Big feelings abound whenever the “maybe, next month” turns into conversations with doctors and an official diagnosis you maybe weren’t expecting. While any person or couple navigating infertility is far from alone — Resolve, the National Infertility Association, shares that 1 in 8 couples struggle with getting pregnant or bringing a pregnancy to full term — it’s true that each person’s journey with infertility is unique.
The mental health strain of navigating infertility, for instance, can present differently from couple to couple or even within the same relationship.
According to the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health, anxiety, depression, grief, anger, and tension within relationships, can all be signs of the mental health strain of infertility.
“When someone receives a specific diagnosis, it's common to feel broken by the diagnosis,” shares Arden Cartrette, Certified Bereavement Doula & Founder of The Miscarriage Doula.
What you can do immediately after a diagnosis…
As the initial shock or despair of an infertility diagnosis begins to wear off, there are some questions and thoughts that can surface, like:
- What should we do?
- I’m so lost.
- I have no idea what I’m feeling.
- Why me?
Cartrette encourages clients to honor their feelings, while simultaneously viewing any new information as more information that could potentially help chart a different path.
“When walking through infertility, many people feel depressed or anxious,” shares Cartrette. “It's terrifying to receive a diagnosis, even if it's ‘unexplained infertility.’ Entering an infertility journey or being on the journey for any amount of time, is mentally draining and exhausting and in many ways -- grief comes along with the diagnosis.”
According to the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health, both depression and anxiety symptoms are higher for couples navigating infertility than they are for those who are not navigating infertility. Getting the right help at the time you need it most could help couples through day-to-day living and also when thinking long-term about what the infertility process can bring.
Mental health support can look like a doula who is trained to support those navigating infertility, a therapist, or a support group with like-minded peers.
“Having a judgment-free safe place to seek guidance and support throughout your fertility journey is so important,” explains Cartrette. “In my professional experience, many clients seek the support of me, a doula, while also seeing a therapist for their mental health needs. You can never have too much support and it's important to find the right fit in terms of supporting people.”
How to encourage your partner to get mental health support…
In both same-sex and heteronormative relationships, the non-child-carrying individual may have a different experience and reaction to an infertility diagnosis.
In a Rescripted article about trigger days, like Father’s Day, Dr. Lynyetta Willis, Psychologist and Family Empowerment Coach explained that it’s normal if a partner chooses to be more tightlipped about their feelings or unsure about how to express them. The important thing then is to keep the lines of communication open:
“Recognize that your partner may not want to discuss difficult feelings coming up for them or for you,” explains Dr. Willis. “Though this may be hard to hear from them, remember that we all process difficult emotions differently, and doing so openly when the emotions are most intense, may not be helpful for everyone.”
If your partner’s mental health is becoming a stressor in your own life, some options are suggesting joint therapy or encouraging some form of emotional support.
“My advice is for birthing people to validate their partner's experience and tell them they are worthy of feeling grief and sadness from infertility and/or pregnancy loss,” explains Cartrette. “If [a] partner isn't on board with seeking help, they could offer to attend therapy with them or schedule time each week to check in and give each other their full attention to support one another.”
What to do if you’re burnt out from your infertility journey…
The length of someone’s infertility journey isn’t predetermined when a diagnosis is offered — that is a hard reality to navigate and live with. The strain of the diagnosis and all that comes with it, depending on the path that a person or couple chooses to follow, can easily lead to burnout.
Practicing self-awareness or meditative practices can help individuals spot red flags before they turn into full-blown burnout or exhaustion. If you find yourself burnt out from your infertility journey, taking a break or seeking mental health support can be two available options.
“Feeling burnout from infertility is very valid,” explains Cartrette. “In the motherhood community, many discuss feeling ‘touched out'... I find infertility to give similar emotions because those going through treatment and testing are attending doctor's appointments where invasive ultrasounds are often performed, sticking themselves with needles, and mentally thinking about pregnancy at all times.”
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What to look for in a therapist or emotional support option…
Finding the right therapist or emotional support option is similar to dating, in that sometimes you have to try a few different options before you find the one that will work best for you.
But the benefits of finding something that can help alleviate the stress could potentially have positive ripple effects all around.
“Several studies suggest that cognitive behavioral group psychotherapy and support groups decrease stress and mood symptoms, as well as increase fertility rates,” states the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health.
According to the American Society For Reproductive Medicine, you can start by looking for therapists who specialize in infertility both online or through your own health insurance.
These guiding questions can be helpful during a prospective call with a therapist:
- Have you helped other individuals through infertility?
- What is your approach to infertility, miscarriages, or stillbirth?
- How do you typically treat anxiety, depression, or grief?
If instead of a therapist, you choose to seek the support of a doula, Cartrette suggests you, “ask the doula if they are comfortable and equipped to support the birthing person through pregnancy loss or infertility. How many clients have they had who experienced this? Do they have proper resources to outsource this support if they cover any topics that they don't know enough on?”
Vivian Nunez is a writer, content creator, and host of Happy To Be Here podcast. Her award-winning Instagram community has created pathways for speaking on traditionally taboo topics, like mental health and grief. You can find Vivian @vivnunez on Instagram/TikTok and her writing on both Medium and her blog, vivnunez.com.