14 ways infertility can affect your mental health
How to recognize when infertility is taking over your life
When you think of infertility, what comes to mind?
People usually think of infertility as an experience that impacts one aspect of your life: whether or not you have a baby. They may think of IVF shots, surrogacy, ovulation tests, or something they’ve read about how fertility declines with age.
Yes, there are many physical sides of infertility. But is infertility really confined to the physical body?
The reality? No, infertility is not just physical, and is about more than if you have a baby or not. There is a lot of research that shows infertility can have a huge effect on many aspects of your life. The psychological impacts of infertility are diverse and profound.
How common is infertility?
At least 1 in 8 couples trying to get pregnant will experience infertility.
Despite how common it is, the challenges individuals and couples face are rarely talked about. If you experience infertility, you may struggle with getting the understanding and support you need from friends and family, as well as accepting and talking about your own feelings.
How does infertility impact mental health?
Studies show that infertility can affect every aspect of your life. It can have huge and long-lasting impacts on your mental health, relationships, social life, self-esteem, and identity.
But it’s not always easy to understand when our mental health is affected, and we are not always great at asking for help until we crash.
Do you feel like infertility is taking over your life? Do you think about infertility often, or worry that you can’t get pregnant? Are you feeling depressed or anxious because of infertility?
It can be helpful to understand the signs that infertility has impacted your quality of life. This can help you feel less alone, prevent you from underestimating your emotional distress, and help you seek the right support for you.
Here are 14 ways that infertility can affect your mental health
1. You don’t feel like yourself anymore.
Some people experiencing infertility feel like they’re losing themselves in the struggle. Your body, emotions, time and dreams for the future are shifting and feel out of your control.
You might have questions like, “Who am I if I don’t have a child?” or “What does infertility say about my masculinity or femininity?” Wondering about who you are during and after infertility is common, and can make you feel like you don’t know yourself like you used to.
2. You don’t find pleasure in things that used to bring you joy.
Research shows that people with infertility experience depression at the same rates as people with cancer. Not feeling joy in things that usually make you happy is a key symptom of depression, so it’s common for people experiencing infertility to lose that sense of pleasure.
What are the symptoms of infertility-related depression?
- Feeling empty and hopeless
- Not finding joy in things you usually get pleasure from
- Irritability or frustration
- Feeling worthless, guilty or ashamed
- Unexplained physical pain or symptoms
- Thoughts of death and suicide
Depression is a serious illness that needs treatment and support. If you feel that you might be depressed, it’s important to get help from a mental health professional right away.
3. You often feel sadness or grief.
Something else that could be a sign of infertility-related depression is feeling deeply sad. You might think of grief as being something connected to death, but we can grieve other types of losses as well. You might be grieving the loss of the life you thought you’d have, an identity you hoped to be, a pregnancy loss, a failed treatment, or other losses you come across with infertility.
The pain of not being able to have a baby goes deeper than not having something else you want, like a new house or a big vacation. It’s connected to your identity, the life you thought you’d have, and a deep yearning for something that feels like it’s “supposed” to happen - and does happen for many others.
It’s common to feel sad and hopeless with infertility, because this core need and desire isn’t being met. And there’s no guarantee that it will be met. With each passing cycle when the pregnancy test is still negative, you might feel hope slipping away.
4. You feel stressed or anxious.
Many aspects of infertility can be stressful. If you’re trying to conceive through intercourse, keeping track of your cycle and timing when you have sex can be logistically and emotionally taxing.
If you’re pursuing treatment, there are all kinds of decisions, appointments, medications and procedures that take time and energy to manage. And the uncertainty of all of it can be anxiety-inducing.
What are the signs of infertility-related anxiety?
- Worrying about infertility gets in the way of you living your daily life
- Nervousness about infertility doesn’t go away often
- You have a hard time falling asleep, or you wake up often
- Feeling restless, on-edge and jittery
Even though in some ways, anxiety is normalized in society, you don’t have to experience anxiety alone and without support. If it’s getting in the way of you living your everyday life, reach out to a mental health professional.
5. You are disconnected from the people in your life.
Many people experiencing infertility feel socially isolated. In some cases, you might pull back friends and family because you feel they don’t understand what you’re going through, you’d rather not share with them, or you feel they’re all moving on with their lives while you’re stuck.
Others might also pull away from you, as they don’t know what to do to support you, or worry that their children or life events would be difficult for you.
Social isolation can negatively impact your mental health. When we experience difficult things in life, it’s important to have support from a social network to help us through it. Without support from others, in addition to the negative impacts of infertility, you might experience feelings of shame, loneliness and abandonment.
6. You often feel jealous, angry, or resentful.
Even if you’re not normally a jealous person, seeing pregnant people and babies when going through infertility can trigger anger and envy. It’s hard to see others experience something you so desperately long to have yourself.
When we experience something painful, it makes sense that we have thoughts and feelings that we wouldn’t normally have. Maybe you used to enjoy going to baby showers, but now pregnancy announcements make you feel sad and angry.
