The largest cause of anxiety for most of us is not caused by outside events but by the thoughts we have about them. Our minds judge and categorise everything we experience as good, bad or indifferent. To test this pay attention to your thoughts for ten minutes as you go about your day. The endless analysing and assessing is exhausting and make it difficult to experience peace of mind. The thoughts that circle while experiencing infertility are far more terrifying than the day-to-day experience. “What if I never get to be a parent?” “What if infertility conquers me?”
When we consciously slow down and check in with our bodies, our thoughts and our feelings, we open ourselves up to a wider perspective. We become an impartial witness to our thoughts and in this way they lose their power.
After my first round of fertility treatment failed I was exhausted, depressed and was having panic attacks. My fertility clinic suggested that I undertake an eight-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy course. I did and the result has been life changing. At the time of writing I am still on my journey, that being one of the changes, the fact that I can now refer to infertility as a journey rather than by using a line of expletives! I still have difficult days, but I now have a set of tools to see me through.
Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment without judgement. The Mental Health Foundation reports that clinical studies have shown that by practising mindfulness participants experienced up to a 70% reduction in anxiety, an increase in disease fighting antibodies, suggesting improvements to the immune system, improved sleep and a reduction in negative feelings such as anger, tension and depression. 1
You can begin to practice mindfulness right now by bringing your attention to your breathing. Simply observe the coming and going of your breath and the subtle changes in your body. I believe that mindfulness is invaluable for anyone faced with infertility. Over eight weeks I laid foundations in the attitudes of non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, non-striving, acceptance, trusting and letting go.
The course teaches you to develop self-compassion, allowing you to be kind to yourself when you need it most. We are often our own worst critics and infertility can rob you of your self-confidence, trust in your body, even your faith in life. By asking “How can I best take care of myself?” you develop a trust in yourself that you can handle anything that comes up. You notice that you are stronger than you first thought.
On my journey I have realised that although I cannot control the things that happen to me, I do have a choice on how I respond to these circumstances. By taking the time to step back and observe, rather than reacting immediately, I have come to see new possibilities and outcomes that at first may not have seemed possible.
Finding acceptance while experiencing infertility is extremely difficult, but if achieved can allow you to re-focus your energy. Instead of denying and resisting what is, you are able to find new ways to support yourself and move forward
Mindfulness allows us to change our perspective. We may view IVF as an overwhelming and stressful eight-week block of time but if we break it down into segments we will see that maybe we can handle each moment as it comes, a five second injection, a 20-minute procedure. The anxiety we build up around these moments in our thoughts can be far worse than the experience itself.
Letting go is a way of letting things be, without grasping or pushing away. In terms of infertility it does not mean letting go of your desire to be a parent. Mindfulness encourages us to relax our grip on how and when that might happen and let go of our fears and anxieties for the future.
I am an Infertility Network UK volunteer and run the support group Mindful Mumas-to-be. My website and online community are open to anyone trying to conceive, going through fertility treatment or who is pregnant following infertility and interested in learning more about mindfulness and the mind-body link. I have also qualified as an EFT practitioner and will be running Embrace, an eight-week mindfulness/EFT/CBT online course from January 2014.