Struggling with infertility no longer necessitates living with anxiety and the stressful effects that accompany the ebb and flow of each unsuccessful passing month.
Through utilizing various mind-body techniques, women with infertility can now mitigate emotional stress and emerge with new perspectives using skills that extend to any life struggle.
The emotional pain that follows trying to conceive a child without success can be debilitating. When life confronts us with an experience of uncertainty such as infertility, fear and anxiety can precipitate an emotional surge that sets the body into a physical spin. If that level of stress and anxiety persists, it creates a bodily stress response, exacerbating a woman’s heartache and struggle.
Fortunately, the same connections that cause high stress levels can be used to reduce stress, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, help women find presence and abiding and, by causing a healthier emotional state, optimize chances of achieving a healthy pregnancy.
Below are 6 powerful mind-body techniques that you can integrate into your fertility journey:
1. Cultivate mindfulness.
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment with openness, inquisitiveness and non-judgment. Mindfulness gives us permission to slow down so we can pay full attention to what is going on in and around us. It allows us to see past our automatic thoughts and feelings. When we use this technique, we realize how often our minds fill with worry, fear and judgment. The more we pay attention to our fearful mental patterns, the more control we gain to quiet and shift them.
The key to cultivating mindfulness is acceptance: the more we can accept rather than resist our experience, the easier our journey becomes.
Mindfulness meditation, yoga, eating and walking mindfully are just a few examples of ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your life. You can do almost anything in your life with a mindful awareness; it just takes a little effort. With practice, this tool can help balance narrow-minded thinking surrounding infertility, ultimately allowing more space for compassion, acceptance and gratitude.
2. Use the power of your breath.
The breath links mind and body. Breath is available to us on demand, twenty-four hours a day. Many of us take the process of breathing in and out for granted and do not give it much thought or attention. But when we start to think about breathing—its feel as well as its function—we’re affected positively.
Most of the time our minds are in thinking mode and we are lost in thought while our body is off doing something else. The famous Vietnamese philosopher Thích Nhất Hạnh would say that, in this case, the mind and body are not aligned.
Taking a deep, conscious breath is a fantastic and useful technique that can unite the mind and body and ground you in the present moment.
3. Trick your Limbic System.
Our physical bodies have innate capabilities and are hardwired to perform certain activities. The fight or flight response is one such example. The fight or flight response is the body’s primitive automatic response that prepares us to “flight” from a perceived threat. The limbic system, the part of our brain that determines a fight or flight response, cannot differentiate between real danger and excessive stress.
Many women struggling with infertility have an activated stress response system which can play out on an emotional and physical level, potentially impacting conception. When our fight or flight system is aroused, we tend to perceive the things in and around our environment as threats. Fears, negative thinking and our belief systems become distorted.
On a physical level, nerve cell firing releases chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into our system. These chemicals can alter the homeostasis—the ability to maintain equilibrium—of our physical bodies. Our body actively looks for the enemy, and we gear up to flee it. The only problem is that there is no enemy in infertility: it is the painful experience of not successfully conceiving a baby and all the associated anxiety that can set off the fight or flight response. Visualizations, guided relaxations and imagery are a few tools that can reverse stress effects, trick the limbic system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
4. Let go.
Are you familiar with that light feeling you get on a Friday at 4pm? It’s almost the weekend, and the busy week is over. You almost want to let go. Similarly, close your eyes and imagine that you are a helium balloon floating into the sky. Infertility requires energy and resiliency, and the reality is that infertility could go on for many years, even forever. Letting go is a strategy that can neutralize stress and make it easier to deal with the negative results and hardships while at the same time helping us keep trying. Letting go does not mean giving up. It means adopting an attitude that everything will fall into place at just the right time. If we can bring our attention into the present and purposely take it away from focusing on our pain, we can strengthen the mental muscle of positive coping and naturally let go, likely without even knowing it.
5. Don’t believe everything you think.
To combat the thoughts that continuously arise regarding infertility, we must become curious about where we focus our attention and how we fill our minds. Do not spend too much time googling infertility related information, unless you can put a positive spin on the search. Our mood and demeanour are driven by the stories we tell ourselves.
But where are we getting the stories from?
These stories are most often based on our own interpretation of the environment around us. When struggling with infertility, the interpretation of our environment can often be skewed depending on how long we’ve been trying to conceive. As treatment fails, hopes for a family diminishes and our attitude and energies can change. Remember that not everything you think or feel or read is real.
6. Join a support group.
Studies on mind/body infertility support groups suggest that a woman’s participation may help her conceive faster. A study published in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility by Alice Domar, Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, revealed that the women who were involved in a mind/body program for stress reduction while undergoing IVF treatment had a significantly higher pregnancy rate than those who did not participate. Support groups are an ideal environment to meet others going through a similar struggle. It is a forum of acceptance and optimism through which to vent, share and heal infertility. Group stress reduction techniques such as practicing mindful awareness, meditation and self-care exercises can also support women in creating a mind/body balance.
The holistic model of treating the mind and body as a whole and nourishing their relationship can have powerful physiological effects. When we begin to understand that we can reverse stress and how we respond to it, a new world opens up. Gaining awareness of the mind-body connection allows us to use our minds to alter our physiology and connect with something deeper within ourselves.
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Amen, D (1999) Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press, Benson, H & H Stuart.
Benson, H., & Stuart, E.M. (with the staff of the Mind/Body Medical Institute). 1992. The Wellness Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness. New York: Citadel.,
Domar, AD, Zutermeister, PC, Friedman, R, (1993) The Psychological Impact of Infertility: A Comparison with Patients with Other Medical Conditions, Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology, 14, Suppl. pp. 45-52.
Eliahy Levitas, et al., “Impact of Hypnosis During Embryo Transfer on the Outcome of In Vitro Fertilization-Embryo Transfer: A Case-Control Study,” Fertility & Sterility85, 5 (2006): 1404-1408.
N Rappoport-Hubschan, Y Gidron, R Reicher-Atir, O Sapir, & B Fisch, (2009) “Letting go coping is associated with successful IVF treatment outcome,” Fertility and Sterility, 92, 4, pp. 1384-1388.
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