7. Your relationship with your partner is strained.
There are so many reasons why infertility can cause difficulties in your romantic relationship. You might not react to infertility the same way, or you feel differently about having kids in the first place. Scheduled sex might put a huge damper on your intimacy. One of you might take on a lot more of the responsibility when it comes to fertility treatments, leaving you feeling disconnected and unbalanced in your relationship.
You’re going through something difficult together, but you’re each on your own journey. You each might not know exactly what you need, and you might have a hard time putting words to your experience.
That can lead to disconnects and communication breakdowns, which can leave you feeling alone and frustrated. You might feel like the person who is usually your biggest supporter is now emotionally very far away.
8. You don’t make plans for the future.
It’s very common to feel like your life is on pause when going through infertility. Not only are you not moving on to the next stage of life that you long for, but you also have trouble scheduling anything else. Ideas of vacations or life changes are cast aside with “what ifs” and treatment plans.
This hopelessness and lack of investment in yourself or the future can wear down your mental health. It’s important to have things in life to look forward to, and to participate in socializing and activities that you used to enjoy.
9. You have trouble focusing on anything other than infertility.
Infertility can be logistically and emotionally all-consuming. Many feel that managing fertility treatments is like a full-time job. And the desire to have a child can be so overpowering that all other thoughts fall to the wayside.
When you’re going through treatment, it makes sense that most (or all) of your brain power is focused on taking the right medication and the right time, going to appointments, and wondering about the outcome of the treatment.
But whether or not you’re in treatment, it can be beneficial for your mental health if you have times each day when you’re not focused on infertility. But when you’re deep in the struggle, this can be hard to do. This hyperfocus on infertility can impact your mental health, preventing you from taking a break, experiencing joy, and nurturing yourself.
10. You don’t have as much energy as you used to.
As we’ve seen, infertility is exhausting. Whether it’s taking a toll on your body, taking energy to manage logistics, or emotionally draining (or all three), it’s understandable that you don’t have much energy left over for other things in life.
A drop in energy is another sign of depression, and an indication that your mental health is suffering. So, even though it’s understandable that your energy levels are lower than usual, you can also be mindful of how much it’s impacting your daily life.
11. You feel guilty, or like you’re a failure.
It’s common for people experiencing infertility to feel guilty, or like you’re a failure. Even though you might intellectually understand that infertility is not your fault, the feelings that you’re letting yourself or your partner down can be powerful.
You also might have grown up with clear expectations of how and when you are “supposed” to get pregnant. Your culture, your family, and you yourself might impose pressures and messages about infertility on your experience, which can enhance feelings of failure.
You also might feel like a failure compared to other people in your life or on social media. Seeing other people who seem to conceive easily, and have no trouble carrying a pregnancy to term, can contribute to feelings of inadequacy.
12. You struggle with the uncertainty of the future.
One aspect of infertility that many people find especially challenging is the uncertainty. Will this next try work? When will we get to try again? Will this ever work?
Research shows that uncertainty has a negative impact on our mental health. While some people are typically more comfortable with uncertainty than others, the long-term nature of uncertainty with regards to infertility can be destabilizing even for the most “go with the flow” people.
The lack of control can also feel unnerving. We might have thought we would be able to decide when to have children and how many we’d have. But as it feels like those decisions are being taken away from us, we do what we can to feel like we’re in control (doing research, following fertility diets, or anything else we can think of) - for better or for worse.
13. Your relationship with food, alcohol or substances is feeling out of control.
When going through a difficult time in life, we might turn to food, alcohol or substances to help us cope. Sometimes it’s about trying to feel better, trying to feel in control where we can, or feeling like we need to punish ourselves.
It’s a good idea to monitor your relationship with food, alcohol and substances, so you can seek support before anything spirals out of control.
14. You have trouble asking for support when you need it.
So many people hesitate to seek help when they need it. This is especially true when it comes to mental health and infertility, because these are topics that are often stigmatized and have elements of shame and secrecy. You might be afraid to reach out because you don’t want to be judged.
You also might have a hard time acknowledging that you’re actually struggling. Many of us live in a culture that promotes productivity and a “just keep swimming” attitude, so you might be used to powering through when you feel stressed or overwhelmed.
And on the other side of that coin is that you might not want help. A tricky thing about struggle is that it can be seductive. There can be something comforting and satisfying about getting lost in your pain or sadness.
Everyone deserves to have support
There are other ways infertility can affect your mental health too. Every person is different, so it’s important to check in with yourself and notice if things don’t feel right.
Professional mental health support can be helpful, even if you don’t feel you’re struggling much. A therapist can help you process any feelings you have, provide you with tools that can get you through the tough times, and support you as you make decisions. More and more research is showing that having professional mental health support when going through infertility treatments is hugely beneficial.
If you live in Sweden, we recommend contacting Din Psykolog where you can speak to a psychologist that you feel comfortable with online.
About the author
Maya Maria Brown, M.A., is an infertility mental health expert. She has a master’s in Counseling Psychology, and has worked with individuals and couples on infertility and relationships. She also has personal experience with infertility and is currently in treatment.
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