What’s happening on the inside when we’re dealing with infertility and treatment?

The Mind-Body Connection

Imagine someone you find really attractive is caressing and kissing you, you might start to notice a warmth or tingling sensation in your body…..

So now that I have your attention, and without getting all hot and heavy, this is an example of how our mind and body is in constant communication. Every thought you have, creates a chemical change in the body. Another example is when something scares us and you feel your ‘stomach drop’.

Again, this is where our brain detects a threat (or a perceived threat) to our survival, so our bodies go in to ‘survival mode’ bringing about what is known as our ‘fight or flight response’

And our fight or flight response is that inbuilt response that creates a set of changes in our bodies to give us the best chance of either staying and fighting or fleeing the situation.


What are these changes in our body?

Once our fight/flight response is triggered;

  • our heart starts pumping like crazy to send oxygen-enriched blood to the arm and leg muscles
  • our breathing becomes fast and shallow
  • our blood pressure goes through the roof
  • stress hormones saturate the bloodstream like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol
  • our muscles tense up and our non-vital systems such as immune, digestive and reproductive systems temporarily shut down – to allow ourselves the best chance of survival.

What happens to our body with the prolonged stress of infertility?

When it comes to the prolonged stress we experience during infertility and treatment, those intense feelings and emotions month after month, affect our body and our health. We probably don’t experience the full adrenaline rush of our fight/flight response being triggered, but the research shows we are in a constant state of heightened stress. We most likely experience muscle tension and the constant circulation of stress hormones. This can somewhat suppress our non-vital systems, including the reproductive system.

Have you ever noticed when you are waiting for your period to arrive so you can start some sort of treatment, like an IVF cycle…..and it doesn’t arrive on the day you expect? This happened to me several times. If I wasn’t doing any treatment, my period would be there like clockwork. It used to drive me crazy!

When we are exposed to this prolonged stress, our body’s natural balance of hormones has been disturbed and it has an effect on our cycle and the rest of our body’s systems.

Becoming more balanced in our thoughts and emotions, can help us feel more in control. Calming our mind and therefore our body, reducing the stress of infertility and treatment, can help give ourselves the best chance for a healthy pregnancy.

How do we keep calm during infertility and treatment?

girl-lying-down-with-iPadWell, this is where I come in. My name is Donna Barnekow and I’m a Midwife who experienced years of infertility and many IVF cycles. This lead me to do further research and study to create The Conceiving Mind.

The Conceiving Mind has 2 approaches to help with learning what to expect during infertility and treatment, giving you a sense of control and some support during every step of the way. These include:

  1. A Face to Face Program held in Melbourne with a small supportive group of women, tailored for IVF. It is ran over 2 evening sessions of 2.5 hours.

The program includes a 20 minute phone consultation with me, a workbook and six MP3 tracks, all tailored to work alongside your IVF cycle. It costs $385.oo.

  1. An At-Home Package consisting of an Ebook and three MP3s which can be used for a natural cycle, OI, IUI or IVF. The package costs $39.99

Both of my approaches give you the science and research behind The Conceiving Mind, practical tips and techniques to use throughout your cycle, the 2-week wait and early pregnancy.

If you have any questions or you’d like some more information, please get in touch via email.

Should you come out of the infertility closet?

Should you come out of the infertility closet?

Telling others about your infertility challenges

As you may know, I spent years trying to have a baby and it’s still the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It builds strength in you, you never knew you had, almost like an extra muscle. On your tougher days, you probably don’t feel it, but it’s helping you to keep picking yourself up and moving forward, closer to your goal of taking home your baby or living your life in other fulfilling ways.

I just wanted to share some pros and cons of telling others about your fertility challenges.

If you tell:

The pros of coming out of the fertility closet

1. It can help you feel less isolated

Sometimes a reliable (non-pregnant) friend or relative can be a great support in a time of need. I say ‘non-pregnant’ because in my experience pregnant friends (especially first time Mums) become consumed with all things pregnancy and babies and it becomes hard because you’re on the other side of that fence. Once she has the baby, she is then consumed by the baby, feeding/sleeping etc. I have to say, all this is completely normal for most women, but I found it very difficult to listen to how hard pregnancy, labour, breastfeeding and lack of sleep was, when it was those very things I would have given anything for.

2. It can ease the burden on your partner

Let’s face it, if your partner is a bloke who prefers to fix things (like mine) rather than analyse, having someone else to confide in can help you both. It helps you to talk to someone who wants to talk about your thoughts and feelings. It can give you a new perspective if they listen and are sensitive when giving their opinion. It can help your bloke because he gets let off the hook a little – remember it’s not that they’re not interested, they can struggle to deal with seeing you suffering and they cannot physically, do anything about it.

3. It saves you telling porkies

If you come out of the ‘infertility closet’, it takes the pressure off making up stories as to why you can’t attend the next baby shower.

Should you come out of the infertility closet? The pros and cons.

The cons of coming out of the infertility closet

1. It can expose you to some unsettling questions or comments

When it comes to infertility and its treatments, people often don’t know what to say, so they sometimes blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Be prepared in advance for comments like “At least you don’t have cancer” or “I’ve got a friend who did IVF and she had twins first pop!” If you’re going to tell, consider a plan with your partner of who to tell and how much information you’re going to share. You don’t have to share your entire medical history, just something like “We’re having a few problems, but we have a great medical team behind us and we’re doing everything we can, to make it happen.” This is most often, enough to help people realise you’re not seeking their advice.

