I remember it clearly. I was laying on the treatment bed ready for another session of acupuncture, a treatment designed to relax, nourish and prepare me for my upcoming round of IVF. My acupuncturist was a beautiful soul. The room was warm and comforting. There was calming music, a blanket and really nothing to fear, not even the needles. I completely believed in the power of acupuncture in aiding my assisted fertility journey. But still, as the needles were being popped in, my mind was awash with what felt like thousands of colliding thoughts per second. I had to sit up, pause the treatment and take many deep breaths through a throat that felt like it was closing. I I’d suffered a recent loss after round two of IVF and I was finding it hard to avoid recalling that experience and to turn my attention to positive thinking or being in the moment. It felt a colossal task.
This was the moment I realised that stress was getting the better of me. My ability to cope even with the smallest things was being tested. So, anything directly linked to IVF was sending me into a complete spin.
Fertility struggles and stress really can come hand in hand and for anyone treading the path of assisted fertility, stepping into the unknown and putting so much hope and trust into the hands of specialists can increase the load. There are some that feel a sense, however fleeting, of relief when they embark on IVF because they see it that the issue is largely taken out of their hands and into the lab. And for many, the road of IVF really is relatively straight forward. But for those who encounter losses, reoccurring negative test results, financial strain and other unforeseen complications, then stress starts peeking into other areas of life; work, relationships, mental health.
The onus with IVF still really does fall on to the woman, the one intended to carry the pregnancy. But let’s not forget the cases where the fertility issues stem from the male partner. Identifying the reason for infertility or sub fertility can raise issues in relationships which can naturally result in new stresses and strains that perhaps a partnership hasn't experienced before.
Longing for a baby can manifest as a desperate and deep ache that doesn't go away. There are countless triggers when you go about your day that can heighten a sense of panic. I remember batting away the reoccurring questions in my head of “What if this doesn't work, ever? What if I am never able to get pregnant or maintain my pregnancy and have my baby?” Those thoughts used to bring tears to my eyes. And I didn't have any of the answers.
Going through IVF was the process where I had to really face myself more than any other point in my life. The whole experience was truly confronting. It can be quite normal to feel jealousy and upset at other people’s good news, which in turn then can make you feel wretched about yourself. But let me underline this point to you: when going through IVF your default position simply has to be to show yourself love, patience and kindness. It is so easy to lose yourself in the process, to feel defined by results and for your day-to-day life to feel so altered. But I am a true believer in looking at things as a whole, holistically, and therefore to not lose focus on the other bits of you. Because there are many that still need tending to.
For me, the major issue when undergoing IVF and the many complications I faced, was the loss of control. I don’t mean to cast myself as a control freak but handing the ‘trying to conceive’ reins over to others is a pretty big ask. Realising this was when something fundamental clicked in my head. Something told me to surrender to the experience, to let the experts do their job and focus on me.
Even before embarking on IVF and facing the stresses that may surface therein, the link between stress and fertility issues is increasingly being studied and I got to a place where I truly felt that unless I found sanctuary and reprieve from the process that I perhaps would be hindering my very own chances of what I wanted most. This was the jolt that I needed to head into my final round in a more positive and practical way.
These are some of the strategies I turned to in order to feel empowered, ready and more trusting of the process:
Shut out some of the noise
Whether that be taking a break from social media, or editing who you follow. Avoid Googling anything about fertility. Say no to invites from friends who might not serve you best just now. Whatever it is, the aim is to simplify your world, to lighten the load on your shoulders.
Remind yourself who you were before fertility issues and IVF
This was a big awakening for me. I felt completely lost at one point after years of trying to conceive. Heading into IVF, it felt like my life was all about fertility and the goal of pregnancy. It impacted my diet choices, my sense of humor, my time. So, I made a point of going back to things that make me happy; music I loved, reading, eating food I enjoyed, making a better effort with friends who did me good. I really made the connection between my happiness and how my body felt as a result, so I zoomed in on what made me happy and did lots more of that!
Find ways to feel more in control
While also needing to let go a bit, what also became clear to me was the need to find some control in a process that can so often feel out of control. For me, this was to make sure I felt that I was a truly active participant in the journey and not just a vessel. This manifested in making sure I was doing what I could with my diet to aid fertility from lining health, and blood flow to implantation. I started meditation purely focused on fertility and IVF and found some affirmations that I would recite each morning. I would then go into scans with an added sense of ‘I helped that’ if my lining was thicker than the round before. Additionally, feeling part of the process really made me find more belief in my body that I’d previously thought was letting me down. I started to see my IVF outcome as the sum of all parts and that I was more than just a body.
Seek specialist advice
The key here is ‘specialist’. There are countless social media accounts that will tell you what to do when faced with infertility. But actually, seeking out and getting advice from those with years of experience and tangible results is the best route. For me, I visited someone who had spent years studying and authoring books on endometriosis who altered my diet specifically designed for endometriosis sufferers. Further into my IVF journey, I visited an acclaimed fertility nutritionist armed with the heavy bag of supplements I had put myself on (thanks Google!) who studied my typical diet and stripped back the supplements accordingly.
Assemble your support team
They might not know it, but I had a handful of people who I considered my support team. Friends who I knew could always make me laugh, my acupuncturist, my friend who had been through IVF herself. These people got me through it more than they will ever know.
Talk and connect
After a complicated ectopic pregnancy from round two of IVF I needed to rebuild my confidence and belief that the next (and final) round of IVF could work. I sought help in a therapist who I would see weekly until I felt ready. And that came sooner than I thought it would. I actually remember telling her in what became our last session that “I don’t think I need today’s session; I don’t think I need to go over it anymore”. And that was that. I had moved on from the past and was re-focused. Nurturing your mental health plays such an important role in going through something like IVF. There is always someone to talk to.
Find out what is possible at work
‘If you don’t ask you don’t get’ is the old saying. And for me, when someone I had opened up to at work mooted the idea that I could perhaps submit a request for a sabbatical in order to focus on my wellbeing and IVF I just hadn't even considered that this could be an option. And very luckily for me, I worked for a forward-thinking organisation who put a plan in place for covering my role and I opted to take a 3 month work break. This won’t be an option for everyone and in fact some people find the distraction of work a good one. But for me, having the option to pause a very busy area of my life for a while was a god send.
All of the above really helped get me into a place of belief, hope and readiness. It may not be a list that suits everyone as we are all different. But even just making small adjustments that help top you up to lessen the load on your shoulders could make such a difference to your handling of stress and the commonly described ‘minefield’ of IVF.