Feelings of stress and anxiety are commonplace amongst those experiencing infertility or delayed conception. Humans have evolved with the ‘fight or flight mechanism’ to deal with stressful situations. A natural state where the brain pumps adrenalin, the heart beats faster and because it is working harder, it needs more fuel, so we breathe more heavily then sweat and flush in order to cool down.
As a survival technique, this is a very useful reaction, but someone under a great deal of emotional stress can trigger a ‘fight or flight‘ response to an everyday situation and this can be very tough to handle.
Manifestations of such a reaction tend to fall into three categories. Physical such as irregular breathing, heart racing, shaking, ‘butterflies’ or feeling sick; behavioural such as avoiding situations, having a sudden urge to leave somewhere; or psychological which includes blurred thinking, low self-opinion, negative thoughts about a situation we fear and vulnerability.
Anxiety eats away at our confidence and makes things that were once easy for us to do, really difficult. Thoughts of “I’m not good enough, smart enough, thin enough” are manifestations of stress and anxiety that many of us can associate with. The methods that I find most useful to deal with stress and anxiety are Mindfulness, Breathing and Relaxation.
Mindfulness helps us to understand what the triggers of stress might be so that we can create coping mechanisms and stop a reaction manifesting. It involves noticing your feelings without trying to control them, giving you the chance to step back and calmly evaluate any unpleasant thoughts.
A technique in Mindfulness is breathing consciously, drawing your attention to every breath in order to slow down and calm yourself. Thinking about what you are doing as you are doing it: ‘living in the here and now’.
We can practice Mindfulness at any moment and those who do, say they see things from a different perspective, become less overwhelmed by negative thoughts and less judgmental of themselves and others. It can also help curb panic attacks, enable people petrified by public speaking and help manage other complex conditions like depression, addiction and OCD.
For the couples I meet who are under significant emotional pressure, Mindfulness gives them the opportunity to step back from their overwhelming thoughts and achieve a different perspective. By noticing how their thoughts impact on their behaviour, they can become ‘self as observer’. It allows them to act more within their value system and to be kinder to themselves.
By approaching life in a more mindful way, looking at things more closely and taking time to see moments and understand feelings from a different perspective, we can all lead a more positive path of self-acceptance. These small changes can have a tremendous effect.
A few years ago a study looked at how mindfulness effects the brain. Studying Buddhist monks, who practice mindfulness on a daily basis, CAT scans showed that the monk’s frontal lobes were bigger than normal. The research suggested that mindfulness meditation practice affected their brains in a very positive way.
Other research has suggested that with mindfulness practice the brain becomes better at synchronised communication and more sophisticated, abstract thought and introspection. One study of people aged between 50-60 who practiced mindfulness mediation between 12-20 minutes a day showed that it might be able to slow down the ageing process by strengthening the hippocampus – the area of the brain responsible for memory and attention.
Relaxation is also a powerful tool to recuperate and allow life pressures to release their grip, but it requires a quite different approach to mindfulness. They are almost polar opposites. Where as Mindfulness involves becoming aware of both pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, allowing them to be as they are without trying to control them, relaxation involves consciously trying to eliminate unwanted feelings of physical stress and tension in the body.
When we practice relaxation techniques we slow down the systems in the body that speed up when we get anxious. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is when we focus attention on tensing and relaxing muscles from the feet, all the way up through the body to the neck and shoulders.
If you feel that Mindfulness meditation and breathing is something you would like to try, here is a short exercise that only takes a few minutes. It’s something that you can do on a daily basis to help you ‘drop anchor’ for a few moments.
Get comfortable in your chair, adjust your posture so that your back is straight and both of your feet are on the ground. Close your eyes, or stare into the space in front of you.
Turn your attention to how your body feels sitting in your chair. Become aware of the clothes that are touching your body, notice how that feels.
We are now going to do a quick body scan. If you notice any tension in your body, then concentrate on that area and let your mind relax it.
Push the balls of your feet into the ground to get a sense of what is tense and relaxed. Now bring your attention up to the upper part of your torso. Focus on your lung area and your chest. Fill your lungs up with air as you breathe in and out.
Rotate your shoulders and neck to let the tension disappear from your body.
Notice how your hands are resting in your lap. Bring your attention to your right hand.
Breathe in and take a longer breath out. Notice that you are concentrating on your breath, become aware of the quality of the air as you draw it in through your nose. How the air feels cool on your nostrils bringing that air all the way down in your lungs and down into your diaphragm.
And now breathe out a longer breath. Notice how your body has warmed the air. Exhale all the way out emptying your lungs to the last drop.
Do this again, breathing in noticing everything about this breath, how the throat feels as the air travels down into the lungs. How the lungs feel when they are full and then take a longer time to exhale, emptying the lungs completely.
Continue to breath and this time, shift your attention to notice the sounds around you. Become aware of the sounds in the room and try to hear two sounds that may be distant to you. Become aware that you are listening.
Now listen to sounds that are much closer to you. This might be your heart beating, it might be your breath as your lungs fill up. Now once again focus on your breath. Take five deep breaths in through the nose and out of the mouth and slowly come back into the room.
Open your eyes and reconnect with your surroundings. Notice two or three things around you.
You may want to have an energising stretch.
In this exercise we are becoming more aware of ourselves by observing our breaths and the sounds that surround us.
Jane is one of my patients who benefitted from this approach for her infertility. She contacted me after trying to conceive for 18 months – she had previously fallen pregnant easily with her first two children. Fast approaching 40 and told by her GP that there were no investigative options available to her, a friend suggested exploring alternative routes.
Secondary infertility accounts for 60 percent of infertility cases. Feelings of frustration and anxiety are enhanced when you are not falling pregnant, and you know you are not infertile. Friends and family will glibly ask when the next one is coming along and first children will grow old enough to ask why they don’t have a sibling. Many parents in this situation will suffer in silence, focusing attention on their precious only child, while harboring grief at the loss of another, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Some might think that Jane was ‘greedy’ to want three children, but this precious third was the family she had always dreamed of. In Jane’s case, I suspected a cocktail of high levels of stress at work, anxiety over her infertility and pelvic adhesions from two previous caesarean sections were getting in the way of conception.
For four months I carried out de-stressing acupuncture treatments and advised breathing dynamics and visualization as a way to combat her stress at home and work. A good breathing technique helps to circulate oxygen around the body and into the reproductive organs. It also helps to focus the mind and cope with the stresses of the conception journey.
Visualization is very important at every stage of the cycle. During Jane’s visits I helped her to visualize what was happening in her body – the follicles growing, the eggs maturing, the womb lining thickening, the embryos implanting.
In the fifth month Jane fell pregnant.
The solution is not always this easy, but what this story does tell us, is how important it is to not suffer in silence and to seek help from a fertility professional as soon as you feel that you might be experiencing a problem.
Jacqueline Hurst is a senior accredited psychotherapist counsellor and acupuncturist specialising in fertility. www.fertility-support.co.uk