Why “Try not to stress” is the worst advice…
For someone who battled infertility, the phrases “don’t stress” or “just relax” while trying to conceive are met with inner cringes. But they are also the most commonly offered words of “advice” or “wisdom” imparted when a couple finally shares their difficulty in starting a family. Well these phrases, turns out, aren’t just reserved for those hoping to get pregnant.
Let me start by saying if you personally have at some point or another told someone to relax or to not stress, it doesn’t make you a bad person. If you know me and care about me, you’ve likely even said it to me at some point in time in some context. Heck, I’ve possibly said it to you! But let’s look at what we’re asking of someone when we say those words.
YOUR STRESS IS NOT VALID
First let’s understand what stress is. Stress (defined by good ole Mr. Google) is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
Alright… so in the context of a couple who is struggling to conceive within the first year this advice, though appropriate in theory, is still unhelpful. If you are under 35 years of age it is “normal” to try for up to a year given the fact that a healthy couple only has roughly a 20% chance each month if they time it perfectly. So stressing about it isn’t really accomplishing anything. But as each month passes, a couple naturally begins to worry that something is wrong or that they might be doing something wrong. This repetitive failure is not only frustrating, but also emotionally straining. “Did I ovulate?”, “Did we time it right?”, “Are my eggs any good?”, “Are his sperm healthy?”, the questions begin to cycle through a person’s mind. And the truth is they are valid questions. It is hard to not stress when you’ve been led to believe someone will wink at you and you’ll get pregnant. All those years of freaking out when you took your birth control pill 2 hours late… pointless.
Now let’s say a couple has been trying for over a year. This is officially a diagnosis of INFERTILITY. Imagine you, a healthy individual, no signs of concern prior to trying to conceive and now receiving the worst possible news in relation to your family building goals. You begin to think the worst… “this may never happen for us.” Sure stressing and playing out worst case scenarios in this moment isn’t exactly helping matters, but it is a natural response to the mental and emotional strain caused by such a diagnosis.
So here’s the thing, whether or not a person feels stressed is a completely individual matter. Two different people experiencing the exact same circumstances will inevitably react differently. Take snakes for instance. If Eric sees a snake he will literally push me in front of him for protection. I on the other hand assess the situation and whether it is a dangerous species, their proximity etc, and calmly go about my business. Massive spider and you’d see a complete reversal of that scene, me freaking out, him calm. Now these are fears, not stresses, and I can acknowledge the difference, but my point is that we all have experiences throughout our lives that have woven our fabric of being. They have built us into the complex, emotional, and intellectual individuals that we are, and that results in varying behaviours. If someone is feeling a certain way about something, there is inevitably a reason, regardless of whether or not you think (based on your circumstances and experiences) that reason to be valid enough.
But guess what. You don’t matter in the reality of someone else’s experience, only they do. So taking your own reality to formulate what another individual should or shouldn’t be feeling, is not only doing a disservice to the individual to whom you are ignorantly offering invalid advice, but also to yourself and the potential for you to learn and expand your understanding and empathy for another persons situation or viewpoint.
Pregnancy for me is a different experience from someone who got pregnant on their first month trying. Why? Because it’s taken me 5 years, a lot of money, a lot of failure, a lot of help, and a lot of perseverance and overcoming obstacles to get here. Pregnancy to me feels like a treasured commodity reserved for the elite, and I feel like an imposter holding on to the crowned jewels expecting the cops to show up at any minute and send me to jail. An expectant mother who didn’t struggle very likely feels grateful and is cherishing the process, but the delicate intricacies of the day to day experience of pregnancy is going to be inherently different… there’s just no way around it. And that’s okay. But it has to be okay for my experience to be different. And it has to be okay if I can’t be as trusting, excited, or happy go lucky as that mom.
CONTROL YOUR FEELINGS
When we tell someone to “relax” or “don’t stress” we are essentially telling them to control their emotions. We’re asking them to stop feeling the way they’re feeling, and feel something else instead.
So why is this such a bad thing? Well, emotions are a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood or relationship with others. (Thanks again Mr. Google). Key words there are NATURAL INSTINCTIVE. So when someone is feeling scared… there’s usually a reason. Fear is founded in some basis of reality (however far reaching or abstract it may be). So when someone is feeling fearful in early pregnancy, or someone is scared they’ll never conceive… these are emotions that are set in motion by the circumstances that individual is in. They can’t control the circumstances… so you don’t tell them to. You know better. Yet in our minds, it seems, we believe a person can magically control the way they react.
