Most people will tell you that the birth of a child is an occasion of great joy and celebration. But as anyone who has struggled to conceive a child can attest, there are few desires as strong as the wish for a child, and the pain of compromised fertility can feel, at times, overwhelming.
Previous studies have shown that the stress levels of women experiencing infertility are equivalent to individuals diagnosed with cancer, or recovering from a heart attack.
But just as there are ways of improving your chances of conception through enhancing your physical health - improving your diet, gentle exercise, acupuncture and other complementary treatments - there are ways that you can care for yourself emotionally through what can be a very stressful time.
Mindfulness is increasingly being used as a stress reduction tool to manage a range of physical and emotional issues, including compromised fertility. The evidence on the toxicity of stress – both in terms of general health, and fertility more specifically - is now too strong to ignore.
Mindfulness is described as the awareness that arises from paying attention to the present moment, intentionally and non-judgmentally, and adopting this approach can help us to bring our attention to patterns of thought and behaviour that don't serve us well - often these involve being overly pre-occupied with the future, the past, ourselves or our thoughts in a negative way. Or getting stuck in repetitive ways of thinking.
Originally cultivated in the Eastern traditions through contemplative practices like meditation, mindfulness is now being introduced into secular settings like hospitals and corporate organisations, to great effect.
The evidence base behind mindfulness practices is now substantial and persuasive, with research pointing to improvements in mental health such as decreased anxiety and depression, reduced stress and an increased ability to regulate emotions. Even short mindfulness interventions are now being found to change both the structure and the function of the brain.
Of course, in spite of the significant information on the benefits of using mindfulness practices to manage life’s difficulties, including the struggle to conceive, one of the key challenges is how to implement such practices in the busyness of daily life.
Meditation retreats are a wonderful opportunity to deepen your understanding of mindfulness, but are beyond the reach of many people, particularly those with caring responsibilities and other obligations that can’t simply be set aside for days on end.
Programs such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Cultivating Emotional Balance aim to bring mindfulness skills to a broader population and are generally available in all major cities in Australia.
Indeed, in attempting to support yourself through this stressful time, you may well find that the struggle to conceive a child has something to teach you about how to live your life in a more engaged and meaningful way. Learning to hold your desires lightly, to live with uncertainty and to manage those parts of life over which we have so little control are all lessons that apply far more broadly than just your fertility.