The holidays can be a uniquely difficult time when you are trying to conceive: all those Christmas cards with smiling families, your cousin announcing her third pregnancy in five years, relatives you haven’t spoken to for months calling to ask “so what are your plans?” and a slew of well-meaning friends who wonder “how are you, really?” On top of the other changes and challenges of this year, you are dealing with a lot.
Want to know how to cope with infertility this holiday season? Take a moment to care for your own mental health.
Here are some strategies and resources you can use to show self-care this holiday season. By understanding the context of mental health and fertility, we hope you will feel more confident and in control through these final months of 2020 and into the fresh start of 2021.
Understanding Mental Health on Your Fertility Journey
You are not alone
The unique stresses of the holiday season can make you feel lonely, resentful, frustrated, sad, or abandoned. But you are far from alone. Remember that infertility is more common than it may seem. In fact, the CDC estimates that infertility affects 6% of married women between 15 and 44 years old. That’s nearly 4.7 million women in the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As this Harvard Mental Health Letter notes, the effect of infertility on mental health can be exacerbated by the side effects of drugs that are used to treat infertility and also by worries about affording the cost of treatment or by the repeated stress of trying and not succeeding.
Depression from infertility
Depression from infertility is also common, and study after study shows that infertility can have a lasting negative impact on mental health. One study from San Francisco State University found that “the psychological distress associated with infertility is comparable to that associated with heart disease, cancer, or HIV, and fertility treatment patients often characterize infertility as the most upsetting experience in their lives.” That same study found that 40% of women and 15% of men who experience infertility show symptoms akin to major clinical depression.
With these disheartening statistics in mind, it is even more important to care for your own mental health. Here are some strategies and resources we suggest to help you deal with this stressful season, so you can take control of your mental health and find the support you need to be well.
How to Deal with Infertility This Holiday Season
Writing for the Harvard Health Blog, noted fertility expert Ellen Glazer breaks down three key strategies for working through potentially painful moments.
1) Open holiday cards with a friend
A well-intentioned tide of holiday cards can quickly turn into a recurring series of emotionally agonizing moments. One solution is to leave them sealed until you can open them with sympathetic friends. Consider these people your personal infertility support group. Afterward, throw them away if you need to, reward yourself for facing them at all, and don’t be afraid to indulge in a little inappropriate humor or irreverence. That may be exactly what you need right now.
2) Create a strategy that helps you stay in control at social events
Nearly everyone has felt what it’s like to be trapped at a party when they want to leave, but that feeling can multiply exponentially when you’re dealing with infertility. It helps to find ways that you can control your environment. In 2020, with social gatherings at a minimum, that may be easier than before. However, if you decide to host a holiday party, plan for focused games and events that will quietly discourage people from talking about their families. Options include a trivia game, white elephant gift exchange, or food and drink tasting. If you are invited to someone else’s party, build yourself a clear exit strategy with a prepared excuse in case you start to feel overwhelmed.
3) Have a plan for what you want to share and practice how you will say it
Much like having an exit excuse planned in advance, knowing what you want to say about infertility or having children will make the conversation feel much less daunting. By knowing your own personal boundaries and preparing in advance, you set the rules for the conversation and you can plan how to end it when you’ve reached your personal limit. Practice specific phrases that acknowledge your journey without necessarily putting your personal life on display. You might say “It’s been a difficult year, but we’re happy to see our friends and ring in the new one.”
Help for Handling Infertility and Mental Health
If you are experiencing mental health issues related to your infertility journey, help is available. Don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need. Here are some options that we often recommend.
Support Groups for infertility
Online and in-person fertility support groups are hugely helpful for many people. The Dominion Fertility Support Group is moderated through Facebook, but you can find other groups through RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association.
Short-term counseling can be tremendously useful in helping you develop coping strategies and talk through your decision making process. A supportive counselor can also help you learn to better manage your anxiety, fatigue, and other mental health issues. Ask your fertility team for a referral.
Studies have concluded that interpersonal therapy and cognitive behavior therapy can also make a significant difference in managing mild to moderate depression from infertility. Many people opt for individual therapy but couples therapy and group therapy are also available.
Infertility and its treatment can easily make you feel overwhelmed. Holistic relaxation methods may help to lower stress, leading in turn to improved fertility.
For moderate to severe depressive symptoms, antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication may be helpful. However, they may also impact your fertility journey. As always, weigh all of your options with your physician before you make any medical decision.
Here’s to You and Your Mental Health
This holiday season, take time for self-care. If you are experiencing infertility, you already have enough on your mind. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need from your family, friends, and physicians to protect your own mental health and wellness. Learn what you can about mental health and infertility, then build a strategy for coping with the holidays that will help you feel confident and in control. Rest when you can, make sure to drink water, and know that no matter what it may feel like, you are not alone.