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.
The picture above is one that I painted in a meditation course while we were in the thick of our struggles. I have not painted anything since I was a child... but I love this because it gives me strength and I feel it exudes self-compassion. It is hung in our bedroom and makes my heart smile when I see it because it reminds me of how far I have come... and how important self-compassion was every step of the way. If you are in the thick of it too - I see you. I've been there too. You are not alone.
As someone who struggled with undiagnosed infertility for over two years and an expert in health psychology, I want to share 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 in another blog post 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 this Chakra Balancing book, which includes two CDs with guided practice and a workbook. I also came to rely on the Circle + Bloom fertility affirmations and IVF meditations on a regular basis to help me stay grounded on my journey to conceive (use the code JustineDowd20 for 20% off).
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/or 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 behaviour 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 favourite 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). Want to learn more about self-compassion while TTC? I wrote an entire chapter on this topic in my chapter in You’ve Got This, Healthy Mama.
Do stress and anxiety lead to negative gastrointestinal symptoms for you? We know that the gut and brain are connected through the vagus nerve, and when we are struggling with stress and anxiety, one of the ways to calm the activation of this nerve (and reduce gut symptoms), is through self-compassion and mindfulness.
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 and meditations!
Do you struggle with regular negative thoughts? Check out Circle+ Bloom’s fertility affirmations– practicing these is a great way to bring self-kindness and positivity into your life (use the code JustineDowd20 for 20% off).
I also virtually attend one of my favourite yoga teacher's (Amarin, Tuesday nights) weekly classes online (huge thank you to The Heart of Bragg Creek Yoga studio for ALL that you do! Please consider supporting them if you enjoy the classes.)
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: For me, 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 a 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/in press/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 favourite 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.
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'm now offering virtual, one-on-one Wholistic Health Coaching - see more info here and contact me to book your free 15 minute consult now!
1. 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.
2. 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