Infertility Can Be Traumatic–You’re More than Just Stressed

Maybe you’re in the throes of infertility treatment. You’re taking time off from work, and you don’t know what the outcome will be in spite of your best effort to eat healthy, exercise, and follow medical protocol. Or maybe you’ve had your baby, but you can’t stop thinking about what you went through to get here. Infertility is not just a personal problem, or a simple stressor. Truly, infertility can be traumatic.

We all know infertility is stressful

Let’s just start with the fact that infertility is stressful at its most basic level. But how stressful is it? Researchers have found that the stress of infertility is comparable to being diagnosed with cancer or recovering from a heart attack (Domar et al., 1993).

Additionally, there’s a cyclical up and down to the emotions and stress of infertility: at the beginning of the month you feel a sense of hope and positivity, whereas at the end of the month you cycle into disappointment and hopelessness. To make things worse, this fluctuation is amplified by hormones that make the swings of emotions more intense.

For those who haven’t gone through it, they might think the stress of infertility is mostly about the cost of treatment and intrusive medical procedures. But there are many more stressors. These include all the time you have to take off work, side effects of medications, waiting for test results, only having sex on demand, and of course the inappropriate social comments.

The thing is, infertility is more than stressful. These are compounding stressors, recurrent and all-encompassing, with the end result and unfortunate reality that infertility can be traumatic.

Infertility has a pervasive effect on all aspects of your life

With so many stressors, infertility seeps into all aspects of your life.

Everything revolves around your fertile days and your next treatment appointment. You can’t make job changes or plan a trip. Maybe you don’t even know if you’ll feel well enough to have dinner with your friends on Friday.

Often, it’s hard to grasp the pervasive impact of infertility until you’re mired in it. This is not only a quest to have a child, it’s how you feel about yourself and your perspective of the world and how you fit in it.

The feelings brought on through the experience of infertility and the process of treatment don’t go away once you get pregnant. Just like trauma, the impact can be felt for many years.

It’s a threat to your identity

Beyond the physical and logistical hardships of infertility treatment, infertility also affects how you see yourself.

From the time you were small you wanted to be a mom. Or from the time you met your partner, you knew you’d be the perfect parents. And now that image of your future is shattered.

You feel broken. Not good enough. Maybe you even have a sense of guilt or responsibility, like you could have done something differently.

Beyond your personal dreams, there’s a societal pressure toward having children, and a cultural assumption that fertility is associated with your competence as a woman.

Infertility can be traumatic for men too

While women often undergo the brunt of the testing and treatments for infertility, men are affected as well.

Some cultural myths associate infertility with weakness or diminished masculinity. Additionally, there’s often pressure on men to not express their emotions.

Researchers have found that men dealing with infertility experience low self-esteem, guilt, resentment, isolation, and shame (Fisher et al., 2010; Joja et al., 2015).

For either gender, infertility threatens how you see the world as being safe and predictable. That you have control to assure any outcomes for yourself. It’s an intense roller coaster of emotions from hope to despair.

What exactly is “trauma” and how can infertility be traumatic?

Now, you might be wondering what determines whether infertility can be traumatic in the true sense of the word.

Trauma is an emotional reaction following a terrible event. It has been thought to be the result of a life-threatening event, but current thinking is expanding to include any deeply distressing event, like infertility.

The emotional fallout of a traumatic event becomes chronic, and becomes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), when it lasts longer than six months.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD involves having symptoms of re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders of the event, and having mood and emotional symptoms. Those mood and emotional symptoms can include feeling on edge all the time, having difficulty sleeping, having negative thoughts and feelings about yourself or the world, and loss of interest in things you used to enjoy (National Institute of Mental Health, 2019).

The reality is, researchers have found that almost half of the women in their infertility studies met diagnostic criteria for PTSD (Roozitalab et al., 2021).

What post-traumatic stress (PTSD) looks like with infertility

Given the definition of PTSD above, let’s examine what it can look like for someone who’s going through infertility.

You suffer flashbacks to difficult, painful, or invasive procedures, or to miscarriages you may have had. Little things can trigger these flashbacks, and they may come on when you’re least expecting them.

Perhaps as a result of the flashbacks, you avoid talking about what you’ve gone through or anything related to doctor’s offices, pregnancy, or childbirth.

In addition, you may constantly feel agitated and anxious. If you’re not worried about something, you feel like you’re not on guard enough. You might find yourself blowing up at your partner or your friends for insignificant things. Overall, you might be feeling a general distrust in the world, or hypercritical of yourself.

What makes infertility traumatizing

If researchers have found so many women dealing with infertility fit the criteria for PTSD, what is it about infertility that can be traumatic?

One recent study detailed the following factors (Roozitalab et al., 2021):

  • Prolonged stress: It never seems to let up. First you were trying to conceive naturally, maybe for years. Then there was ongoing stress throughout the pregnancy, along with the fear of losing it.
  • Cyclic nature of stress: Every month you were reminded of your inability to conceive, and then you had to pick up and try again. Every treatment renewed hope, only to be followed by disappointment every month you got period.
  • Constant reminder of the inability to have children: More than just your body’s natural reminder, the mere presence of a pregnant woman or the cry of an infant can be a reminder of what you’re afraid you can’t have. And it seems like pregnant women and babies are everywhere.

How to move forward

Yes, infertility can be traumatic, but there is also a way through the experience to finding courage and hope.

First, it’s important to normalize the experience. If you’re feeling knocked down, or like you’ve lost your bearings, you’re not alone.

In the U.S., about 1 in 5 women struggle with infertility (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). Most women with this struggle have similar feelings to what you’re experiencing.

It hurts now, but it won’t last forever.

Remember to make space for your feelings, whatever they may be. Find ways to express them, whether through writing, art, or talking to a friend. Putting your feelings into words can help you feel calmer and better able to manage them.

Instead of avoiding negative feelings, let them come.

Finally, one of the best things you can do is connect with your partner. They can be your biggest source of support through the emotional upheaval of infertility. As a team, you can face the trauma together, and your partner can reassure you that you’re loved no matter what.

Both of you will be on a journey toward healing. If you find you need help or guidance on that journey, couples counseling can help.

About Dr. Irena

Dr. Irena has over 20 years’ experience helping women and couples through the challenges of infertility. As a certified EFT couples therapist, she has helped numerous couples successfully navigate challenges of infertility as a team.

Dr. Irena offers online therapy in Houston, The Woodlands, and New York. Email her for a free 10-minute video consultation:  irena@permalink.com or call (281)-267-1742.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, March 1, 2022). Infertility FAQs. Retrieved March 25, 2022 from

Domar, A., Zuttermeister, P., & Friedman, R. (1993). The psychological impact of infertility: a comparison with patients with other medical conditions. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 14, 45-52.

Fisher, J. R., Baker, G. H., & Hammarberg, K. (2010). Long-term health, well-being, life satisfaction, and attitudes toward parenthood in men diagnosed as infertile: challenges to gender stereotypes and implications for practice. Fertility and sterility, 94(2), 574-580.

Joja, O. D., Dinu, D., & Paun, D. (2015). Psychological Aspects of Male Infertility. An Overview. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 187, 359-363.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved March 25, 2022 from

Roozitalab, S., Rahimzadeh, M., Roghieh Mirmajidi, S., Ataee, M., & Esmaelzadeh Saeieh, S. (2021). The Relationship Between Infertility, Stress, and Quality of Life with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Infertile Women. Journal of Reproduction & Infertiity, 22(4).

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