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WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS AND HOW DOES IT HELP MANAGE STRESS DURING INFERTILITY?

So often I get asked what the number one practice was that helped me to turn things around for myself during my 10-year journey through infertility, particularly when my knees finally hit the floor and I reached my breaking point. My answer always comes down to this – it was all about building and devoting myself to a meaningful practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness literally transformed my life.

CONTENTS

DEFINING MINDFULNESS


One of the most common misconceptions about mindfulness is that’s it’s all about applying strategies so that you can feel calm in the moment. And whilst this is certainly one aspect of mindfulness (being a common outcome from practicing mindfulness), mindfulness itself has a much wider scope than just being a relaxation technique.


One of my favourite definitions of mindfulness comes from John Kabat-Zinn (said to be the father of mindfulness in the west who says this: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”


Another definition of mindfulness that I love is this: “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different. Enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will). Being with the unpleasant experiences without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” ~ James Baraz


Cultivating a practice of mindfulness is all about developing the ability to be aware of what is happening in each moment, remembering that that often, what causes us stress is not so much what might be happening to us in that moment, but rather stress is caused by ruminating about the past past or dwelling on fears about what may happen in the future (even if in that moment, all is well).


Our thoughts can feel so compelling and powerful that they can cause us to go on a perpetual ride to the point that we lose sight of the fact that at any moment, we have the ability to step back, detach ourselves and observe our thoughts rather than remain caught up in them as if we are imprisoned by them. When we’re stuck in this pattern, we lose perspective and the ability to be present to the joy that exists in our life right now.

Mindfulness invites us to step back from our thoughts and bare witness to them, instead of identifying with them or viewing them as our reality, so we can see ourselves and our situation with more clarity and reconnect with the beauty of what the present moment has to offer us.


WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF PRACTICING MINDFULNESS?


Handling negative thoughts when trying to conceive

Neuroscience has demonstrated that whatever is stimulated in the brain tends to grow stronger over time. Did you know that 90% of our thinking is unconscious throughout any given day and that 70% of what we think about is just rehashed from our past? Combine this with the fact that during stressful episodes in our life, we have a bias towards negative thinking (as an unconscious, self-protection mechanism), we can see that being on autopilot with our thoughts is not going to be working well for us during infertility.


Not only that, but our propensity for flitting our thinking between the past and the future (without much focus at all for what is happening in the moment), has become the habitual way of thinking for most people.


Mindfulness helps to counter this by retraining your mind so that new neural patterns are formed and you’re able to return to an habitual state of resting your awareness in the present moment. Research has shown (Siegel 2007) that when you practice mindfulness, you build the skill of self-observation (including being able to observe your thoughts) which neurologically disengages the automatic neural pathways (such old patterns of fearful thinking on autopilot – such as catastrophizing treatment outcomes) and activates your capacity to integrate present-moment awareness, giving you the ability to choose your response to circumstances or events in your life, rather than mindlessly react.


This essentially means that you have greater cognitive flexibility, rather than being the victim of mental responses based on conditioning from the past.


It also means that you will, over time, be able to replace the old, negative unconscious thought patterns with new, more skilful unconscious thought patterns that are much healthier for you (so you can live on auto-pilot some of the time but have your mind working for you rather than against you).


The ability to deal with the challenging emotions of infertility

A second benefit of mindfulness is that it strengthens the logical and emotional centres in the brain, leading to enhanced emotional regulation.


Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has been shown to activate the region of the brain that’s associated with more adaptive responses to negative or stressful situations.


In addition, mindfulness builds your skill around being able to observe emotions that surface, without judgement, and in doing so, enhance your capacity to choose your emotional responses rather than be dominated by them.


This is so powerful when you consider how liberating it would be to step off the roller coaster of emotions that go with infertility. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever experience emotions (you will) but it won’t be as intense, as you’ll have the capacity to feel your emotions and release them in a healthy way instead of feeling dominated by them.


Reduction in anxiety, stress and depression

In a meta-analysis carried out in 2013 on 209 different studies into the impact of mindfulness (Clinical Psychology Review, August 2013), it was sown that mindfulness (and mindfulness meditation, in particular) activates the region of the brain that’s associated with more adaptive responses to negative or stressful situations – so you’re literally able to change your stress response through mindfulness.


If you could have a simple practice that was guaranteed to reduce the level of anxiety, depression and somatic distress you’re encountering as you’re going through infertility, wouldn’t you want to apply it?


Imagine how much of a difference this would make to your fertility journey – including your ability to cope with setbacks as well as your capacity to positively transform the experience of the quality of your life before you have your baby.