2. People may move on quickly

Sometimes you can have your plan all worked out and you’ve put a lot thought into what you’re going to say, only to be met with a quick response and they move on to another topic. It can leave you feeling like they just dismissed something pretty major that is going on in your life. The thing to remember here is, many people who are faced with someone else’s pain, just want to ignore it and hope it goes away or say something quickly (so they feel like they’re helping) and then move on to more pleasant conversation. Not everyone ‘gets it’, so it comes back to planning ahead who you think will respond appropriately, otherwise it can just add to your stress. If a friend or relative starts responding with inappropriate questions, you can just say “Ah look, I won’t go into the details, but I just thought I’d let you know.”

I had quite a few friends who I just didn’t ‘go there’ with, because I knew they wouldn’t respond well (jeopardising the friendship altogether), so for that time, it was easier to limit my time with them or avoid them at particularly vulnerable times for me.    

Will you come out of the fertility closet?

It’s not easy revealing you’re having fertility challenges, but with the right people, it can be a huge relief to have others to lean on.

Infertility is not something we should be ashamed of and the more we talk about it, the more people are educated on the impact it has on us. 

I hope these points can ease some of the burden because dealing with the stress of infertility and its treatments is enough, without the pressure you feel when keeping up the appearance that everything in your life is going along swimmingly.

What’s your experience with telling others about infertility? Let me know in an email.

Donna Barnekow

How the ‘Relaxation Response’ can help keep you calm during IVF

The term ‘Relaxation Response’ was created by Dr Herbert Benson, Cardiologist, Professor, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute.

As a Cardiologist, Dr Benson started researching the mind-body connection and its impact on blood pressure and he found by teaching patients to bring about their Relaxation Response, it helped to lower their blood pressure and provided many other measurable health benefits.

What is the Relaxation Response?

The Relaxation Response is your personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.

In his book, The Relaxation Response, Dr Benson describes the scientific benefits of relaxation and explains that regular practice of the Relaxation Response can be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders.
The Relaxation Response is essentially the opposite reaction to the ‘fight or flight’ response we experience during times of stress. According to Dr Benson’s research, using the Relaxation Response is beneficial as it counteracts the physiological effects of stress and the fight or flight response.

Mind body research

Mind-body programs for fertility have been well-researched and used in the US and Europe, giving clients a more balanced approach as they continue to pursue their dream of having a baby, whilst complementing all fertility treatments including IVF.

In Australia, there is more focus on the physical health of a woman experiencing infertility and encouragement to take care of her physical well-being than there is her emotional health.

A significant amount of this US and European research regarding fertility comes from the work of Dr Alice Domar PhD. Dr Domar is:

  • Associate Professor Ob/Gyn and Reproductive Biology at the Harvard Medical School
  • Executive Director of the Domar Centre for Mind Body Health, Boston
  • Director of Mind Body Services at Boston IVF
  • Senior Staff Psychologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre.

In 1987, Dr Domar started exploring the impact of psychological distress of infertility. This resulted in the Mind-Body Program she is still running today that teaches women strategies to decrease anxiety, infertility depression and distress through relaxation, mindfulness, cognitive re-structuring and Yoga. Her research continues to show that her mind-body programs improve psychological symptoms, and also improve pregnancy rates.

Researched benefits of mind-body programs for fertility

Domar and her colleagues found that women who received some kind of psychological intervention fared better than those who received none. In particular, women participating in a mind-body group that focused on relaxation, cognitive restructuring and fertility-relevant education had significantly better scores on psychological outcomes than women who focused only on discussion and emotional support.1

In another of Dr Alice Domar’s (2001) studies, 97 women undergoing their first IVF cycle attended either a mind-body group or a control group. After the second IVF cycle, when 76% of the mind-body group had been to six out of 10 sessions, significant differences in pregnancy rates were seen – 52% in the mind-body group were pregnant versus 20% of women in the control group. Importantly, women in the mind-body group also reported improvement in their psychological symptoms.

The education, skills and coping strategies that can be learned before or during IVF form a significant foundation for the ongoing management of worry, stress and infertility anxiety. This outcome is especially invaluable when a woman has a history of recurrent miscarriage or loss.

A study conducted by Teixeira, Martin, Prendiville, and Glover2 during pregnancy supports the findings that relaxation methods significantly reduced cortisol levels, which has a positive effect on both endocrinological balance, pregnancy rates and reducing antenatal maternal anxiety that can have adverse effects on the baby.While there is no conclusive evidence that lower stress levels result in better fertility treatment outcomes, there is certainly plenty of evidence that infertility and its treatments cause stress.

While there is no conclusive evidence that lower stress levels result in better fertility treatment outcomes, there is certainly plenty of evidence that infertility and its treatments cause stress.

Stress, anxiety and infertility depression are the most commonly reported reasons for dropping out of infertility treatment. Vergerg and his colleagues studied a cohort of 384 couples planning to undergo IVF treatment of which 17% dropped out of IVF treatment. They found that the physical or psychological burden of treatment was the most frequent cause of drop out (28%)3.

In a 2011 study by Alice Domar, participants suggested that more information on how to deal with infertility-related stress would help increase patient support and reduce dropout rates.

The Conceiving Mind is based on these well-researched methods along with Donna’s professional medical background and extensive personal experience with the IVF process.

If you want to learn the Relaxation Response and keep calm during all stages of your IVF and infertility journey, sign up for The Conceiving Mind Program.

1Domar et al, 2000, p568-575
2Teixeira, Martin, Prendiville, and Glover, 2005, p271-6
3Vergerg et al, 2008, P2050-5