Complementary Medicine and Fertility Concepts: Can They Meet?

The concept of complementary medicine means different things to different people. For those who have never heard it before, the term can evoke expectations of strange or unfamiliar activities. In actuality, many of us are more familiar with the complementary services than we realize-for example, who hasn't heard of yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy, and stress management? All of these treatments are examples of complementary care. Complementary care is an umbrella which covers a myriad of services, and most people can find a treatment that will be beneficial to them.

Experiencing infertility can place great stress and demands on people. Infertility often narrows an individual's or couple's world-friends, family members and even social events can be set aside due to the complicated feelings evoked by these social interactions. Stress can build due to the shifts and changes that occur in one's support network due to the burdens of infertility. Other things that may contribute to this increased stress load include the demands of infertility treatment, feelings about self-image, managing the relationship and successful communication with a partner, and the roller coaster of hope and hopelessness. Consequently, it is important to continually check in with yourself and your partner and ask "How do I take the best care of myself/ourselves as I pursue building a family?"

Complementary care answers the question of how to take care of oneself. There is no "one size fits all." Just like there are many flavors of ice cream (which is one nice way to take care of yourself as a treat), so there are different types of complementary care. Keep an open mind to see what flavors you like-some will work better for you than others, and there may certainly be treatments you do not care for at all. Are you a verbal person or do you tend to be more introspective? Do you like to be with other people or prefer time to yourself? Some of these questions can help direct you to the program or activity that you enjoy and that benefits you most. You can learn new ways to release anxiety and cope effectively. Many individuals and couples find that relaxation techniques and exercises help them to continue with treatment as they handle day-to-day responsibilities and relationships at home and at work. For example, have you ever found yourself daydreaming? Do you imagine yourself, say, back on your most recent vacation and feeling a little bit of that nice, relaxed feeling? Guided imagery can achieve some of that same relaxation response. Today there are many innovative relaxation techniques that offer special benefits to individuals and couples who are in treatment and who are participating in third-party reproduction. Along with guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness exercises are excellent tools to help cope with stress.

Seek out books, tapes, or relaxation groups that can help you practice this technique. As an exercise, at the end of reading this article, try closing your eyes and picturing your favorite place to be. Try to pay attention to the details. Is it a warm place? Cool? Is it quiet or are there many noises to listen to and enjoy? What colors can you see? Pay attention to how you felt before you started this exercise and after you're done. Were there any changes? Did you find you weren't thinking about fertility problems for a few minutes? Most important to remember when practicing relaxation is to set reasonable goals. Spending 45 minutes doing guided imagery may not work, but spending five to ten minutes might give you a mini "coffee break" from fertility stresses or other problems.

One of the most often-cited reasons for not seeking out complementary care, whether it is relaxation techniques, acupuncture or counseling, is "I don't want to appear ____." The blank is filled in with "crazy," or "weak," or "incompetent" or other negative adjectives. Seeking additional support is a strong, positive way to take care of you. Ironically, seeking support is the opposite of being "weak" or feeling these negative thoughts that people think which keep them from seeking better ways to cope. Being more mindful of your environment can be a terrific way to relieve stress. When we get stressed, we start to focus on the things that make us worry. Our physical cues reinforce the stress-racing heart, adrenaline increasing, rapid thoughts. A couple of quick exercises to focus you on the "here and now" of your environment can keep the stress or worry from increasing and even help it to decrease. Focus on the room around you. Pay attention to what is in the room. Really look at the furniture. Pay attention to the decorations on the walls. Be mindful of how you are sitting and breathing. Take a deep, cleansing breath, fill up your diaphragm and slowly let it out. Feel how your shoulders will drop as you breathe out. This focusing technique can be a mini-stressbuster and can be done anywhere.

Many individuals find acupuncture and/or massage therapy helpful for both fertility issues and for stress management. Consider having a consultation with a licensed acupuncturist or massage therapist. Interview him or her about the philosophy of the practice. Are they familiar with infertility issues? A 2002 study showed very promising results that acupuncture can assist with in vitro fertilization success rates.

Some of the other complementary services to treatment include individual or couples counseling. As individuals or couples plan for infertility treatment, and especially for the advanced therapies such as in vitro fertilization, egg donation, and gestational carrier, counseling and support services help to process emotions and aid in making informed decisions. Discussions may include the best ways to discuss treatment with family and friends, workplace issues, sexuality and maintaining a positive self-image. Additionally, couples' counseling may also help a relationship stay on track during the stressful times of fertility treatment. Partners can be in different places during the fertility journey, and counseling can be an excellent tool to keep communication strong and to understand each other's feelings.

Many people also find it helpful to learn from others who are facing similar challenges in a supportive group setting. Support groups offer the opportunity to hear how others have managed the pressures and joys of planning to be parents. Many people find it enriching to share their own stories with others in the group.

Complementary care offers a tremendous opportunity to navigate the fertility journey in the best way possible. By working on relaxation techniques, communication, self-esteem, and/or acupuncture, complementary care can assist in navigating the infertility journey with strength, care and support for yourself and your partner.

Dr. Andrea Braverman is a renowned health psychologist specializing in medical health management, infertility counseling, third party reproduction issues, and diabetes care.

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