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Our
Research

The University of Regina's Women's Mental Health Research Unit regularly publishes research on the psychology of infertility. Here, we provide a brief summary of our recent research publications, along with a link to access the full article.
Identifying the Unique Emotional Challenges of Infertility
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Infertility is associated with significant distress, yet little research has explored the specific psychological challenges faced by women struggling to conceive. This study recruited 21 women with infertility and 14 mental health professionals specializing in the area of infertility to participate in interviews about the emotional challenges of infertility.

 

The results of this study revealed 5 key psychological aspects of infertility:

  • Anxiety that is often all-consuming. This can lead to constant anxious thoughts about getting pregnant and long hours of searching on Google for more information about one’s condition and how to treat it. 

  • Mood disturbances, basically referring to the “emotional rollercoaster” of infertility. Women reported that their mood can change so much from one day to the next – excited by a promising ultrasound one day, devastated by a poor outcome the next day. Over time, women found this constant up and down to be exhausting, often leading to a feeling of being burnt out. 

  • Threat to self-esteem, identity and purpose: this aspect reflected participants’ feeling that they were less valuable as people and partners because of their struggles with infertility. Some reported feeling that they even wondered what was their purpose in life if they were never successful in becoming a parent. 

  • Deterioration of the couple: many participants found that their relationship with their romantic partner had suffered because of their struggles with infertility, often because of differences in how each partner coped with stress and disappointment. However, several participants actually reported the opposite, finding that their relationship was actually strengthened by the process of overcoming the challenge of infertility together. 

  • Weakened support network: many participants found that their relationships with their loved ones were strained because of their infertility, often because others didn’t know what to say to be helpful. Participants also felt that the stigma of infertility made them hesitant to open up about their infertility, leading them to feel quite alone in their struggles. 

 

The results of this study will be useful in designing new psychological programs aimed at helping individuals cope with the stress of infertility.  

 

To access the full paper describing this study’s results, click here

Helpful and Unhelpful Coping Strategies when Struggling with Infertility
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This study examined the relationship between daily coping strategies and mood in women struggling to conceive without medical intervention. 

Sixty-five women who had been struggling to conceive for one year or more were followed across one menstrual cycle and asked to rate their mood and to report on their coping strategies every three days.

 

We then looked at which coping strategies were related to the best emotional state, here’s what we found:

  • Women experienced less depression, anxiety, and infertility-related distress when they engaged in activities aimed at distracting them from trying to get pregnant and aimed at helping them relax. This finding is in line with previous research suggesting that focusing on self-fulfilment in areas outside of pregnancy achievement is beneficial for mood in women preparing for, or undergoing, fertility treatments. 

  • Women felt more depressed when they tried to cope by downplaying the importance of conceiving – for example, saying to themselves “whatever, I don’t care anymore”.

  • Contrary to what we expected, talking about one’s infertility with loved ones was associated with more, rather than less, distress in our participants. One potential explanation may be that women tend to seek social support when they’re more stressed about their infertility. However, another explanation may be that women’s attempts to open up about their infertility are often met with unhelpful comments that make them feel worse rather than better. Perhaps interventions aimed at educating loved ones on how to best support people experiencing infertility could improve the quality of the support that women receive

 

These findings suggest that using certain coping strategies, such as engaging in behaviours unrelated to infertility, can promote better mental health while struggling with infertility.

To access the full paper describing this study’s results, click here

Infertility and Sexual Function
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Infertility can put an enormous strain on all aspects of one's romantic relationship. This study examined its impact on one relatively unexplored aspect: that of sex. Specifically, 230 women experiencing infertility completed a survey about their quality of life, relationship satisfaction, sexual function, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. We found that in this study, over half of the women recruited reported experiencing sexual dysfunction. Women reporting more sexual problems were more likely to also report lower relationship satisfaction and more symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

It's hard to know whether relationship problems and poor mental health contributed to the sexual problems reported by the women or the other way around. Regardless, though, this study does suggest that sexual difficulties are common among women with infertility. Why? Part of it might be related to the fact that after months or even years of unsuccessfully trying to conceive, sex becomes more of a stressful chore than a fun way to be intimate with your partner. Couples may also just be generally stressed out by their infertility struggles and find it difficult to relax enough to enjoy sex together. 

 

The findings of this study suggest that programs aimed at improving the well-being of individuals struggling with infertility should help couples overcome problems in their sexual relationship, perhaps by encouraging couples to find non-sexual ways to increase physical intimacy.

To access the full paper describing this study’s results, click here.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Cancellation of Fertility Treatments

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Background: On March 17th, 2020, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine and the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society announced their recommendations to immediately suspend all in-person fertility treatments throughout Canada and the U.S. indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These recommendations included delaying the start of new treatment cycles but also, in many cases, abandoning treatment cycles that had already begun. While perhaps the right decision given the circumstances, this was devastating news for thousands of couples. 

Study design: This study surveyed 92 women from Canada and the United States (ages 20-45 years) whose fertility treatments had been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were recruited via social media and completed questionnaires assessing depressive symptoms and the impact that the suspension of treatments had had on their mental health. Potential predictors of psychological wellbeing were also examined, including several personality traits, aspects of social support, illness cognitions, and coping strategies. 

Results: 52% of participants were found to have concerningly high levels of depressive symptoms. They also reported that the cancellation of fertility treatments had resulted, on average, a 42% decline in their overall mental health and a 19% decline in overall quality of life. However, certain psychological measures were associated with better mental health despite treatment cancellations: for example, women who reported having good social support and who were more likely to seek support from their loved ones were found to be less negatively impacted by the cancellation of treatments. On the other hand, participants who found it difficult to accept their infertility, who tended to avoid reminders of their infertility, and those who tended to use “not getting my hopes up” as a strategy for coping with the emotional pain of infertility, were found to be more negatively impacted by treatment cancellations. 

Conclusion: Fertility treatment suspensions had a considerable negative impact on women’s mental health and quality of life. However, good social support and the use of certain psychological coping strategies can help women cope during such challenging times. 

To access the full paper describing this study’s results, click here

Are you interested in contributing to our research as a patient partner?

We include individuals who have experience with infertility on our research team to guide our research questions and provide important feedback on our work. We are always on the look for new people to join our team. If you are interested, leave us a message using the form below.

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