How to manage the trauma of failed IVF

By Helena Tubridy, Fertility Therapist and Coach

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Starting an In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) protocol is exciting and stressful in equal measures for couples. Women are at the business end of a relentless round of medication regimes, injections, scheduling in clinic visits for blood draws and scans during working weeks. At the end of this whirlwind comes the two-week wait, until a pregnancy test finally reveals whether treatment has been successful with a baby on the way or not.

IVF is an emotional rollercoaster, with high hopes coupled with a lack of control over the outcome. Experiencing failure is often traumatising, leaving people feeling helpless and hopeless. When an IVF treatment cycle fails it is not surprising to feel disappointed, overwhelmed and isolated. It is perfectly normal to need some time to take it all aboard. Numbness is a common reaction at first, coupled with a sense of disconnection from the world. My clients describe shock at the range of deeply upsetting emotions they feel, and how anxiety can take over.

It is a sad time, and partners in a relationship often react in different ways, on a different time schedule. There is no right or wrong way to respond or cope. One size does not fit all. Grieving the loss of a hoped for pregnancy is normal.

Traumatic may seem a dramatic way to describe the feeling experienced after failed IVF cycles so, let’s take a look at it.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

Emotional and psychological trauma is the reaction to unusually stressful situations and events that cause shock and distress. These events are not necessarily physical. Critically the usual sense of safety and normality of life is breached, leaving uncomfortable feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. It is not the magnitude of the event; it is how it affects each person.

We become traumatised if we have felt powerless to control the outcomes, if things happened quickly and we were unable to prepare for them. Everyone reacts differently and existing stress pressures intensify reactions. Those who already have depressive tendencies or experienced trauma in childhood are more vulnerable.

There is a wide range of trauma signs and symptoms. It is worth noting that they may include physical discomforts. One or both partners may experience some or all of them. They may last from days to months and tend to fade over time. The nervous system reacted normally to a real or perceived threat to your safety and just got stuck on ‘high’. This leaves a lot of stress hormones with very little to do. I’ll show you how you can burn them off, but first let’s see what trauma does in the body and mind.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS ARE TWO-FOLD:

Emotional symptoms

  • Shock, disbelief

  • Numbness, overwhelm

  • Anger, mood swings

  • Guilt, self-blame

  • Anxiety

  • Isolation, withdrawal

  • Disconnection

  • Hopelessness

  • Denial, rushing into next steps

  • Intrusive thoughts

  • Hopelessness

  • Loss of confidence

Physical symptoms

  • Exhaustion

  • Lack of appetite

  • Listlessness

  • Crying

  • Insomnia, restless sleep, nightmares

  • Muzzy head, lack of concentration

  • Short fuse, startle easily

  • Headaches, IBS flare, sinusitis

  • Muscle tension

  • Loss of libido

  • No energy

These proven strategies help your nervous system get ‘unstuck’ and quickly return to a normal baseline. They all help with recovery; to restore equilibrium and reduce anxiety.

1. GATHER YOUR TRIBE & STAY CONNECTED

There is lots of support to access at this tough time. Others have been where you are, and can be a great support, in person or online. Maybe it’s a close friend or family member or a support group. People may say unhelpful things and it’s natural to want to protect yourself from hurt. You set the agenda – whether you want to talk about it or take a break and have time off from it all.

2. TRACTION OF DAILY LIFE

Minding your health speeds up recovery from trauma and keeps you pregnancy-ready. A failed IVF is a set back, so you deserve a few duvet days, a little time to yourself initially.

A regular routine reassures and cues your mind to calm down and normalise. You let it know you are in the driving seat so there’s no need to panic. This involves picking up the threads, especially if you don’t feel like it.

HEALTHY DIET

Eat healthy food, cook for your other half, and share meals together to reduce the high-arousal level of your nervous system. After all, if you’re sitting down to a home-cooked meal, there’s nothing to be alarmed about, is there?

AVOID ALCOHOL

A glass of wine or two may seem like a good idea, but it exacerbates anxiety and increases depression.

SLEEP SMARTER

Get sleep back on track by getting up in the morning and heading to bed at night at the same times. Keep those screens out of the bedroom and read a book, rather than a Kindle.

