples achieve their dream of getting pregnant.
The medical world is split as to whether stress ‘causes’ infertility, however, there is increasing evidence demonstrating how stress can impact fertility; given the mind and body are one system it makes complete sense to me.
One study demonstrated how hypnosis could double IVF success rates1. The pituitary gland in the brain controls the levels of key fertility hormones, FSH and LH. It also controls the biological stress-response which shuts down non-critical processes to focus on surviving a ‘threat.’ It is not only physical dangers that evoke the stress response. It is controlled by a primitive part of our brain (the limbic system) and it cannot interpret the difference between a physical or psychological threat.
The limbic system also cannot tell the difference between what’s real or imaginary, which is why if you were to imagine losing your job you start to feel the same feelings and have the same experience as if you had actually lost your job. It’s the same as if you start imagining another BFN, or imagining being childless forever, never being fulfilled. It can feel helpless, which is the same as having no-where to run or no-where to hide when faced with physical danger. The stress response kicks in as a protection mechanism.
Accept it’s Tough
Infertility is stressful and there is no doubt about that. A study demonstrated that the stress levels in women with infertility are equivalent to those with cancer and aids2. On our infertility journey I often found it difficult to allow myself to feel the pain and sadness of our childlessness. Part of me kept thinking ‘but we have our health, roof over our heads, a good job’ etc. How could I be down about not having children when we are warm, safe and secure?
Then there were well-meaning friends and family trying to be supportive and saying things like ‘just relax and you’ll see things will be OK.’ They just didn’t understand, so I didn’t feel able to open up and express how things really felt, ‘better keep it in as they just don’t understand’ I’d tell myself. Yet another reason to bury the feelings.
I often get asked ‘how can I make my friends understand?’ To be honest, I don’t think you can. I recommend you accept that they are not going to meet your need for understanding your infertility and find a support group/forum that can.
Part of me thought I had to stay strong. I thought I had to be the ‘strong one’ for my wife, which is the opposite of what she wanted as it prevented us from feeling united and in it together. I also thought I had to bury my emotions and keep hopeful. I thought if I fell apart it would mean accepting defeat and I was not ready for that. I couldn’t imagine life without children and didn’t feel ready to start the journey of acceptance if it meant giving up. I had to keep strong and hopeful at whatever cost because I was not ready to give up.
However, accepting it is difficult does not mean you are accepting defeat – far from it. Often our beliefs and emotions make it hard for us to accept our situation as they tell us it means failure; they are grounded in fear, perhaps fear of not succeeding or fear of not being happy.
Understanding What’s Behind the Emotions
All emotions including stress are there to communicate something to us. This includes emotions we label as ‘nice’ such as happiness, contentment and joy, as well as those we label as ‘negative’ such as anger, pain or stress.
They are there to signal one of two things. Whether our emotional needs are being met or whether our thinking is helpful. When we experience emotions such as anger, pain or stress it is either a signal that our emotional needs are not being met or our thinking is not serving us.
For example, if you are talking to your partner and you start to feel angry because you think they are not listening, it could be a signal that your need to be understood is not being met. Or, perhaps like I was, you are feeling angry that people around you are having babies without a second thought. This was my need to be treated justly by life/the universe/God and that it wasn’t fair we were having difficulties getting pregnant and having to experience the hell that is infertility.
Exploring the need behind the feeling can then help you identify what steps you can take to begin to have it met. Once you have identified your need to be understood in a conversation you can calmly say to your partner ‘I have a need to be understood, is it possible for you to stop what you are doing and look at me whilst we are talking so I can be sure you understand?‘
However, it may not be a need that is not being met. The feeling may be a result of your thinking and not reality. Thoughts paint a picture of reality that is not true, an illusion. However, it is convincing and believable and we forget it is just thought – not reality. It is so believable that we start to think about what we need to do about that ‘reality.’ Before we know it, one thought has led to another and we are telling ourselves all sorts of stories that are not true which creates our experience moment to moment.
For example, if your boss is short with you, you may think that you have done something wrong or that they are angry with you. You don’t actually know that is the case. Perhaps they have just had an argument with their partner on the phone before coming to speak with you. We often tell ourselves all sorts of things that are plausible and believable. Before you know it you are feeling rubbish because you think you are in trouble or you think your boss thinks poorly of you.
As I said, the pain of infertility hit me when I heard my friend’s son saying ‘Daddy, Daddy…’ It hit me that I may never hear someone call me Daddy and I thought nothing else could make me more fulfilled than that. I did not know that was the case; however it is what I was telling myself in that moment which made it painful.
I am not saying your infertility is not real and is just created by thought, however how you experience the infertility journey moment to moment is shaped by your thoughts. You may have noticed how from time to time you feel stronger and more positive and in control of the situation. Then there are other times you just cannot keep it together. What’s changed? It’s your ‘thinking’ about it.
The Nocebo Effect
Your thinking can also go beyond creating your experience of any situation, such as your fertility. Your thinking in the form of beliefs and self talk can actually impact your fertility. In the same way a placebo works by belief, a ‘nocebo’ works in the same way, however, with negative/limiting beliefs. If part of you believes it isn’t going to work for you, then the chances are it is going to be difficult for you. A high proportion of secondary fertility is as a result of a traumatic first birth where the mother tells herself (either consciously or subconsciously) ‘never again’.
The unconscious mind honours your request and wants to protect you from the risk of experiencing the trauma again. Its whole purpose in life is to protect you, to keep you away from danger. Looking back I think I was telling myself I didn’t deserve good things. I don’t get things I want as easily as others, I have to work blooming hard when others sail through life on a breeze getting what they want without effort. Great sob story isn’t it! However, it’s just thought.
I decided to let go of these thoughts taking control of my life, my happiness (e.g. changing my job). A couple of months later my wife was pregnant. Was it all down to thought? Who knows? What I do believe is it played a very large part.
If you become aware of limiting beliefs or negative self talk, you may find hypnotherapy or another form of therapy may help you let it go.
- Accept your feelings instead of running from them or burying them. Put your hand on your heart and say to yourself ‘I accept myself as I am’. Then listen. Notice what thoughts or feelings you become aware of.
- Start to become aware of what is behind your feelings, not just your feelings regarding infertility. Is it a need not being met or a story you are telling yourself?
- Levitas, E. et al, ‘Impact of hypnosis during embryo transfer on the outcome of in vitro fertilization–embryo transfer: a case-control study.’ Fertility and Sterility – Vol 85, Issue 5, (2006), 1404–1408
- Domar A .D., Zuttermeister P. C. and Friedman R., Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1993, Vol 14, Suppl. 45-52