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Managing emotions through IVF

Posted by Susan Kane on 20th May 2019

Because the fertility journey is as much an emotional journey as a physical one, taking care of your emotions is vital.  Trying to conceive and being repeatedly unsuccessful creates an intense, and at times overwhelming, range of emotions – all of which can impact your wellbeing and your mental health.  

Emotional responses to infertility are complex.  A medical diagnosis of infertility can initially leave you feeling shocked and in disbelief as you struggle to come to terms with the fact that your hopes and dreams of having a child are threatened or not under your control.  For some people, the diagnosis can also offer a way forward to potential treatments, and a glimmer of hope after months or years of repeated disappointments. 

Whilst everyone’s IVF journey is unique, many people experience similar feelings as they move through the stages of treatment. Below are some common feelings that are experienced.

Grief and loss

“It wasn’t until my psychologist talked about grief that I realised my sadness all these years was actually grief, it helped to have a name”

Infertility and its treatment can entails many losses.  Some of the losses experienced by people include miscarriage, the loss of your imagined family, the loss of achieving your family ‘naturally’ without intervention, failed IVF cycles, the loss of biological relatedness if donor egg, sperm or embryos are used, the loss of the hope, the loss of control, and the loss of intimacy in your relationship.  Because so many of these losses are not easily visible, the grief experienced by people may be overlooked or dismissed by others.

Balancing hope and despair

Many state that hardest part of the whole IVF procedure is trying to remain positive whilst also dealing with failures.  The reality is that both hope and despair are natural parts of the IVF experience for most people – when you want something so much the pain of failure can be overwhelming.

“When the first IVF attempt fails you just stop wanting to try because you don’t want to fail again”

One approach to balancing the how and coping with despair is to  try an view the IVF process as one of trial and error, and try and maintain the perspective that failed attempts may occur along the way as part of this process. 

Feelings of jealousy

“Is it normal to be driving home and feel like aiming my car at mothers with children? I would never do it, but the thought still crosses my mind. It makes me feel inhuman. Am I normal?”

Like anger, jealousy is an emotion that many people struggle with and is central to many people’s infertility and IVF experience. When what you dearly want is unattainable, even when you are going to considerable lengths to achieve it, it hurts to see other people succeed.  Jealousy can be triggered by quite obvious events – a friend announcing their pregnancy, seeing a family pushing their newborn in a pram, a magazine article about a celebrity’s pregnancy.   In the context of IVF treatment it can also be triggered by less obvious ones, which can be confusing.  For example, (insert example).  Although jealousy is a painful emotion it also signals what you value and what feels threatened.  Acknowledging the feelings and understanding the underlying issues is an important part of managing these difficult feelings.

Feeling Marginalised 

The experience of IVF for all patients is challenging and intense.  Experiencing IVF as a single woman or a same-sex attracted couple can bring additional challenges.  

Some people experience judgement from medical staff, or from family or friends for their choices.   For others it’s a lack of recognition of or inclusion of partners.  Some people report feeling invisible become they don’t conform to the picture of the more typical heterosexual couple seeking treatment.   

Navigating the emotions of treatment without a partner can feel like a double burden for some people: managing the rigors of treatment without the support of a partner, while at the same time coming to terms with the idea you are creating your family alone, and not within the relationship you wanted.  All of these experiences can result in feeling isolated, unsupported and invalid, and can make the experience of IVF even more of a challenge.

Feeling overwhelmed by information and decisions 

Embarking on IVF treatment involves processing a significant amount of information.  This includes often unfamiliar medical terminology and procedures, hormone regimes, injection schedules, and ultrasound appointments.  It also requires multiple decisions – which specialist, which clinic, do I take time off work, who to tell, how many embryos to transfer?  It is easy to feel overwhelmed and bewildered by the mental load of IVF.

It might sound strange but the hardest part for us wasn’t the treatment itself but feeling lost in the overload of information and decision making. We agonised over every choice we had to make, desperate to make the right decisions.

The Two Week Wait

Nothing prepared me for the waiting.  I swung between believing it had failed, and just wanted it over with so I could try again next month, and obsessing over every symptom, desperately hoping I was pregnant. I was exhausted.

The 10-14 day waiting period between embryo transfer and pregnancy test is described by many people as the most difficult part of the cycle.  This is a time when your hopes are high, and so are your fears.  After several weeks of daily injections, medical appointments and procedures, the waiting can feel intolerable.   

Many people describe feeling a rollercoaster of emotions during this phase of treatment, as well as a constant look-out for pregnancy signs.  The search for reassurance is complicated by the fact that pregnancy symptoms at this stage can be attributed to side-effects of the treatment itself.  Compounding the emotional turmoil of this stage of treatment for many people is their reluctance, or inability, to participate in their usual stress-relieving activities like jogging, playing tennis, taking a spin class, or relaxing in the spa.

Feeling unable to cope

We got to rock-bottom when our third cycle failed.  We couldn’t face another failure, we had nothing left.

With the emotional turmoil, the physical challenges and the mental overwhelm of treatment, it is very easy to feel like you’re not coping.   It is normal and expected that these feelings will fluctuate throughout a treatment cycle.  For some people, might be strongest just before a scan or before egg collection and reflects the enormous anticipation of that next step that will determine if their cycle will continue.  For others it’s the sense of hopelessness and helplessness that surrounds treatment failure, and they lose confidence in their capacity to bear another loss. 

Recognising that you have reached the point of feeling unable to cope can feel debilitating and overwhelming.  Giving yourself permission to feel this way, normalising it in the context of what you are going through can help create a path through the feelings.  Exploring what you need that will help support you is the next step, which helps create some structure.  What will help right now?  What can you do today that will help you feel like you’re coping?  

It may also be necessary to re-assess your expectations around coping.  What does coping look like for you? Often people’s expectations to be positive, motivated and strong don’t allow for the reality of what they are experiencing.