On Fertile Ground

Relief for Infertility Patients

Suffering and Infertility

Will this nightmare ever end?

According to Buddhist Philosophy, the cause of all suffering is craving. They say if you desire things that you do not have, suffering will follow. If you realize this, peace will be yours. Suffering will disappear and contentment will reign.

Tell this to a group of 100 couples in a fertility struggle and it would be likely that you'd have a mass insurrection on your hands. Letting go of this craving would seem tantamount to giving up. To be struggling with infertility feels synonymous with suffering, which intensifies with each passing month without a baby in your arms. Furthermore, it is the craving that motivates and energizes the quest, providing the “oomph” used to navigate what can feel like an unending challenge.

The good news is that while suffering feels inseparable from infertility, there are coping skills that can mitigate the experience of suffering. These coping skills ironically involve letting go of the craving for short periods of time, which allows the body and mind to recuperate from the inordinate stress that is inherent in a fertility challenge. Paradoxically, these letting go techniques correlate positively with rates of pregnancy.

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You may not think it is possible to enter an infertility-free zone, even for a minute, since infertility feels all-consuming. Yet you can learn to dive under the turbulence of this adversity and give your body a chance to rebalance. It’s not that suffering disappears and contentment reigns. It is that by narrowing your attention to something like awareness of your breath, for instance, your body lets go of the grip of anxiety. The breath is a built-in tranquilizer. Mindful attention to cooking can be an effective distraction. Listening to guided imagery tapes can serve this purpose, too. So can a yoga class. Hypnotic work is particularly powerful. These are some of the letting-go techniques.

Here’s how these meditative-type activities provide release and relief: It’s all about the brain—how we are wired. We have what is called a triune brain, comprised of 3 zones, which I’ll simplify as follows: The brain stem controls our autonomic nervous system, which takes care of functions that are automatic such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tone and breathing rates. These functions elevate with stress. We can say that this represents the body. Structures of the neo-cortex make us aware of the world and allow us to interface with it. We experience this as the mind. Mental frenzy is a hallmark of infertility and is mentally stressful. In between the two is the limbic system of the brain, sometimes called the emotional brain, which can be said to be the place where the mind and body, and the mental frenzy, meet.

The limbic system of the brain has some features that both hold traumatic experiences and allow us to heal from them. Here’s where letting-go techniques come into the story. The limbic system responds when you breathe as if all is right with the world. It also responds to pleasant imaginary visions, a place out in nature where you feel most relaxed, let’s say. And it particularly loves creative endeavors, real or imagined and stories, especially if they contain metaphors and wordplay.

Most important, the limbic system of the brain cannot tell time. So if you spend just a few minutes, breathing richly and fully, or absorbed in decorating a cake, listening to a guided imagery audio program, or if you learn and practice self–hypnosis—any meditative activity which lasts just a little while, may as well be hours long as far as the limbic brain is concerned. The vice-like grip of stress loses its grip.

Overall, everyone would agree that craving a baby is about suffering until you get one. But the unmitigated stress of suffering takes its toll on the body and the mind and is counterproductive to the pregnancy quest. You owe it to yourself to learn how to let go for the same reason that an adventurer wouldn’t climb Mt. Everest without stopping at way stations that rejuvenate and restore energy. My web site, my blogs and my book provide much advice and guidance as to how to let go when letting go seems counter-intuitive.

Helen Adrienne, L.C.S.W., teaches stress reduction classes for infertility patients at NYU Fertility Center and is the author of On Fertile Ground: Healing Infertility.

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