One thing I find really tough about infertility is how helpless it makes me feel. I’ve always been a person who was in charge of my life. If I wanted something, I worked hard for it, and I achieved it.
But infertility isn’t like that. ‘Trying harder’ for a baby won’t make it more likely to happen. In fact, it can put a lot of stress on your relationship. And you can’t just ‘try harder’ at IVF. In fact, you’re advised to relax and take it easy.

Fertility was basically out of my control, and I felt helpless in the face of it.

I’m a researcher by trade, so when I’m stuck, it’s natural to me to turn to research to try and solve it. I searched the net, I read books about fertility, I read books about coping with stress and helplessness, I talked to friends, I visited counselors. I wanted to share some of the things that have helped me cope with the stress of infertility, and I hope they will help you too. I’ll start with the idea of resilience.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity or misfortune. I like this definition: the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity. Resilient people are optimists. They are the people who don’t give up. I first learned about the importance of resilience from Martin Seligman, the father of the positive psychology movement.

Martin Seligman and positive psychology.

In the 1960’s Martin Seligman discovered a powerful reason why people become passive and depressed – it happens when people feel they have no control over events. He describes his experiment here:

“Subjects are randomly divided into three groups. Those in the first are exposed to an annoying loud noise that they can stop by pushing a button in front of them. Those in the second hear the same noise but can’t turn it off, though they try hard. Those in the third, the control group, hear nothing at all. Later, typically the following day, the subjects are faced with a brand-new situation that again involves noise. To turn the noise off, all they have to do is move their hands about 12 inches. The people in the first and third groups figure this out and readily learn to avoid the noise. But those in the second group typically do nothing. In phase one they failed, realized they had no control, and became passive. In phase two, expecting more failure, they don’t even try to escape. They have learned helplessness.”

Seligman also noticed something else. About a third of his subjects never succumbed to depression and helplessness. He asked himself why – what quality did these people have that made them strong in the face of difficulties? He realized the reason was optimism. Optimists have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. (“It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.”) He realized that he could help people with depression by teaching them to think like optimists.

Build resilience by changing the way you talk to yourself.

Martin’s book, Learned Helplessness goes into much more detail, but basically he taught people to change the way they explained things to themselves.

E.g. instead of explaining infertility to myself by saying:

“I’ll never have a baby, nothing I try will be successful, my fertility is out of my control”,

I learned to replace it with:

“This IVF round will only take a month, my specialist learnt a lot about how my body responds to drugs in the last round, I’m doing everything I can to keep healthy and relaxed.”

The first statement is a recipe for depression according to Martin Seligman. It’s pervasive (a blanket statement that covers everything), personal (blaming myself) and powerless (saying it’s out of my control). The second statement is much more optimistic. It’s temporary, local (focusing on the now) and changeable (a statement about my behavior, which I can change).

I’ve found this technique so useful in changing my thinking, which in turn has helped my ability to cope with everything in life. Changing your thinking isn’t the only thing you can do to build your resilience – I’ll write more about this next week!

Blogger: Louise Dougherty