Increased sense of wellbeing

Research has also shown that practicing mindfulness leads to an increase in your overall sense of well-being and happiness and there are two reasons for this.


Firstly, practicing mindfulness activates key parts of the brain associated with dopamine and melatonin production. Serotonin activity is modulated, and cortisol has been shown to decrease as well (The Neurobiology of Meditation and Mindfulness December 2013 - Tobias Esch).


But in addition to the changes in brain chemistry that lead to increased happiness stemming from mindfulness, mindfulness also enables us to become more present to the beauty and the magic that is always around us, but that’s so often miss because we’re too caught up thinking about the past or the future.


Mental clarity and the ability to make better decisions about your fertility journey

Practicing mindfulness enables you to think more clearly and make better decisions. Practicing mindfulness helps you calm the mental chatter, gain clarity and weigh information up and make better decisions as a result.


When your mind is caught up in stressful though patterns, it can be very difficult to see through the mental clutter and wade through information in such a way that you’re able to make good decisions. You’re simply not able to cognitively process information as well when your mind is in a state of fight or flight.


Not only this, but when your mind is in a fear-state, it can be hard to separate truth from fiction and this often leads to a tendency to rush into situations that aren’t right for you. Mindfulness helps you to be more aware when you’re making decisions based on reactive patterns so you can be more conscious about how you move forward on your journey of infertility.

Mindfulness also enables you to make contact with your intuition so you can combine this with better cognitive thinking to make good whole-brain decisions about the path forward for you on your fertility journey.


Feeling more in control on whilst trying to conceive

There is a lot of empowerment that comes from knowing that, whilst you can’t control what happens to you on your fertility journey, you can make good decisions AND you do have some measure of control around the degree to which something impacts you and this is very comforting in and of itself.


Many women who practice mindfulness during infertility state that they feel much more in control on their fertility journey compared to when they weren’t practicing mindfulness.


Enhanced self-compassion

Research has shown that mindfulness practices activate a part of the brain (the insula) associated with self-compassion (in fact, greater compassion in general).


In addition to the neurological impact of mindfulness, when you are able to be the observer of what’s going on internally, you’re able to be more conscious and intentional about how you relate to yourself and, when the inner critic arises based on fear, you’re able to counter its internal dialogue with more self-compassionate thoughts.


Practicing self-compassion in this way should actually be a conscious mindfulness practice as how women relate to themselves is always such a huge challenge when they’re going through infertility.


Cultivating acceptance

A central aspect of mindfulness is learning to be with what is happening in the moment, without judgement and without preference and without wishing it were different. Mindfulness fosters in us a presence and a willingness to just accept and be with whatever is happening in our lives and in the moment. It is only through this presence and acceptance of ‘what is’ that we can change our relationship to events within and around us and find true peace.

Learning to build this skill through mindfulness practices filters into how you approach you life, making you less hooked into circumstances needing to be a certain way in order for you to feel happy.

Whether your mindfulness practice consists of yoga, conscious breathing, stillness meditation or tuning into your 5 senses as you go about your day to enable you to make regular contact with present-moment awareness, there really is no question that mindfulness is an incredibly powerful path to experiencing more clarity, calm and presence on your fertility journey.


When practiced regularly, before too long, you may even come to experience a reverence for the simple things in life and experience the joy of so many moments that may have gone unnoticed, enabling your life to take on a new lustre and be transformed in the process. That was certainly my experience when I started practicing mindfulness on my fertility journey.


There is a tremendous contentment that comes from living mindfully. And who wouldn’t want that when they’re going through something as painful as infertility?


CONCLUSION


Whether your mindfulness practice consists of yoga, conscious breathing, stillness meditation or tuning into your 5 senses as you go about your day to enable you to make regular contact with present-moment awareness, there really is no question that mindfulness is an incredibly powerful path to experiencing more clarity, calm and presence on your fertility journey.

When practiced regularly, before too long, you may even come to experience a reverence for the simple things in life and experience the joy of so many moments that may have gone unnoticed, enabling your life to take on a new lustre and be transformed in the process. That was certainly my experience when I started practicing mindfulness on my fertility journey.


There is a tremendous contentment that comes from living mindfully. And who wouldn’t want that when they’re going through something as painful as infertility?


For more tips on all things navigating infertility, you can follow me on Instagram @opentolife_sarahreece, listen to my NAVIGATING INFERTILITY PODCAST on Spotify and iTunes or head over to my website www.opentolife.net AND for a scientifically proven FREE audio practice that will get you feeling calm in minutes, download INSTANT CALM now.


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