Cape Town infertility psychologist, Lizanne van Waart of the Wijnland Fertility Clinic, has noted that some patients come to her with social anxiety that is directly related to their infertility. “Social anxiety manifests itself in everyday situations; from a meeting to a social occasion, and it can be triggered by a certain place or activity. Some patients who have been diagnosed with fertility problems report feeling overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety or fear in a range of social situations. It is deeply distressing for the patient and may in time manifest itself into avoidance tactics, causing the patient to withdraw from social situations or lose confidence at work. More and more frequently, couples who are experiencing infertility together compound the symptoms by withdrawing from social life together. I have patients who have simply stopped socialising as a result of their infertility.”
Van Waart explains that social anxiety is rooted in the perception that the person or couple feels judged – by society, family or peers. “For many people, the idea that they are not able to conceive naturally is met with feelings of failure. They begin to imagine that those around them are judging them as such. Of course, this is almost certainly not true and it is in fact the person’s own inner critic they are hearing.”
Stress can compound the issue and be a further impediment to conception, making stress management a key aspect in the treatment of infertility. Van Waart counsels that there are a number of steps to take towards a return to social ease:
- Recognise the voice of the critical judge: What sort of a conversation takes place in your mind just before and during a spike in social anxiety?
- Question the reasoning: The inner judge is very likely illogical so question its line of thinking and poke holes in its theories.
- How do you feel about other people who make mistakes or who may have failed at something? Very likely you feel compassion towards them. No doubt people feel the same towards you.
- Try and remove the dominating negative words that come into the vocabulary of the critical judge. Words such as, “never” again, “total” idiot.
- Make anxiety your friend: It can be a helpful tool in identifying and overcoming self-esteem issues.
- Be OK with ‘imperfect’: Try making small deliberate ‘mistakes’, e.g. not having your keys ready ahead of arriving at your car; not having dinner ready at the same time every night.
- Try and stay in the present: Be mindful of your breathing; recognise that you are safe and alive in the now. Being mindful helps prevent your thoughts from running ahead and predicting negative and fearful outcomes.
- As a couple, accept that you are not perfect and that life is not always what we imagine it to be. Begin seeing yourselves on a different journey to the one you had intended. Talk to one another about how the infertility makes you feel, as sometimes the tendency to avoid others is rooted in avoidance of a situation, where each individual’s unguarded feelings may emerge.
“Giving up your whole life to focus on having a baby is very destructive,” says Van Waart, “it builds unrealistic pressure within the relationship and may lead to parenting problems down the line too.” The WHO (World Health Organisation) has identified the emotional cost of infertility as being second only to cancer. Van Waart urges couples to seek professional help through their experience.”