Reproductive Medicine & IVF

IVF Support: Balancing Patients' Hopes and Fertility Reality

An infertility diagnosis and IVF bring about a range of challenging emotions. You can offer emotional IVF support and prepare patients for the process.

Dealing with infertility and going through the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) can be a stressful and deeply emotional time for patients and their partners. Hope is frequently coupled with feelings of stress and grief. Ultimately, IVF support from all physicians on the care team and others around the patient will be key to their success and well-being.

Fertility specialists can reach out with advice and tips to help patients cope. However, sometimes, the emotional needs of patients and their partners require care from trained mental health professionals. Have a list of referrals available to local therapists or psychologists who specialize in helping people cope with infertility.

The Emotional Rollercoaster

An infertility diagnosis may bring feelings of grief and loss for your patients who expected to build their families in a certain way. There is often guilt, anger and shame mixed in, as well — and sometimes, jealousy or sadness when the patient sees friends and family conceive. Not to mention, IVF is physically and financially exhausting in ways your patients may not have expected.

Patients undergoing IVF tend to have higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression than the general public, reports research published in PLoS One. Stress itself may have a negative effect on fertility: Women with higher levels of stress and reduced mental health tend to have lower odds of pregnancy and unsuccessful IVF cycles that contribute to worsening depression, according to a separate study from PLoS One. Recognizing this connection between stress and fertility, then, can solidify a patient's decision to discontinue fertility treatment based solely on its mental health impacts.

The ongoing strain of IVF treatment can also affect your patient's relationship with their support system, including a partner, friends or family. So, how can fertility specialists help?

How You Can Offer IVF Support Emotionally

As the care provider, you are part of the patient's support system. Although some needs may go beyond your expertise, you can offer some guidance and advice at every stage.

Refer to a Professional

If your patient, or their partner, appears to be suffering emotionally to the point where it affects their well-being and treatment, refer them to a qualified mental health professional. It may also help to refer patients for counseling before starting IVF to set realistic expectations. Patients may benefit from a gentle reminder that infertility is a medical diagnosis, not a personal failure. Overcoming feelings of guilt, sadness, betrayal and other negative emotions before starting treatment may improve their outlook through the process.

Educate Your Patients

IVF is often completely new for patients. They may not know what to expect at each stage, understand success rates or foresee how many cycles may be needed. Spend time walking your patient through their infertility diagnosis, the IVF process and risks, and how it all affects them. Talk them through decisions they may need to make, such as whether to freeze oocytes or embryos. Preparing your patient mentally can give them time to make decisions and feel confident in their choices.

Encourage Self-Reflection

Encourage your patients to talk with their partner or support system to strengthen that relationship before treatment. Also, make sure they know who they can go to when the stress and anxiety get to be too much. Invite them to consider coping skills, such as meditation, exercise, art, music or other techniques that can help when the process gets stressful.

Prepare for Challenging Moments

The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology notes that the 10- to 14-day period between embryo transfer and pregnancy test results is generally the most stressful. After daily interaction with their medical team, patients or couples are on their own while they wait for the results. Be open with your patients about the challenges, and prepare them to have activities to fill their time during this waiting period.

IVF can be a rewarding, exciting time in your patients' lives — but it is also filled with a range of challenging emotions, plus physical and financial strain. So, show empathy and support to your patients throughout. As their provider, you can prepare them for what's coming through education and compassion.