Mindfulness During IVF

What I know now could have saved me so much pain

The day my fertility doctor told me and my husband that we needed serious medical interventions to get pregnant, I left the clinic and drove straight to a convenience store to buy a pint of Ben & Jerry's and a lottery ticket. Digging a penny out of my purse and scratching angrily at the ticket, I willed my luck to change.

Nothing. Not a cent. Of course.

I pulled out the plastic spoon and dug into the ice cream.

A few days later we started IVF, going back to that clinic more times than we could count. We practiced giving shots to squishy rubber balls, hung calendars with dates highlighted and circled on our refrigerator, and cleared space inside it for medications that needed to be kept cold. I became more comfortable putting my legs in stirrups than I ever imagined possible. The soft part of my belly and the insides of my forearms bloomed with tender blue bruises.

And I cried. I cried often and I cried hard – huge wet tears rolling down my cheeks as I prayed and bargained and searched my past and my husband's in a vain attempt to make sense of what was happening. It wasn't supposed to take a team of medical professionals, multiple appointments, thousands of dollars, endless phone calls to insurance companies, and countless painful injections just to get pregnant. Making a baby should be about lingering over dinner, glasses of fine dry wine, and Fleetwood Mac playing in the background – anything other than medical charts, blood counts, and hormone levels.

Between the tears and the shots, I worried about everything: How many embryos should we transfer? Two? More? What if we got twins? Triplets? How could I possibly manage with multiples? But what if we only transferred one and it didn't work? What then? More rounds of IVF? And what if they don't work? When do we stop? Do we adopt? Where would we adopt from? Domestic adoption? Or would we go abroad? If so, where? Russia? China? Ethiopia?

And so it went. When I wasn't distracting myself with work or Law & Order reruns, I was digging through my past, freaking out about the future, and following my mind down the rabbit hole of every possible outcome, real or imagined. And I was pissed! It wasn't supposed to be this way.

What I didn't realize was that it didn't have to be that way. I didn't know about mindfulness then. The ideas and practices that are such a significant part of my life now were not even on my radar. Mindfulness, something I now practice daily, is fundamentally about awareness and acceptance. It's about noticing when we have become lost in our own thoughts, dreams, and regrets, and finding our way back to whatever is actually happening in the present moment, then finding a way to accept it – whatever it is.

It sounds simple, and it is. But it's not easy because our brains are wired to be thinking constantly, questioning the past and worrying about the future. Getting off that carousel of obsessive, unhelpful thinking is just one reason why a mindfulness practice would have made my IVF experience significantly less painful – emotionally and psychologically.

Here are a few more reasons:

1. Mindfulness helps you understand that thoughts are just thoughts. They aren't reality. I didn't know it at the time, but I didn't have to get sucked into every fantasy or worry that crossed my mind. I didn't know that if I could get just enough space from those thoughts, I could have seen that many of them weren't helpful and weren't worth my time or energy. I could have let them go.

2. Mindfulness helps you come back to the present moment. As soon as I become aware that I am lost in a mental fog, I can take steps to come back to what I actually see and hear and feel and smell and know. I plant my hands firmly on the kitchen counter and my feet on the floor. I take a few intentional breaths and get myself grounded.

Back then, these skills would have allowed me to step out of my worries and fears, and get focused on what I actually knew: that we needed help to get pregnant, that we were lucky to have access to assisted reproductive technologies, and that our doctor was hopeful about our prospects. That's all we knew. That's it. I could have let go of everything else. Over and over and over again.

3. Mindfulness is about acceptance. It's about coming to terms with what is actually happening and accepting it with as much kindness and forgiveness as we can muster. I spent a huge amount of time and energy being pissed at my ovaries, at my husband's sperm, at the doctors who delivered the news, and at every pregnant woman who crossed my path.

If I had been able to find a way to accept our infertility diagnosis and treatment plan, I would have suffered a whole lot less in the process. I'm not saying I would have been happy about it, and I am definitely not saying it would have been easy. But over time my anger would have dissipated, and I would have felt calmer and a bit more peaceful.

4. Gratitude is a side effect of mindfulness. The reality is that if we're still breathing, we have something – even if it seems like the only thing – to be thankful for. Had I been able to stay in the present moment, I would have realized I had so very much to be grateful for: that the technology exists to diagnose our problem and treat us, that our health insurance would cover much of our treatment, that we were otherwise healthy, and that we had a tremendous amount of support. Even though gratitude won't get you pregnant, a little perspective can make the experience a bit less painful.

If you think mindfulness might help you cope with infertility, try this technique the next time you're overwhelmed by unhelpful thoughts or strong emotions. It's called STOP.

Stop. Whatever you are doing, whether it's thinking or panicking or raging. Just stop.

Take a breath. Take a long, deep breath. Notice your breath going in through your nose and out through your mouth. After that, take two or three more breaths, or as many as you need to feel a bit more calm and grounded.

Observe. Take a moment to notice what is actually happening, either in your own mind or in the space around you. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What do you see or hear or smell or taste? What is going on for you?

Proceed. Now that you've gotten yourself out of your own muck and found a little headspace, it's time to figure out what you need to do next. Get back to work? Connect with your partner? Call your doctor to get some answers? Get yourself a pint of ice cream?

Each time you notice that you have been swept away by the anxiety or anger in your brain (or that you've spent far too much time searching the Internet for infertility information), you can make a choice. You can choose to direct your thoughts and energy in more helpful, productive, and supportive ways.

In the world of infertility, where it feels like everything is out of control, mindfulness reminds us of the one thing we do have control over: our own perspective. It might not get you pregnant, but it just might get you through the process with a little stress and a little more strength.

If you would like to learn more about a mindfulness practice, here are two of my favorite places to start:

Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, a 28-Day Program by Sharon Salzberg 

Mindful.org, a great website with a wide range of articles on mindfulness.

If you are in Greater New York City, you may be interested in attending the Seleni Institute’s Fertility/ART GroupLearn more about all of our program offerings.