How Distressing Is IVF for Patients?


Patients undergoing IVF do better with strong social support, but many of these patients feel isolated and don’t share their fertility struggles. Can mindfulness help?

Strong social support is helpful in reducing the distress faced by in vitro fertilization (IVF) patients, according to a review of existing research on the psychosocial factors associated with the process.

Researchers reported in the journal Human Reproduction Update that there is a paucity of research using positive emotional outcome measures, such as happiness and life satisfaction, to quantify emotional adjustment. Instead, in a review of 23 studies, all but one used negative emotional outcomes measures to evaluate the adjustment.

Neuroticism and the use of escapist coping strategies were, in several studies, associated with distress. In addition, self-criticism and dependency were also both associated with distress. 

Pertinent Point

- Social support
helps reduce the distress faced by patients undergoing IVF, but the private nature of the process could mean finding alternative coping tools.

Standing out among the negatives, however, was the negative association between social support and emotional distress. The problem, however, is that most often women and couples facing IVF are unlikely to reach out to support networks for emotional support, the researchers noted.

"In general, people who are socially connected and who use their social network for support during difficult times are happier and healthier, but it is interesting that this is the case for IVF patients too, because as many patients reveal, usually well after going through it all, infertility and its treatment are incredibly personal and many couples don't particularly want to tell people about it,” said Helen Rockliff, of the Department of Clinical Sciences, University of Bristol, UK, and lead author of the study, in a news release.

"It is often the case patients tend to have friends of similar ages, so IVF treatment for one couple can happen around the same time as their friends are discovering the joys of parenthood. All this often adds up to couples feeling socially isolated just when the research tells us social support is needed."

Evidence indicates that the emotional and health benefits of social support might be taking place partly because of the positive emotions humans experience when they have supportive interactions with people, the authors noted. As scientists have started to gain a stronger understanding of mindfulness, Rockliff suggested there may be a role in using it as a training tool for patients to imagine the social interactions that they are foregoing.

"It appears that with practice, the average person can learn to generate these positive emotions quite well using only their mind,” she suggested. “Better still, it seems that in learning to do this people also get better at tolerating, and so engaging with their more difficult emotions-meaning less need for disengagement and escapism to cope with them."

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