Guest blog by Justine Dowd, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Wholistic Health Coach.
Struggling to conceive is frustrating, and often heartbreaking during the best of times. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, with countless transfers postponed, meetings with specialists cancelled, and the inability to see alternative care practitioners, those TTC are presented with a whole new level of challenge. Anger. Despair. Frustration. Jealousy. Heartbreak. Anxiety. Stress. You are not alone if you are feeling any of these feelings and have numerous unanswered questions.
As someone who struggled with undiagnosed infertility for over two years and an expert in health psychology, I want to share my top strategies that you can use to manage stress and anxiety while trying to conceive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Self-care: Fill up YOUR cup (ideally) FIRST
When TTC, it can often feel all-encompassing – wanting to put all of our efforts into getting and staying pregnant. I remember this all too well – attending seemingly daily appointments with acupuncturists, naturopaths, fertility specialists, and lab draws… my guess is you may be there as well. I would feel guilty if I wasn’t putting all of my efforts towards conceiving. As I continued on my journey though, I realized that I had to round out my experience – specifically by taking care of myself and filing up my cup on a daily basis.
One of the ways that I started to cultivate daily self-care was through my spiritual practice. I joined an incredible group of women on a year long chakra journey (more on that on my blog soon!), and started to create a daily practice that enabled me to check in to my needs and listen to what by heart, mind, body and soul truly needed that day. One way to get started on this is through the Chakra Balancing book by Anodea Judith, which includes two CDs with guided practice and a workbook. I also relied on and loved using the Fertile Hope Yoga fertility affirmations and Circle+Bloom IVF meditations on a regular basis to help me stay grounded on my journey to conceive.
Especially during these stressful times, I encourage you to a) think about what brings you JOY and b) create a plan to incorporate joy and self-care strategies into your day on a regular basis. Is it simply getting up 15 minutes earlier to enjoy a HOT coffee by yourself, planning time for a bath or a meditation, going for a walk to enjoy the SUN, scheduling a Zoom/FaceTime/Skype/Gather etc. talk with a friend or family member? I encourage you to actually schedule it into your calendar (just like you would any other important event!), and even better, tell someone your plan so they can help you stay accountable.
My daily practice: To be completely honest, I am still working on filling my cup on a regular basis. Reminding myself to go back to the behavior change basics, scheduling this time in to my week is an essential part of making my self-care practice actually happen. Writing this post motivated me to put things that bring me joy into my calendar so that I can fill up my cup and show up the best version of me for my family. This week, some of the self-care activities that I have planned are: virtually attending my favorite meditation class, taking a long bath, and connecting with several friends that I haven’t been able to connect with for a while.
How can you incorporate self-care into your daily routine? What are small things that you can do to bring JOY into your life?
2. Practice Self-Compassion
Did you know that women who practice self-compassion feel less social stigma and experience better well-being while TTC (1)? Self-compassion can be thought of as a “positive emotional stance towards oneself” and is defined as “giving ourselves the same loving kindness that we give other people. There are three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness vs. self-judgment, common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification (2).
When we practice self-compassion, we are kind to ourselves rather than harshly self-critical. We recognize when negative thoughts go through our head and actively work to replace them with more positive ones (self-kindness). This was a key part for me when struggling with infertility. Thoughts such as What is wrong with me? and Why can’t I just get pregnant? would swirl through my mind almost every second of every day. Do you struggle with regular negative thoughts? Check out Fertile Hope Yoga’s fertility affirmations – practicing these is a great way to bring self-kindness and positivity into your life.
Practicing common humanity means we recognize that going through difficult times is a part of being human, everyone struggles in their lives at some point in time. Try to remind yourself that you are not the only one who is struggling to conceive or going through multiple losses. Other women have, are, and will continue to go through this as well.
When we practice mindfulness, we acknowledge our feelings with non-judgment and acceptance. It can be easy to let trying to conceive (TTC) take over your life. I remember Googling things I never thought I would type into my phone. All the crazy potential symptoms that might mean that this was finally my month. If you find yourself doing this, it can be helpful to take a step back, take three deep breaths and ask yourself: What do I need right now, in this very moment?
Want to learn more about self-compassion while TTC? I wrote a chapter on this topic in You’ve Got This, Healthy Mama (contact me for your copy).
My daily practice: I’ve started a daily practice of meditating before I start working and then writing down at least three things for which I am grateful. This practice has been a great way for me to a) stay focused while I’m working and b) stay grounded and focus on the many positive things I have to be grateful for. Part of this practice (and in practicing self-compassion), is asking yourself what YOU need? Of course, the next step then is filling that need – is it some quiet time? Is it connecting with a loved one? Check out self-compassion.org for more information!
3. Look for the Silver Lining
Although the spring of 2020 is likely not going as you had hoped or planned it would be, I encourage you to take a step back and think about what social distancing and has opened up for you?
Has life slowed down? Do you have the opportunity for more quality time with your partner? Are you able to go for walks around your neighborhood and notice things you haven’t before? What projects are you able to do now that you are spending more time at home?
