Strain on the emotional and mental health of those going through in vitro fertilisation can be isolating and distressing, but support is out there, sometimes in surprising places
Head to a motor racing circuit and you might be surprised to find one of the drivers sharing his experience of a bumpy fertility journey, as well as talking tyres and podium positions.
It might seem out of place, but for Toby Trice it’s a chance to share the tough emotional stress of in vitro fertilisation, or IVF, with a wider audience.
“I had all this anger, frustration and stress, which I released through go-karting,” says the 29 year old, who has been through IVF and the pain of unexplained infertility with partner Katie.
“That led to me embarking on a motorsport career and I realised I could use it to start conversations about fertility and IVF. I want to send out a strong message that you can talk about what you are going through.”
Uncertainty, guilt, sadness, anxiety: the emotional stress of IVF has been documented by Fertility Network UK, which found fertility problems and treatment cause high levels of distress.
Physical and emotional stress of the IVF journey
“IVF is not just about the four weeks of treatment, but potentially years of disappointments and hopes,” explains Tim Child, medical director at Oxford Fertility and associate professor at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health. “Patients have very often been through the ringer by the time they get to IVF.”
The process can be gruelling, both physically and emotionally, with no guarantees of success. While everyone is different, particular points where IVF emotional stress can spike are during internal pelvic scans to check for follicles in the ovaries, during egg collection carried out under a light general anaesthetic or intravenous sedation and on embryo transfer day.
For a heterosexual couple, the man could face anxiety about producing a sperm sample, while the woman might be apprehensive about the daily self-injecting of drugs during the IVF cycle.
“Adjunctive therapies such as reflexology, acupuncture, yoga and psychotherapy can be useful around these times to help manage the stresses,” says Child.
Joining an IVF support group
Clinic-led support groups can be a source of help and, for Kelly Da Silva, her own eight-year journey through multiple rounds of artificial insemination and IVF prompted a desire to help others.
As well as setting up her own childless support organisation and online community The Dovecote, she began working with the Care Fertility clinic where she had her treatment. The 37-year-old pioneered monthly walk-and-talk events in green spaces across the country, as well as Skype events.
“Peer-to-peer support can be really cathartic,” she explains. “The exercise aspect also helps low mood and can be something that gets neglected.”
I realised I could start conversations about fertility and IVF. I want to send out a strong message that you can talk about what you are going through
Da Silva has also set up a buddy scheme, matching those going through the same stage and type of treatment. “Plus, I am buddying up men, same-sex couples and women having donor sperm or eggs,” she says. “Not everyone is on the same journey.”
The focus on matching those on similar journeys is important, as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s latest statistics show significant increases in same-sex partnerships and single patients among the 75,000 IVF cycles in the UK each year.
Female same-sex partnerships now make up 5.9 per cent of IVF cycles, while single patients make up 3 per cent.
Seeing a mental health professional
Helen George, a psychotherapist specialising in fertility issues and founder of BME Voices Talk Mental Health, says counselling in an emotionally safe space can help prepare for IVF.
“It also provides the opportunity to explore the lasting implications of having IVF treatment using donor eggs, sperm or surrogacy,” she adds.
It’s something that Gloucestershire couple Heidi and Gary Stephens advocate. While Heidi, 34, had counselling through the IVF process, Gary, 50, believes he would have benefited from the emotional help, especially as he went through surgical sperm recovery to retrieve blocked sperm.
“I don’t like talking about my worries, but inside it was eating me away,” he says. “You have to remain positive, but it’s such a lottery. With hindsight, I would have seen a counsellor.”
While IVF treatment is filled with uncertainty, there’s an area that can be controlled: nutrition. Nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville, a specialist in women’s health, says regulating blood sugar has the biggest impact on helping women “going through the rollercoaster of hormones”.
“The same hormone, cortisol, that manages stress also manages blood sugar, so we can end up feeling more stressed,” she says.
Reducing refined sugars, such as the “comforting” chocolate muffin after that internal pelvic scan, and replacing it with high-quality, fresh foods, can minimise additional emotional stress. Supplements containing magnesium and B vitamins act as natural tranquillisers, says Glenville, while chromium can help tackle sugar cravings.
Opening up about IVF treatment
Meanwhile, work can prove a further painpoint, with Fertility Network UK’s research finding 58 per cent of people said work affected their treatment.
Although there’s currently no statutory right to time off for IVF treatment, more employers are now taking the issue seriously and creating their own policies.
Nurse Natalie Herring, 32, and her husband Ian, 36, struggled with fertility before undergoing IVF and she says being open with her employer helped.
“I’m very lucky as my employer has an IVF policy, which is best practice, so I was very open with my manager,” she says. “They were so supportive, there to listen and help me as much as they could if I needed it.”
With more than 1.1 million IVF cycles now having taken place in the UK, and more than 300,000 babies born through IVF, the chances are patients are not the first in their workplace dealing with IVF.
Professor Geeta Nargund, medical director at CREATE Fertility and lead consultant for reproductive medicine services at London’s St George’s Hospital, concludes: “If we want people to be more open and honest about fertility issues, we need to raise awareness, educate and get the conversation started. It’s time to lift the stigma and help people with emotional support.”