EXERCISE

Exercise is as vital as breathing for humans. You get the feel-good benefits of natural endorphins after a lively workout in the gym, a long walk or a run outdoors. If you don’t feel like a walk or have a pet who needs one, borrow someone’s dog and earn brownie points in gratitude.

POSITIVE VIBES

Take time off from sadness about the failed cycle, decisions about next steps and fears for the future. Get with people who are good to be around and hear what’s happening in their world. It’s valid to have a laugh no matter how grim life seems.

STRESS BUSTERS

Stress busters like yoga, mindfulness, meditation and reading may take some effort in the early days: the payback is worth it.

MUSIC AND DANCING

Music and dancing change moods. If you’re a Spotify fan, update your playlists with a lively selection, avoid haunting tunes for now and trawl friends favourites for inspiration. The kitchen is the perfect place for a dance workout – no one is watching and you can let go.

SINGING

Singing is an easy way to calm down. Your breathing is controlled in an easy fun way, and this dials down stress hormones. Think about singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and there’s a risk of a smile breaking out. Some folk enjoy vocal toning, which is a type of humming.

SCENTS

Favourite scents are evocative and calming. Candles and essential oils are powerful ways to enjoy them.

MASSAGE

After a failed IVF cycle, it’s common to feel your body has let you down. Massage is a gentle way to make friends with it again. Whether you and your partner enjoy mutual massage or your local beauty salon is a familiar safe place to enjoy easing out tight muscles, the choice is yours.

SEX

Sex may be the last thing on your mind after a failed cycle. That’s fine. Others find it a reliable comfort of wordless closeness. Whichever fits you, good sex is a valuable stress buster and without rushing into it, worth keeping on your radar.

WEIGHT

Weight gain is usual during IVF because your body is getting ready for pregnancy. If you follow some of my tips those extra pounds will melt away quickly.

PREGNANCY JEALOUSY

Other women are going to get pregnant by IVF or naturally, share their good news, show scan pics and have baby showers. There are also christenings, birthdays and Christmas to face. If it’s still hard to bear for you after a couple of months, a few therapy sessions can make all the difference in coping better.

3. RINGING THE CHANGES

Everyone takes his or her own time to recover from the trauma of a failed IVF cycle. If it’s taking a long time to feel better and things aren’t changing for the better after a couple of months, professional help is useful.

WHEN TO LOOK FOR HELP:

  • If you feel stuck and nothing has changed

  • If anxiety and fear are a constantly present

  • If intrusive thoughts are uncomfortable

  • If you’re barely managing work

  • If you avoid social occasions

  • If you’re using alcohol or drugs to feel better

COUNSELLING & ‘TALKING’ THERAPIES

More traditional counselling and ‘talking’ therapies can serve to relive the trauma and further embed it. Find a recommended therapist with whom you feel comfortable and understood. The relationship you have with your therapist is key to a swift resolution of trauma.

EYE MOVEMENT DESENSITISATION AND REPROCESSING (EMDR)

When talking or counselling are not enough to resolve trauma, a specialised form of therapy – Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) – can help, especially for those struggling with the symptoms of anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This therapy is specifically designed to release trauma quickly and gently. It usually takes only three to five sessions.

Trauma is stored in non-verbal areas of the brain, which are more ‘feeling’ and sensory-based, leading to continued distress, anxiety and depression. EMDR lets us tap into that and get right underneath the hidden trauma so it can be dissolved.

Very little needs to be discussed about specifics of the trauma. This makes it easier for victims of rape, assault and road traffic accidents, where constant replaying of a trauma is distressing.

The brain gets busy at night, processing all the emotional events of the day in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) of sleep. By getting the eyes to focus and move in a similar way to that of REM sleep, the EMDR therapist cues the brain to begin processing a ‘stuck’ trauma naturally.

My clients find sessions calming. There are different stages in the treatment protocol. When the trauma is dissolved I move on to help my clients regain a good sleep pattern. Next, I help them rebuild hope, to regain confidence in themselves and their body. This may be afer a failed IVF cycle, pregnancy loss, stillbirth or neo-natal loss. Therapy is brief, with client outcomes good and sustained. Many report improved quality of life in personal relationships and at work.

FOR FURTHER ADVICE, CONTACT:

Helena Tubridy RGN RM, Fertility Therapist and Coach, www.helenatubridy.com


Juliana Kassianos