My daily practice: I have never been able to be more present than during this pandemic because everything else has slowed down. Which also reminds me of the benefits of the Vipassana 10 day silent retreat I did years ago… more on that later. My husband and I started making a nice meal together on the weekends. With all of our extra ‘time’ at home now, we have been enjoying spending more time preparing our meal one weekend night, lighting candles, turning on nice music, lowering the lights and enjoying a special family meal together.
What silver lining have you noticed as a result of life slowing down?
4. Move Your Body
Regular movement (think walking, running, yoga, biking, body weight exercises) is an essential step in coping with stress and anxiety. Researchers have found that yoga in particular can help with assisted reproduction outcomes. Check out Fertile Hope Yoga for great online classes! If you are someone who experiences gastrointestinal distress with stress and anxiety, physical activity can also help reduce these symptoms. We have a few studies now published/under review in which we found that a 12 week exercise program improved quality of life, gastrointestinal symptoms and led to (potentially) beneficial changes in the gut microbiome among inactive adults with celiac disease.
My daily practice: I aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-vigorous intensity movement a day. Sometimes this is a walk, run, online class, yoga, or workout in the basement with my husband. The key message here is get active – do what you love to do, what makes your body feel good, so that you regularly do it!
Nutrition is a key part of health and wellness at any time, and it is particularly important during periods of high stress. However, I want to remind you here that now is the time to do what keeps stress low – if the grocery store is out of certain ingredients for meals, try to be as flexible as possible so that this isn’t a source of anxiety. You may not be able to find the fresh or specialty items (or TP!?) as usual. Do the best that you can to eat as many whole foods (i.e. minimally or not processed) as possible, while also being flexible knowing supplies are different these days and feeding yourself may look different. Check out this post on Nutrition Tips for Fertility.
6. Create a Sleep Routine
Most people need about 8 hours of sleep at night to allow their bodies to rest and repair. I have always struggled with falling asleep – particularly when life feels full and stressful, but I have found (and research supports) that creating a sleep routine helps me fall asleep and stay asleep better.
What does that look like for me?
My daily practice:
- Start to wind down 1-2 hours before I want to be asleep
- Turn my phone onto airplane mode by 8:30pm and move it away from my bed (side note – I recently purchased a plug in alarm clock so I can leave my phone downstairs vs. beside my bed which REALLY helps with this routine too!)
- Sometimes I find that watching ~10 minutes of my favorite TV show helps my brain relax and turn off (even though this isn’t recommended in sleep hygiene as the blue light can be activating, I actually find it helps in slowing my brain so I can fall asleep! Something to play with yourself and see if it helps or hinders your sleep).
- Stretching/yoga for 5-20 minutes before bed
- Mindfulness practice – I recently started journaling more and find this is a great way to let my body relax before bed, helps my brain process what is happening these days – letting go of expectations of ‘normal’, changes to life and plans because of COVID – to get started, just write! See what comes out. It can be really interesting! So often before bed I will journal and then do some type of meditation.
I encourage you to think about what time you need to go to bed to get 8 hours (or more) of sleep and create your own sleep hygiene routine.
It can be very easy to get sucked in to reading sensationalist news articles which (usually) leave you feeling more anxious and stressed about the pandemic. Although it is important to read the news to be on top of what is happening and how to keep you and your loved ones safe, focus on reading news that presents the facts versus being alarmist. The Centers for Disease Control is an example of where to read fact-based updates on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead – share uplifting stories and examples of how you are staying calm, safe, healthy and helping others (from a distance).
Stay safe. Stay home! Practice frequent and proper hand washing. Support local businesses as much as you can!
Feel like you need more help with your gut health symptoms or managing stress and anxiety? I offer virtual, one-on-one Wholistic Health Coaching – contact me to book your free 15 minute consult now!
Compassionate, genuine, and insightful, Justine is passionate about empowering others to heal themselves holistically. A dedicated researcher, she has always been fascinated by the psychology of behavior change – which led her to complete a PhD in Health Psychology. Justine found an unexpected muse when she discovered that she had celiac disease immediately before she began her doctoral studies. The diagnosis would not only influence her lifestyle but shape her future. Justine focused her work on the dietary behaviors for people living with celiac disease, which earned her a number of research awards early on in her career.
Justine made the connection between life experience and professional passion again after both her and her husband struggled with “undiagnosed infertility” for over two years. During this time, Justine was inspired by the teachings of Kristen Neff and Bréne Brown where she learned about self-compassion and found the courage to be vulnerable. After cultivating greater empathy for herself, Justine was motivated to help others do the same.
Justine’s popular Healthy Gut Seminars and Wholistic Fertility Retreats allow her to connect with kindred spirits. There, she shares her personal experiences, scientific knowledge, and loving support to help others find natural solutions for their gut health and fertility challenges. When she’s not spending time with her family, Justine enjoys wine and soulful conversations with an amazing group of women she’s blessed to call best friends. Justine lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with her husband, two sons, and fur baby, Callie.
- Raque-Bogdan, T. L., & Hoffman, M. A. (2015). The relationship among infertility, self-compassion, and well-being for women with primary or secondary infertility. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(4), 484-496.
- Neff, K. (2003) Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself, Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101. DOI: 10.1080/15298860309032