Going through any kind of fertility struggle, with all of its accompanying loss is traumatic. It affects our mental health in insidious ways, impacting our sense of identity and self-worth. Many clients come in to therapy without realizing that infertility is a form of trauma.
Most people associate trauma with soldiers coming back from war, but infertility involves surviving repeated traumatic experiences such as infertility diagnosis, recurrent pregnancy loss, reproductive injury and fertility treatment. Repeatedly being let down every month with negative pregnancy tests and adding in expensive and physically taxing fertility treatments like IUI or IVF often exacerbates the trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, impacts one’s sense of self and safety, causes feelings of helplessness, and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences. It often happens in situations where we cannot control the outcome when we think we can or should. Infertility trauma stems from the compounding feelings of powerlessness and lack of control and generally includes multiple losses.
Why does it feel so bad?
Because there is SO MUCH LOSS. There is traumatic loss on multiple levels, including loss of a dream to have the family you planned for, the loss of conceiving naturally, loss of time (as infertility can last many months and years), loss of quality of life including financial loss, and loss of friends who might have gone on to become pregnant and have their own children.
For women who have experienced prior sexual trauma, infertility may include flashbacks, fear, and anxiety. Doctor’s appointments, invasive procedures, and the nature of pregnancy itself may trigger women, bringing up negative memories and intense feelings.
Common symptoms of infertility trauma can include:
- Anxiety in response to certain situations or triggers (such as seeing pregnant women, pregnancy tests, babies on TV or in person, etc.),
- Avoidance of things like baby showers or friends who are pregnant
- Changes in mood and feelings about self and the world
- Hyperarousal and heightened emotional reactions (insomnia, irritability or anger, hypervigilance, panic)
- Experiences of fight-flight-freeze
How to cope with fertility-related trauma
1. Acknowledge and feel your feelings
Emotions are meant to be felt, even though it may seem better to avoid feeling them. There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to feel. People react to trauma in different ways and we can stop telling ourselves what we should be feeling. The human body and brain are very good at working through difficult material when we stop avoiding emotions and allow ourselves to feel fully. Allow yourself to grieve the losses and perhaps create rituals to commemorate them. Journaling can allow some distance and acceptance of your reproductive story and its losses.
2. Take a break from social media
Social media can be quite triggering for someone who is going through infertility. People love to make pregnancy and birth announcements through social media. Someone experiencing infertility may be much more sensitive to these announcements, as they can feel like a reminder of the pain that person is bearing.
3. Use mindfulness and stress-management exercises
Grounding and breathing exercises can be very helpful in managing trauma symptoms. I often show my clients the butterfly hug to help with grounding and calming. It consists of crossing your arms over your chest, hooking your thumbs, so that with the tip of your fingers from each hand, you can touch the area that is located under the clavicle. The eyes can be closed or partially closed looking toward the tip of the nose.
Next you alternate the movement of your hands, slowly simulating the flapping wings of a butterfly. You breathe slowly and deeply (abdominal breathing), while you observe what is going through your mind and body (beliefs, images, sounds, odors, affect and physical sensations) without changing, repressing or judging. Imagine that what you are observing is like clouds passing by. This exercise should be done for as long as the person wishes to continue.
4. Enjoy the little things
Infertility can consume your life, impacting your emotions, your time and your relationship. Engage in fun activities that you wouldn’t or won’t be able to do while pregnant or with a newborn, including new hobbies or activities you have wanted to try. It is important to find joy and meaning in life, even when you are going through a difficult time.
How therapy can help
Re-establishing a sense of safety after infertility trauma is crucial. Therapy can provide a safe, empathetic space to talk through the shame, grief, and traumatic loss of infertility, allowing you to be seen and validated in a non-judgmental way.
A good therapist can help validate your experience, make sense of what has happened and ultimately integrate it into a new and different narrative.
Working with a therapist can help to restructure order in a world which has been torn apart by trauma, and help to allow you to rewrite old beliefs that no longer serve you and learn new ways of coping.