The upside to IVF
It seems unlikely, but there might be a silver lining for those who undergo in vitro fertilisation treatment.
A recent article published in the Journal of Health Psychology found IVF couples were better able to control their emotions than comparison couples in stressful situations. Couples who had children conceived via IVF were also found to have a stronger psychological immune system than parents of naturally conceived children, often interpreting trials as challenges and opportunities for growth.
The women in the study tended to use distraction and positive refocusing during their IVF treatment rather than impulsively expressing their anger and sadness. The authors claim that the women’s control over their emotions helped them handle their childlessness and were adaptive coping strategies in overcoming infertility. What’s interesting is that these findings are not exceptional – research from a study in 2009 found thinking about joyful subject matter was a way of successfully coping with fertility problems.
The results of the study have surprised Jo Hartley, a mother who used IVF to conceive her children.
“I guess every case is different, but I don’t personally believe that having gone through IVF, I am now better equipped to control my emotions in stressful situations,” she says.
Hartley, who underwent two rounds of IVF to fall pregnant with both her sons, says she believes she developed a tough skin while going through IVF but doesn’t think it has had a long-term effect.
“I am still terribly emotional in stressful situations and don’t control my emotions very well,” she says. She does acknowledge, however, that while managing big emotions is still difficult, she can work through them more easily post-IVF.
“I would say I’m able to process my emotions better mentally now,”
In her coaching and counseling practice with individuals and couples going through IVF Claire Hall, author of ‘Empowered Fertility’ has found there are generally two types of couples who go through IVF.
“The first type of couple is the ‘resilient open communication’ couple,” Hall says.
“They are on the same page throughout the whole journey – they confidently share their emotions, trust each other to be supportive, develop healthy resilience and display stronger psychological resources to handle life’s ups and downs. Their priority is open communication and keeping their eye on the goal – a baby.”
“The second type I have seen is the ‘defensive closed communication’ couple,” Hall says. “Each partner is less inclined to share their full experience and would not know the other’s true thoughts. This couple can survive the experience but IVF is more likely to put strains on existing cracks in the relationship.”
Infertility undoubtedly stretches people to their limits, says Genea Medical Director Associate Professor Mark Bowman.
“Lots of studies show that women rate infertility right up there with death and the worst events of their life,” he says.
While Bowman believes that people tend to develop coping mechanisms to get through both infertility and IVF, he points to an important part of the Journal of Health Psychology study – that the group of people who had gone through IVF had all been successful.
“These people on average were young, and probably transited through in one or two attempts and got on with the rest of their lives,” he says. “And they might have made strategies in that time that helped them for later on. But their emotional resilience wasn’t completed eroded because they transited through faster.”
For Bowman, couples going through IVF often develop resilience and part of that is realising and accepting there are things that we can’t control. “I think that long-term, people still maintain their personality,” he says.
“But it sounds like some of them have learnt some extra skills along the way.”
Trying to get pregnant?
Getting pregnant is more complicated than just having sex. Fertility is affected by a number of modifiable factors (including smoking, alcohol, obesity, knowledge of menstrual cycle) and non-modifiable factors (such as age). While 80-90% of couples trying to have a baby will get pregnant within the first year, it may take more time or intervention for others to conceive.
It is generally recommended if a women is 35 years or over and hasn’t conceived after six months of trying, or if she is under 35 years and hasn’t conceived after one year of trying, that the couple see a doctor.
However Dr Natasha Andreadis, a fertility specialist, gynaecologist and reproductive endocrinologist, believes these recommendations are outdated.
“They don’t consider the male and the impact the male has on conception,” she explains.
“I recommend all couples have a pre-conception consultation with either their GP or Specialist as soon as they want to start trying. Pre-conception consultations are my favourite consults as you can really make a positive impact on a couple’s preparation for pregnancy.”
For couples struggling to fall pregnant Dr Andreadis is emphatic in her advice: “Get help,” she says.
“ Seek a wide range of opinions. It’s your right to have a second opinion. And seek opinion across the disciplines, from fertility specialists to naturopaths to Chinese Medicine Practitioners. They can all work together if they really want to. Encourage them to communicate with each other.”
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