While often viewed as a physical issue, infertility can have a massive impact on a person’s mental health. In one study of 200 heterosexual couples struggling with infertility, half of the women described infertility as “the most upsetting experience of their lives.”

If you’re finding it hard to cope with infertility, you’re not alone. This article will break down the emotional difficulties common in infertility, the importance of finding a therapist to support you, and other ways you can cope.

Understanding the emotional impact of infertility

While everyone’s experiences are unique, there are several emotional struggles common in infertility.

Depression or grief: No matter the exact form of someone’s infertility, infertility grief is real. Every unsuccessful treatment or negative test is a loss. Repeated losses, combined with a sense of helplessness or lack of control, can cause many people to feel depressed, traumatized, or just emotionally exhausted. They may struggle to be fully present in various areas of their life.

Self-blame or shame: As many as one in six people trying to get pregnant may face infertility, yet infertility remains a highly stigmatized experience. People with infertility may worry that they are “broken,” that their infertility is their fault, or that they’re not living up to some standard. While self-blame and shame are common, none of these beliefs are true.

Stress or anxiety: Infertility can trigger “obsessive” worry or stressful rumination. Someone may start to constantly monitor their or a partner’s physical health, or repeatedly research fertility treatments, options, and experiences. Infertility may feel like it’s all they think about.

Side effects of fertility treatments: On top of the inherent stress of infertility, many fertility treatments impact mental health. Physical surgeries and procedures can increase vulnerability to stress. Hormonal medications can increase emotional sensitivity. Infertility can use up someone’s emotional resources in a way previous stressful life experiences haven’t.

Decreased social support: Infertility can cause financial stress, sexual difficulties, and increased conflict within romantic partnerships. Friends and family may say hurtful things. Some people with infertility may reduce social interactions in order to avoid this kind of invalidation or to avoid anything that reminds them of infertility (i.e., seeing their friends who have children). Many people with infertility become socially isolated and unsupported exactly when they need social support the most.

The importance of finding a therapist who specializes in infertility

If you feel like you’re experiencing any of the above, a licensed mental health professional can help! A therapist can offer support and a safe space to process your grief. They may even be able to teach you concrete coping skills for stress, shame, and other painful emotions. But, it’s important to try to find a therapist who specializes in infertility. 

One of the most important predictors of whether psychotherapy will help someone is the strength of the relationship between therapist and client. Trusting your therapist to understand your infertility experience is essential. If you have to repeatedly explain infertility treatments to your therapist, for example, it could disrupt your collaboration and comfort with them. Also, therapists can fall prey to infertility stigma, and they may unknowingly invalidate their clients struggling with infertility if they’re uninformed.

So, when searching for a therapist, be sure to check their website for descriptions of their specialties. Do they explicitly mention working with people struggling with infertility? If they don’t, you can always email or call the therapist and ask them! Questions to consider:

  • What is your prior experience working with people with infertility? 

  • Do you have any specialized training in loss and grief?

  • Do you know what endometriosis/PCOS/fibroids/secondary infertility is? Are you familiar with IVF procedures? Have you previously worked with LGBTQ-identified people? (Or any other questions specific to your specific experiences and identities.)

A therapist doesn’t need a perfect understanding of all of these issues to be able to help you. But talking to them before an intake session can help you gauge their knowledge of topics important to you, while also giving you an idea of their personality and whether you think you’d like working with them. Keep in mind: it is totally OK to “shop around” and talk to multiple therapists before committing to one.

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Other tips for coping with infertility grief 

Of course, you may struggle to find or afford a therapist in your area. Luckily, there are other things you can do to cope while you’re trying to connect with the best therapist for you.

Find other infertility-specific support. Licensed therapists are the most appropriate professionals to see if depression, anxiety, or stress is severely impacting your daily life. But, infertility-focused coaches and peer support groups can be excellent choices for getting social and emotional support, whether you’re in therapy or not.

Learn stress-reducing techniques. There are many excellent self-help options for reducing stress. For example, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been shown to help decrease anxiety in people with infertility, and there are many affordable books and online courses on MBSR and other mindfulness techniques. Similarly, a therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has dozens of skills for coping with difficult emotions, and there are a variety of books and online videos to learn DBT skills without a therapist.

Do at least one positive thing every day. Infertility-related anxiety, depression, and social isolation can make people’s lives feel small. One thing that can help is proactively scheduling at least one activity every day that is unrelated to fertility and that makes you feel happy, relaxed, proud, or pleasant in some way. Even if they’re each small, positive things can make a big impact when they build up across time.

Remember: if you’re struggling, you’re not alone. Doing your best to support yourself — both by finding a specialized therapist, increasing your social support, or practicing self-care — is important as you navigate the very real stressors of infertility.

Kiki Fehling is a licensed psychologist and expert in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), borderline personality disorder, self-harm, trauma, and LGBTQ+ mental health. Follow her on TikTok here