HOW DO YOU MANAGE STRESS & INFERTILITY + RECOVER FROM INFERTILITY BURNOUT?
If there’s one thing that women going through infertility need support with, it’s how to cope with all of the stress that accompanies a challenging fertility journey. The problem is, most of us are not taught the life skills required to deal with a life crisis such as infertility. Ye, stress is something that everyone going through infertility has to tackle.
You can no doubt recall some very stressful experiences on your own fertility journey
• Surviving the dreaded 2-week-wait
• Waiting by the phone for important test results
• Being told by your fertility specialist that you have to significantly change your approach to trying to have a baby
• Going through fertility treatment like IVF only for it to result in a negative result
• The of getting your period, every single month
• Enduring an endless stream of pregnancy announcements around you
• Experiencing the grief of pregnancy loss
WHAT IS INFERTILITY STRESS?
The challenging thing about the stress of infertility is that not only is it a constant stream of traumatic events (both large and small), but there is also no end in sight. There’s no single point where your nervous system can just say “Thank goodness that’s all over, I can take a well-earned rest now.”
When you go through stressful events continuously over an extended period of time, your nervous system detects that you’re under constant threat and starts to re-wire itself into a perpetual state of fight or flight with stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline flowing repeatedly.
This is not how the fight or flight process is supposed to function. It’s only meant to be activated infrequently and for short periods of time. The role of these stress hormones is to prepare you physiologically to react very quickly if you find yourself in a dangerous or life-threatening situation.
This is really helpful if you are in life threatening situation and need to remove yourself from harm’s way. However, when constant stress goes unchecked on your fertility journey, your body will produce a continuous stream of these hormones into your system, leading to infertility burnout.
Chronic stress builds by stealth because your normal physiological state is one of homeostasis, where, even if your stress response is escalated, your nervous system is able to return to a state of calm. But when you’re in a constant state of flight or flight, chronic stress takes over and you lose touch with what homeostasis feels like in your body, along with the capacity to notice just how stressed you have become…until you reach breaking point and start to fall apart. Small events will literally push you over the edge in a split second, because you’re already at the outer edges of your threshold and you’re being held there by an overactive, dysregulated nervous system.
Being in a constant state of flight or flight also means that the more primitive part of your brain that is geared towards your survival mechanism starts to dominate your thinking, and this is where your clarity and perspective become completely overshadowed by fear-based thinking such as catastrophising and self-criticism.
This negative thinking further perpetuates the stress cycle because your negative thoughts actually activate your fight or flight response, without there needing to be any stressful event to trigger it. You end up becoming trapped in a really difficult cycle to break and this is where so many women find themselves when they reach out for support with infertility, because they don’t know how to break this cycle or climb out of the infertility burnout hole.
HOW DO YOU MANAGE STRESS AND INFERTILITY?
There are 3 simple strategies that are powerful when it comes to addressing stress when trying to conceive.
1. Learn new skills to deal with infertility
One of the most important things to do to deal with infertility stress is to build the skills required to be able to be present to challenging thoughts and emotions. This enables you to be present to challenging thoughts and emotions without having to change or get rid of them (or distract yourself them as so many people do).
Mindfulness is at the heart of this process, and it’s is a practice that is worth looking into. Adopting a mindfulness practice means you cultivate the ability to notice thoughts and emotions without being dominated by them, thereby changing the relationship you have with them in the process. If you’d like more information on mindfulness, you can read more about it in my blog "What are the benefits of mindfulness and how does it help manage stress during infertility?"
2. Bringing relaxation to your body
I often say that if you relax the body, the mind will naturally follow. This is why engaging in practices that help to bring equilibrium to your body and your nervous system is so important for breaking the burnout cycle. Practices that re-calibrate your nervous system and reduce the production and circulation of the stress hormones associated with the fight or flight response. This returns your physiology to homeostasis and equilibrium and helps you unhook from that negative stress cycle.
Whether it’s yoga, conscious breathing techniques, gentle walking, massage or acupuncture, or focusing on exercises that stimulate the vagus nerve (which regulates the entire nervous system), engaging in practices that help bring calm to the body are foundational to being able to down-regulate a nervous system that is stuck in the fight/flight/freeze response.
3. Bring stillness to your mind
The third strategy for unhooking from infertility burnout is to engage in mindfulness practices to bring stillness to your mind. By training your mind through practices that refocus your thoughts on the present moment and anchor it in the awareness of your physical senses, you ground your mind in the here and now, bringing stillness to your thoughts. When practiced regularly, you will literally re-wire your brain to dwell more in the present moment, and less in the negative spiral of all the things that could possibly go wrong on your fertility journey.
Whether it’s through meditation or simple mindfulness practices that you can engage with throughout your day that help shift your awareness back to the present moment, the aim here is to re-focus your mind, so it doesn’t get hijacked by negative, fear-based thinking (which then flips you back into the stress cycle).
This is not about trying to stop fearful thoughts (you can still allow those to be there). It’s actually more about changing the dial on a radio (the fearful thoughts are still there, but they fade into the background when you learn to shift your dial or focus to the present moment).
Whilst it’s tempting to try and control your thoughts to find a way out of infertility stress, the truth is, you can’t think your way out of a heightened emotional state. This is where bringing relaxation to your body is so powerful as it allows the nervous system to reset which helps to calm fear-based thinking.
You need to combine practices that work on both your physiology (so you can re-set your nervous system) with practices that still the mind so that thoughts centred around rumination or catastrophising don’t trigger you back into the fight or flight response.
My hope is that you’ll take away some of these tips so you can find a way to unhook from the infertility burnout cycle, and by doing so, ensure you have the endurance and resilience to go the distance on your fertility journey….and maybe feel calmer and happier along the way.
For more tips on all things navigating infertility, you can follow me on Instagram @opentolife_sarahreece, listen to my NAVIGATING INFERTILITY PODCAST on via this website, Spotify and iTunes AND for a scientifically proven FREE audio practice that will get you feeling calm in minutes, download INSTANT CALM now.