Whether you've experienced a miscarriage, been trying unsuccessfully for months and months, or you're currently going through fertility treatments, struggling to become a parent can make the most rational, calm person absolutely frantic. Georgia Witkin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Mount Sinai who focuses on infertility, shares her tips on how to stay balanced when your hormones are anything but.
Give yourself a break from self-blame.
When things don't go according to plan, Dr. Witkin says many of her patients spiral. "They ask, 'How did I not know? Why did I have that abortion? I should have had the child on my own—everyone else is having children on their own. I should have married that guy instead of waiting for a better situation.'" But obsessing over the shoulda, woulda, couldas is fruitless. "They did what was right at the time. Your relationship with yourself is the most important relationship you have when going through fertility treatments. Be your own best friend." Keep your head up and looking forward.
Don't worry about stressing out.
That myth that everyday stress can cause fertility issues? It's just that. “Physical stress like running the marathon or psychological stress like a parent dying can cause a disruption in your cycle," says Dr. Witkin. Those are "usually time-limited and self-correcting," she adds. "If you have a good egg and good sperm, stress does not interfere. It doesn't hurt your eggs. It won't hurt your conception. In theory, you can be in a war zone, and if a good egg and a good sperm meet, you'll be pregnant.”
Keep your routines simple.
“If you can't really take charge of your reproductive world, reorganize the rest of your world," suggests Dr. Witkin. "Every time you get control over any corner of your life, for the moment, your adrenaline lowers. That allows you to sleep—and maybe even laugh once in a while." Keep it small, like organizing your closet.
She adds that Type-A women "tend to be polyphasic, which means they do two, three, maybe four things at the same time. They'll drive, listen to a book on tape, take a call all at the same time. At home, they might be on the computer, having a bite, and listening to music." When trying to make a baby, your typical multi-tasking can become too much. It won't impact your ability to get pregnant, but it may make you feel completely scatter-brained. Your mind will be in a zillion places so even something as simple as finding your keys can become frustrating. "Pick a spot for them near your front door," she says. "Do one thing at a time. You'll be preoccupied worrying, waiting, and watching. This is the time to not overwhelm yourself in ways where you can stay organized and take control."
If you find yourself staring at the ceiling for hours at night brainstorming all the reasons you might not be pregnant yet, Dr. Witkin has a fix. "When you get into bed, don't take your computer with you and Google 'infertility.' Play music, preferably without lyrics, that is slower than your heartbeat—about 72 beats per minute—or listen to a book on tape, though no thrillers. You can also get in the shower and just listen to the water continually hitting your body," she says. "The repetition of any of these actions will literally rock you to sleep. Don't stimulate yourself because you really do need to sleep during this time of trying."
And when your stress level feels like it's at a breaking point? Pause for a beat. Dr. Witkin references Dr. Herbert Benson's work on the 'relaxation response,' a method that aims to calm you mentally and physically. "I teach my patients during their very first visit that pausing for a total of 20 minutes a day reduces stress symptoms by 50 percent. It doesn't have to be all at once; you can break the 20-minutes into four- or five-minute sections," Dr. Witkin says. It's as easy as closing your eyes and counting back from ten to one in an elevator, or taking relaxed, diaphragmatic breaths in bed in the morning. "This helps when you're sitting in waiting rooms and you're on public transportation trying to get to appointments—or you're waiting for your doctor to call with results."
Set boundaries for yourself.
"There are situations that are going to be very, very difficult. I have patients who say, 'I can't go to Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law is pregnant and I'm gonna cry through the whole dinner.' Or, 'Oh my God, I have this baby shower and I don't want to go, but I feel I should go.' I tell them that this is no time to 'should' on yourself. It's as much their time as someone else's time," says Dr. Witkin.
Text and email are her recommended platforms to gently let friends, colleagues, or relatives know you're not able to join an event that involves babies. If they know you're trying to get pregnant, send them a note explaining your situation. "You don't have to say it's psychological. You can blame it on aches and pains. You don't have to tell the truth," says Dr. Witkin. And if there's something you really can't get out of? Email everyone ahead of time to let them know you may struggle at the event. "If someone doesn't get it, don't think that you can explain it to them. Just back off. Accept that you love this person but this area is their blind spot," she says.
And remember: "You don't have to be there for everybody. That's what I meant when I said you have to be your own best friend."
Figure out your end game.
"If you see this as a journey, then every step—whether it works or doesn't work—is more information for you. There are no neat stages with fertility treatments. The trick is to keep moving, keep moving, keep moving 'cause there is always a way, but only if you're moving forward." Part of that way forward requires introspection and women identifying their end goal. "If a woman is in process of trying to get pregnant, she typically wants to parent," says Dr. Witkin. (Save egg donors or surrogates, of course.) "Once a woman realizes that what she wants is to nurture and raise a child, adoption and ovum donation look very different."
If something seems off, talk to a professional.
"Almost every fertility practice has someone they can recommend who really is a specialist in fertility and mental health," says Dr. Witkin. "When you speak to somebody who's been doing this for years, they can reassure you that what you're feeling is not that unusual and there are ways of helping yourself beyond just giving yourself a pep talk."
But if things feel more serious? "There are so many physical changes that can happen from these experiences from weight gain to hormonal imbalances that cause women to be emotionally up-and-down. The imbalances can cause depression, which can sometimes cause issues that are post-partum-esque. It's a deeper imbalance that women can't necessarily fix themselves," Dr. Witkin explains.
Signs of real depression include sleep disturbances, appetite or weight changes, and a general disconnectedness. If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, Dr. Witkin recommends reaching out to your fertility doctor or physician and request tests to check hormone levels or your thyroid's health.
Listen to your body and, as Dr. Witkin continuously advocates, be your own best friend.
Editors' note: We use the terms “woman” and “female” in this article to refer to people with internal reproductive organs; however we understand that not everyone with internal reproductive organs identifies as a woman or a female. We use the terms “man” and “male” to refer to people with external reproductive organs; however we understand that not everyone with external reproductive organs identifies as a man or a male.