Going through any fertility struggle is traumatic. The process affects mental health in many ways, impacting a person’s sense of identity and self-worth. Many of my clients come into therapy seeking emotional support without realizing that infertility also leads to a form of trauma.
While most people associate trauma with soldiers returning from war, infertility’s ups and downs also trigger similar responses. Infertility can involve surviving repeated traumatic experiences such as infertility diagnosis, recurrent pregnancy loss, reproductive injury, and fertility treatment. A person’s trauma can be exacerbated by repeatedly being let down every month with negative pregnancy tests.
What is infertility trauma?
Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event. It can overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope, impact one’s sense of self and safety, cause feelings of helplessness, or impact their ability to feel their full range of emotions and experiences. Trauma often is rooted in situations where we cannot control the outcome when we think we can or should. Infertility-related trauma stems from the compounding feelings of powerlessness and lack of control over a fertility journey, which generally includes multiple losses.
Why does infertility trauma feel so bad?
Simply put, fertility-related trauma feels overwhelming because so much loss is involved in the journey. Individuals experience traumatic loss on multiple levels — the loss of a dream to have the family they planned for, the loss of conceiving naturally, the loss of time (as infertility can last many months and years), or the loss of quality of life.
For women who have experienced prior sexual trauma, infertility may also include flashbacks, fear, and anxiety. Women may also feel triggered by doctor’s appointments, invasive procedures, and the nature of pregnancy.
What are the common symptoms of infertility trauma?
While every person can experience trauma in their unique ways, some common symptoms include anxiety in response to certain situations or triggers (such as seeing pregnant women, pregnancy tests, babies on TV or in person, etc.), avoidance of things like baby showers or friends who are pregnant, or changes in mood and feelings about one’s self and the world.
Hyperarousal and heightened emotional reactions, such as insomnia, irritability, anger, hypervigilance, or panic, can also be flags that someone is coping with infertility-related trauma.
Emotions are meant to be felt, even though it may seem better to avoid feeling them. People also react to trauma in different ways. Allow yourself to grieve the losses and perhaps create rituals to commemorate them. Journaling can allow some distance and acceptance of your reproductive story and its losses.
While navigating your infertility journey, set boundaries that make sense for you. For instance, social media can be quite triggering for someone going through infertility. Limiting your time on apps that make you feel worse is okay. Setting aside time for yourself can also be a helpful boundary to set. Grounding and breathing exercises are tools for managing trauma symptoms. I often show my clients the butterfly hug to help with grounding and calming. It consists of crossing your arms over your chest and hooking your thumbs so that you can touch the area under the clavicle with the tip of your fingers from each hand. The eyes can be closed or partially closed, looking toward the tip of the nose.
You alternate the movement of your hands, mimicking the flapping wings of a butterfly. You breathe slowly and deeply (abdominal breathing) while observing what is going through your mind and body (beliefs, images, sounds, odors, and physical sensations) without changing, repressing, or judging. Imagine that you are observing clouds passing by. This exercise should be done for as long as the person wishes.
Can therapy help with infertility trauma?
Re-establishing a sense of safety after infertility trauma is crucial. Therapy can provide a safe, empathetic space to talk through the shame, grief, and traumatic loss of infertility, allowing you to be seen and validated in a non-judgmental way.
A good therapist can help validate your experience, make sense of what has happened and ultimately integrate it into a new and different narrative.
Working with a therapist can help restructure order in a world torn apart by trauma and help you rewrite old beliefs that no longer serve you, and learn new ways of coping.
The most important part of coping with fertility-related trauma is acknowledging that it is your experience, no matter what method or act of acknowledgment helps you navigate it.
Joanna Rosenblatt, LCSW is a New York-based licensed psychotherapist with 15 years of experience specializing in helping her clients overcome trauma and loss. She is passionate about helping women overcome challenges during their fertility journey, and offers compassionate guidance through this time of transition. Joanna has advanced training in trauma and is a certified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapist to help clients gain the insight and tools to unlock their trauma and live more empowered and purposeful lives. To learn more, visit www.joannarosenblatt.com.