Morning visits to the clinic, injecting yourself daily, monitoring your follicle production and praying your body responds—that’s how Alana Shaw* describes the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF), something she went through three times. “It’s all-consuming,” says Shaw. “When I was going through my cycles, it was all I could think about.”
For Shaw, the sheer logistics were a challenge. The fertility clinic was half an hour away from her office, making it difficult to get to her morning appointments and then to work on time. At the time, she also travelled a lot for her job, which meant that she was often doing injections away from home. “I had to travel with syringes and medications that needed refrigeration,” she says.
On top of the physical challenges, there were the emotional struggles. Before starting IVF, Shaw had already undergone seven unsuccessful cycles of intrauterine insemination. “It took more and more time to recover from a negative result,” she says. “I was very optimistic when I began the journey, but I began to feel angry and bitter after a number of negative results.” Shaw began to pull away from friends, many of whom had conceived effortlessly. “I had many upsetting experiences with them telling me I should just adopt or making other insensitive comments,” she says.
Ronda Trumper, a registered psychologist who has undergone fertility treatments herself and now counsels others in her private practice and at the Regional Fertility Program in Calgary, says that many factors contribute to making IVF treatments so stressful. “Often, you’ve already been dealing with infertility for a few years, so you’re coming in with low emotional reserves,” she explains. “It may be the most invasive procedure you’ve ever had, and it may be your last chance to have a child who is related to you.”
Shaw found it encouraging to recharge emotionally and physically between cycles and leaned on her husband for support throughout the process. Here are some other helpful strategies to cope with infertility.
1. Gather support When you’re undergoing fertility treatments, there will be people who just won’t know the right thing to do or say. “I ended up distancing myself from some friends,” says Shaw. “People say things like, ‘Why don’t you just adopt?’”
But because of how emotionally difficult infertility treatments can be, it’s important to have some support. Trumper suggests coaching close family members and friends on how you would like them to support you. “Should people ask you regularly how things are going or not bring it up until you do?” she says.
Shaw found out that a couple of her co-workers were also going through fertility treatments. Having them to talk to after appointments was comforting, and it was helpful that others in her office knew that she was juggling medical appointments with her work schedule. She also joined online forums, which were a great way to get information and support. In-person support groups are also available if you prefer a face-to-face experience—ask your fertility clinic to refer you to one in your area.
2. Get moving “Exercise is wonderful for releasing good endorphins, and it can make us feel happy and make it easier to cope with what’s going on in our lives,” says Trumper. Walking is a great option because it’s low-impact and spending time outdoors is therapeutic. In the time between her IVF cycles, Shaw would go running, both because it made her feel good and to keep in shape. (During her cycles, she preferred to rest, both physically and mentally.)
You can also try yoga, says Trumper, but avoid hot yoga. “Tell your instructor that you’re trying to get pregnant,” she says. “She may modify some of the moves or have you avoid others.” Keep in mind that your doctor might ask you to avoid certain exercises after the embryos have been transferred and while you wait to find out if you’re pregnant.
3. Control your thoughts So much of the stress of IVF comes from your own mind. You’re worried about the expense, you wonder whether the next round will work, and you think about what you’ll do if things don’t work out. Plus, seeing others get pregnant and have babies can be really upsetting when you're trying to cope with infertility.
Amira Posner runs Healing Infertility, a company in Toronto that offers group and individual support to women and couples going through infertility, with a focus on mindfulness. Posner’s sessions focus on controlling things you can control and letting go of what you can’t. “You don’t need to listen to your thoughts all the time,” she says. “You can just observe them.” Meditation and yoga can also help you regulate your thoughts.
4. Distract yourself Whether you’re currently going through an IVF cycle or you’re in between treatments, try to focus on other things as much as possible. Trumper suggests developing hobbies and pampering yourself. After two failed IVF cycles, Shaw decided to take some time off from treatments and focus on taking care of her mind and body. She exercised, went out for dinners and travelled. “I found it very helpful to leave my surroundings and forget everything we were going through,” she says. “We went zip-lining in Whistler and whale-watching and hiking in Tofino.”
5. Plan the wait “Most people come into IVF thinking that the most stressful part is when you’re doing treatments, including injections and retrieval,” says Trumper, “but almost everyone will say it’s the two-week wait from the transfer to the pregnancy test result.” She says some women like to take that time off because they find work physically or emotionally stressful. Others prefer to continue working as a way to distract themselves. If you decide to spend those two weeks on medical leave, make sure to keep busy, says Trumper. “Plan how you’re going to fill that time,” she says, whether that’s with hobbies or getting together with friends and family.
6. Plan for the moment of truth As tempting as it might be to do an early home pregnancy test before you’re scheduled to take a test at the clinic, resist. “You’re risking getting a false result,” says Trumper. She suggests planning where you want to be when you get the result and whether you want your partner there with you. Be aware, too, that there will be a grieving period if it’s not successful. Shaw would come home from work early and sit at home and wait for the call. Rather than picking up the phone, she would always let them leave a message. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone,” she explains.
Her routine got sidetracked on her last cycle, though, because her husband happened to be home when they got the call and he picked up the phone. The clinic had happy news: Shaw was pregnant. The couple was elated, but the stress didn’t cease there. “I was very nervous throughout the entire pregnancy,” she says. Then she laughs. “She is six years old and I’m still nervous,” she says. “I don’t think it will ever go away. She is a little miracle, and I’m unbelievably grateful for her.”