By Rita Alesi – Monash IVF Counselling Services Manager
Growing up, the Christmas holidays were known as a time for extravagant events, parties, gifts and happy families. There's an expectation to spend a lot of your time, energy and money on getting together as a family – talking, laughing and reminiscing. However for a lot of people, this period is also a time associated with stress and anxiety.
The Christmas period can be especially difficult for individuals struggling with infertility. This may be due to a number of reasons, such as Christmas symbolising the end of another year, spending a lot of time with family members and being surrounded by young children.
It's important to know that you are not alone. While you may not be able to eliminate your feelings of stress and anxiety all together, developing some of the skills below to better manage these feelings may be a way of helping you get through the Christmas season.
- Identify your triggers
Have a think about the things that set off your anxieties at Christmas time. You may find that you experience stress concerning certain aspects of the festive season such as spending time with a particular family member or seeing relatives with completed young families.
- What are your symptoms?
Anxiety is marked by physical (muscle tension, trembling hands heart palpitations, sweating and shortness of breath), psychological (a sense of impending doom, dread and fear of something terrible happening) and cognitive symptoms (unhelpful thoughts). Take note of how anxiety manifests in you to help you identify and recognise early signs.
- When you are stressed, what do you need?
Think back to other times you have felt anxious or stressed and ask yourself, what would have improved the situation? For example, some people like to have family and friends around them, while others prefer privacy. You might prefer to have someone to talk to about what you are going through, or perhaps watch your favourite TV show and distract yourself for a while.
- Repeat and compare steps 2 and 3 with your partner or a support person
Taking the time to compare symptoms of anxiety and preferred ways of calming down might help you get a better insight into how you deal with anxiety and stress. Pinpoint what makes your experiences different and take note if the other person uses strategies you think you might find useful personally. You may find that talking to your support person helps them to recognise signals they might not be aware of and give you the support you need.
- Prepare a plan of action
Once you've identified your triggers and are aware of signs that indicate you're anxious, work out what you and your support person can do to help manage your anxieties. Reflect on strategies that have helped you manage stressful events in the past and use those experiences to plan ahead.In some scenarios, it may be helpful to discuss and rehearse a plan of action before a certain event so that if your anxiety becomes too intense to handle, you will both know what to do.Possible action plans might include:
It might also be helpful to prepare responses to pregnancy related questions to avoid being put on the spot. Below is a list of possible responses:
- Informing the host and arranging to go to an event for only a short period of time if you find the whole event too daunting. For example, arrange to turn up for coffee and dessert rather than the whole day.
- Be present but avoidant. That is, be the really helpful guest who assists with clearing the dishes and washing up. This will get you out of participating in intimate conversations if you don't feel comfortable.
- Agree on a "code word" with your partner, which can be used discreetly if things become tricky and you need to leave.
Or, try using humour…
- That is a really good question. I wish I knew the answer.
- Sometimes these things take longer than expected. I hope one day soon.
- I am not sure. It is something we are still figuring out.
- When the time is right, it will happen.
- When we are ready.
- The answer to that question is really not in our hands.
- That is a really personal question. Some people have a hard time getting pregnant and questions like this can make them feel bad about their situation.
- Having a child is one of the most important decisions in life, and making that decision takes a lot of time and thought. I can't give you a simple answer to such a big, life changing event.
- I already have one. (Then refer to your spouse or someone else).
- I don't know but I am starting a list of baby-sitters now. Can I count you in?
- Distraction techniques
A good way to keep anxiety contained is to keep busy. Some people find various kinds of activities, such as the ones below, helpful in distracting from worrying thoughts.
Mindfulness is a means to be present in the current moment and is an effective way to manage anxiety. If you are not familiar with the practice, there are many different mindfulness apps and websites that can help.
- Low impact exercise
- Going for a drive
- Listening to music
- Cooking or baking
- Something to look forward to
It can also be helpful to have positive activities planned ahead of time to coincide with difficult periods. Giving yourself something to look forward to may ease any feelings of dread toward the holiday season. Activities don't need to be social and you should plan something that gives you joy. Examples of positive activities might include: a nice spa massage, taking yourself out to a movie, visiting friends, going away for the night, or dinner with friends at your favourite restaurant.
- Broaden your support networks
The IVF experience can be very difficult in a lot of ways. While your partner might be there with you, both of you experiencing the highs and lows of fertility treatment simultaneously may mean your coping strategies don't necessarily align. This can be helpful in that you may be able to share perspectives, but may also cause conflict. It may be helpful to seek the support of close friends or family. Local IVF support groups or online forums can also be a great source of comfort and inspiration.
- Monash IVF Counselling Service
Counselling at Monash IVF is a valuable resource; we are a team of psychologists and social workers trained in infertility counselling. For those in regional areas, telephone counselling is available and where more intensive counselling is required we can refer you to a psychologist in your local area for private counselling.Things to remember:
- Anxiety is a normal reaction when struggling with infertility or undergoing fertility treatment.
- Many people find Christmas a difficult time of year for a host of reasons – you are not alone.
- While getting rid of your anxieties completely might not be possible, developing coping strategies may assist in easing symptoms.
- Maintain realistic expectations, and don't push yourself.
- If your fertility treatment is unsuccessful, know that feelings of intense sadness and anxiety are a normal part of the grieving process which can be very distressing. With time and support however, it will ease.
- You don't have to wait until a crisis occurs to access counselling services. Many people find it helpful to seek counselling support before they experience any distress to try to understand their emotional experience and get some help in learning or testing out new coping strategies.
If you have tried the above tips and find that anxiety is still a problem for you, please contact one of our counsellors so that they can help you to develop an individualised anxiety management program, focused on your specific needs.
Rita Alesi is the Monash IVF Counselling Services Manager, a Counselling Psychologist with 24 years' experience in IVF, Donor and Surrogacy related counselling.