Understanding the Stresses of Infertility and its Treatment
Infertility and the treatment thereof can be very stressful – physically, emotionally and financially. It is important to understand why this process is can be so stressful and how men and women react differently to it, in order to better manage the stress and improve the outcome of any treatment.
Infertility – and its treatment – is a journey that most couples simply did not anticipate or envisage and, while there is much reason for hope, the treatment process can also be very challenging.
Mandy Rodrigues, our resident clinical psychologist at Medfem Fertility Clinic in Johannesburg, says that there is no doubt that undergoing fertility treatment is highly stressful. The causes of infertility and the processes involved in diagnosing and treating infertility have their own physical, emotional and financial consequences for the couple and each partner.
Infertility is a medical condition and, in many cases, requires treatment that involves undergoing medical procedures and receiving or self-administering medications over a period of time.
For example, in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment is not a single event, but rather a series of procedures that are completed over five stages to complete a treatment cycle. In addition, IVF treatment also involves consultation and testing. This means that you need to prepare yourself for around two months of medications, a number of procedures and extensive testing.
During this time, a couple will also be dealing with the impact of hormonal changes on their bodies. Responses to the medications used vary enormously for both men and women. For example, some women undergoing IVF treatment have no symptoms from the medication, while others feel emotional and much more prone to tears, anxiety and irritability. Some report feeling uncomfortable with bloating, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms.
It is also important to realise that not every IVF treatment cycle is successful. A couple may need to undergo more than one cycle of treatment and, in many cases, several treatment cycles.
As such, fertility treatment can be a physically exhausting journey and couples who are in good physical condition can expect better results from their fertility treatments.
Infertility can be so emotionally upsetting because most women and men have a general expectation of parenthood. When a woman is ready to take on her motherhood role and is confronted with the possibility of barrenness, it is a shocking blow. Similarly, men diagnosed with infertility often experience shock and disbelief, particularly because traditionally infertility has been thought of as a female problem, even though a male problem can be identified in nearly half of all couples who experience difficulty conceiving.
Our culture puts a tremendous focus on reproduction. How many times have you heard people say about a newborn: “Oh, she’s got your eyes and his hair”. Culturally, parenthood is considered a sign of continuation, and an investment in the future.
As a result, couples facing infertility and treatment may go through a range of intense emotions. Moods can swing from hope to fear, from joy to disappointment. Some couples find that starting treatment is a positive experience because they have something to focus on. However, others may fear the physical intervention or feel very disappointed that they require medical assistance.
All of these issues have an impact on the individual, and may result in depression, anxiety, helplessness and isolation. In fact, infertility counsellors are beginning to view the infertility treatment and coping process with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The experience of infertility is literally the death of a dream. It can be a painful and difficult state.
In addition, men and women deal with the stress of fertility at different levels and this can place the relationship under a great deal of stress. Men generally want solutions, are less likely to look at longer-term options until forced to, and feel helpless in the face of their partners’ distress.
Women, on the other hand, don’t want only solutions or appeasement. They want to be heard and supported. They may become angry and intolerant towards their spouses. What results is a phenomenon called ‘independent coping’, where spouses have to cope on their own, for fear of saying the wrong thing or upsetting the other.
Dealing with feelings of uncertainty and trepidation, as well as hope, many women and men describe the experience of coping with infertility and IVF treatment as an “emotional rollercoaster”.
There may be periods of intense sadness, anger or isolation during this time. Mundane activities like watching TV or going to the shopping mall are fraught with emotion. Seeing pregnant women, families dining together or baby clothing, diapers and food, or even pregnancy tests – all of these things are reminders of infertility.
Initially, women may fear the actual medical process, but waiting for results is often the most difficult part of treatment. Days seem to pass very slowly and it can be a time of acute vulnerability and sensitivity, making it difficult to concentrate on ordinary life.
In addition, many couples feel stigmatised, and unable to share their experience with family or friends. However, even for couples with a strong support network, which can be a great comfort during fertility treatment, dealing with well-meaning family and friends can be a challenge. The most loving relatives or friends may offer ‘helpful’ suggestions and ‘general’ advice that will appear to be incredibly insensitive and hurtful.
Remember that fertility treatment – like other medical conditions – is a private matter and you can (and should) be very selective about who you share this information with.
While fulfilling your dream of having a baby is priceless, there are certain costs involved in receiving fertility treatment. Many of these procedures require significant expertise in terms of medical, nursing, scientific and pathology staff as well as advanced equipment, and can be expensive.
In addition, more than one fertility treatment cycle may be required. At Medfem Fertility Clinic, we are proud of our IVF pregnancy rates of around 50 percent, well above the standard success rates in South Africa. However, not every IVF treatment is successful, and more than one cycle of treatment may be necessary and, in many cases, several treatment cycles are required.
The financial stress of fertility treatment is often further compounded by the fact that fertility treatments such as IVF are not covered by most open medical aids in South Africa. However, there is finance is available for fertility treatment, and your fertility specialist will be able to assist you with information in this regard.
Dealing with infertility distress
Undergoing fertility treatment is known to have a social, emotional, short- and long-term psychological impact on couples, especially those with repeated failed cycles or those faced with the possibility of having to use egg or sperm donors, or surrogate mothers.
In addition, the physical demands, emotional ups and downs, and the financial implications of the infertility experience can impact life at home, at work and with family – but especially with your partner.
At Medfem Fertility Clinic, we know that the overall well-being of our patients is a crucial aspect of fertility treatment. We encourage our patients to take advantage of the many resources we have developed to address the stresses they may have as a part of their journey.
If you would like to know more about the stresses of infertility treatment and how to cope with these stresses, we invite you to connect with us by simply clicking here or contacting us telephonically on +27 (11) 463 2244.
We look forward to meeting you!