Why the Science of Coping Isn't Realistic When it Comes to Infertility
You may have heard or read that you are supposed to work through your stress or feelings of disappointment after an infertility diagnosis before you try to move forward on your treatment journey. Historically, text books have indicated that dealing with stress and coping from a loss is done through a step wise process known as neat emotional stages of recovery. But research finds that life doesn’t work that way, especially for someone undergoing fertility treatment.
The original idea of “neat stages” was described by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She wrote that we go through emotional steps in this order:
- Bargaining (with yourself or God, to undo the shock or loss)
Studies, however, find that the notion of “neat stages” is a myth. Instead, we work through our recovery from stress or grief at different rates and we can experience and deal with more than one feeling at the same time. That means we can be sad, worried, or angry about past fertility results and simultaneously hopeful and excited about the next steps.
In the years following Kübler-Ross’ theory, a variety of research further demonstrated that perhaps recovery from grief does not nicely fit into “neat stages”:
- Michael Shermer, a writer for Scientific American, stated that no scientific study has ever demonstrated that stages of grief exist.
- A study by Yale University published in The Journal of American Medical found that most of 233 recently bereaved people accepted loss from the very beginning rather than the end of their emotional journey. The same study found that anger was the least experienced emotion after loss. Yearning or sadness is more frequent.
- The Washington Center for Advancing Health reported that grief is more of a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and eventually lift. Current research reported in Psychology Today finds that even if you are experiencing stress symptoms during IVF treatment, resilience is natural to humans. Even tragedies like a pregnancy loss do not disrupt relatively stable daily life.
This is good news for two reasons. First, the “neat stages” can put guilt and pressure on people who are not feeling the stages they think they should feel. Second, believing that we have to work through disappointment about a fertility failure before we can move on to a new or different options may delay treatment for months or years, and that means sadness and stress may be prolonged.
So why is the theory of “neat stages” still so popular? The idea of “neat stages” implies that there is still some predictability in our world, even though our fertility journey feels unpredictable. Having landmark stages to reach suggests that we will eventually arrive at acceptance despite feeling bad in the present.
We usually do arrive at acceptance, but for a different reason than because we marched through neat stages. We are built for daily life, so most symptoms of stress gradually dissipate after a time. You will know that is happening when moments of joy, and even laughter, re-emerge and co-exist with disappointment and stress.
As a psychologist specializing in fertility, it’s important to remember these simple things:
- We each work through our feelings at different rates.
- We can experience more than one symptom and feeling at the same time.
- We can be sad, worried, or frightened about past results and yet hopeful and excited about new steps.
- You do not have to resolve all issues to move forward.
- hare your feelings and speak to your physician about further options.
The bottom line is this: you will only know that you are ready to move on if you try moving on. So, try and then try again. Moving forward is the real next stage.