It’s funny there’s a really popular quote – “You can’t control someone else, you can only control your reaction.” Except this would be better read “You can’t control someone else, you can only control your OUTWARD reaction.” In that immediate moment when someone does something malicious to you, you are going to react. It’s instinctual… it’s survival. But you can chose how you reflect and internalize that, and how you behave outwardly as a result, sure. When it comes to stresses and anxieties though, would someone really be better off bottling all that up to make those around them feel at ease? Feeling scared, anxious, angry or whatever someone is feeling as a result of dealing with infertility is not only valid, but also better out than in. At least in my humble opinion…
Instead of telling someone to not feel one way, perhaps you’d be better off asking what specifically is making them feel the way they are. Trying to understand where they are coming from, offering a sympathetic ear, or even just offering well wishes and prayers will undoubtedly be more well received than telling someone to feel a way they may believe to be impossible in the moment. Instead of feeling shamed for potentially harming their pregnancy (ahem… I’ve felt that way from the many comments I’ve received), or more pressure because it could be getting in the way of conception (been there too), they will feel as though you are a partner, a confidant… someone they can rely on if and when the going gets tough.
I think this is the hard truth of this piece today. Ultimately… people don’t like to sit in others’ pain. It’s not fun. It’s like when you walk into a room with people who just had an argument and can feel the negativity hanging in the air. All you wanna do is turn on your heels and leave. Well by throwing out the phrases “just relax, it’ll be fine”, “don’t stress, it’ll make it harder” we’re essentially dismissing the negativity and saying, get over it and go back to being happy, because that’s better and more comfortable for everyone.
Well this leaves the person struggling feeling more isolated, shamed, and unsupported. Someone struggling with infertility wants nothing more than to be happy. I know throughout our journey we’d take breaks and I’d look for happiness in life in other areas, and surely I’d find it. But the hole in my heart was always there, and the pain and sadness I carried with me never let me fully enjoy or embrace all the amazing things life had to offer as much as I’d have liked. I lost a lot of my vitality over the years and I had to work daily at getting it back. Looking back I could feel bitter or resentful over lost time, but I also learned a lot in the process.
We so badly want life to be perfect, but life inevitably includes struggle. For some people its career, romance, or finances to name a very short few… for others, its fertility. When someone loses a loved one, we don’t tell them to stop being sad, we allow them to grieve. When someone loses a job and can’t pay their mortgage, we don’t tell them them to “relax”… and if you do or have, maybe you’ll rethink that after this post… I hope!
My point is, that it’s okay to feel negative emotions. They are all part of the human experience. Are they pleasant to experience in the moment? Heck no. But they give contrast. What is love without hate? What is success without failure? I read a really enlightening book called The Shadow Self by Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford and Marianne Williamson. I love this excerpt and I feel like it perfectly sums up why I think living authentically is so important, even in the struggle.
"We have been conditioned to fear the shadow side of life and the shadow side of ourselves. When we catch ourselves thinking a dark thought or acting out in a behavior that we feel is unacceptable, we run, just like a groundhog, back into our hole and hide, hoping, praying, it will disappear before we venture out again. Why do we do this? Because we are afraid that no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to escape from this part of ourselves. And although ignoring or repressing our dark side is the norm, the sobering truth is that running from the shadow only intensiﬁes its power. Deny¬ing it only leads to more pain, suffering, regret, and resignation. If we fail to take responsibility and extract the wisdom that has been hidden beneath the surface of our conscious minds, the shadow will take charge, and instead of us being able to have control over it, the shadow winds up having control over us, triggering the shadow effect. Our dark side then starts making our decisions for us, strip¬ping us of our right to make conscious choices whether it’s what food we will eat, how much money we will spend, or what addiction we will succumb to. Our shadow incites us to act out in ways we never imagined we could and to waste our vital energy on bad habits and repetitive behaviors. Our shadow keeps us from full self-expression, from speaking our truth, and from living an authentic life. It is only by embracing our duality that we free ourselves of the behaviors that can potentially bring us down. If we don’t acknowledge all of who we are, we are guaranteed to be blindsided by the shadow effect."
So instead of telling someone to feel a different way, perhaps offer them strategies. Some things I personally do are meditate, use crystals, do fun activities I enjoy (dance, paint, play sports), or write in my affirmations book. Instead of just saying “relax” offer insight into what you do to cope with stress and even potentially take an active part in doing it with them! “You know what I find helps me de-stress, _________.” This will not only leave the person feeling much more supported, but also might actually help!
What do you do to cope with stresses and anxieties surrounding infertility or pregnancy after infertility? I’d love to hear from you!