Conception is defined as the union of a male sperm and a female ovum resulting in a zygote. Prior to the first pregnancy which resulted from in vitro fertilisation (IVF) in 1973 it was believed that human fertilisation must occur within the woman’s body. Although this pregnancy only lasted a few days, it wasn’t long before further experimentation resulted in the successful birth of Louise Brown in 1978.
Louise Brown has gone down in history as the first ever ‘test tube’ baby, signifying the beginning of reproductive endocrinology. Since her birth extensive research and further discoveries have meant that couples with fertility problems now have a variety of medical options available to them. Many couples, who may never have been able to have a baby, are now parents because of assisted reproductive technology (ART). And yet there are many others, who after countless attempts at a variety of interventions remain childless.
Unfortunately ART only offers people another option and isn’t necessarily the solution to fertility problems. When it comes to having a baby, there are no guarantees. With all the advancements in science, embryologists still can’t say who will and who won’t go home with a baby. The creation of life is wonderfully intriguing and mysterious, and I suspect the answers can’t be found under a microscope.
It isn’t hard to see how difficult having fertility problems can be. And with an ever increasing number of people choosing to try IVF(1), it seems that this struggle may have become compounded. IVF is a very time consuming, intense and demanding procedure. People put a lot of financial and emotional investment into it, and some believe that there happiness depends upon the successful outcome.
Irrespective of the outcome, going through a cycle of IVF is likely to have a negative effect physically, emotionally and psychologically. The impact of which is magnified by treatment failure. The demanding nature of the procedure can also affect people’s work and social life. The high financial cost of IVF is well known and with some couples choosing to do 3 or more cycles the financial burden can become heavy. It is also quite understandable that relationships may suffer sexually and emotionally under these kinds of stressful circumstances. Simply put, IVF can affect every aspect of life, and in the case of an unsuccessful outcome, people may be left feeling devastated, disappointed, exhausted, stressed and without hope.
In the time that I have worked with people undergoing IVF, I have heard repeatedly that hypnosis has made such a positive difference to their experience that they can’t believe anyone would go through IVF without it. Whilst some fertility units offer counselling to their patients, I think that the inclusion of hypnosis offers so much more than talking therapy alone.
Firstly, clients can be taught how to achieve a deep state of relaxation using hypnosis which will help to significantly reduce levels of stress. Secondly, hypnotherapy can be used to equip them with tools and inner resources which will help them to cope better and handle an unsuccessful outcome more easily. Thirdly, hypnosis can be used to help prepare mentally, emotionally and physically for IVF. This preparation can range from positive lifestyle changes, changing limiting beliefs to eliminating a needle phobia. And lastly, hypnosis can help to increase the chances of a successful outcome.
According to a study presented to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Berlin in July of 2004: hypnosis can effectively double the success of IVF treatments. The study was conducted by Professor Eliahu Levitas and his team at Soroka Hospital in Israel to determine if hypnosis could improve the success of the embryo transfers stage of IVF.
The study of 185 woman found that 28% of the women who were hypnotized for the IVF treatment became pregnant, compared to 14% of the women in the control group(2). Professor Levitas studied the effects of hypnosis for the IVF treatment and embryo transfer only, because prior studies that demonstrated the stress of the procedure created small contractions of the uterus that prevented the successful implantation of the fertilized egg. The professor indicated that tranquilizers had been used in prior studies, but nothing worked as well as hypnosis. “Performing embryo transfer under hypnosis may significantly contribute to an increased clinical pregnancy rate,” Professor Levitas told the conference in Berlin.
A few months ago, a young woman called Mary (3) came to see me for hypnotherapy because she was due to go for her fourth and final round of IVF treatment. She, like many others, had been diagnosed with unexplained infertility. Instead of giving up after trying naturally for 18 months, her and her husband decided to give IVF a go. After a year of unsuccessful fertility treatment she felt at an all time low. She spent some time telling me about what the last two and half years had been like for her and how it had left her feeling. She explained how trying to have a baby had become all consuming, and that without her attention the other areas of her life had begun to deteriorate. She had turned down work opportunities, social engagements, holidays and family gatherings all in an attempt to get pregnant or avoid the heartache of not being pregnant yet. She had changed her diet and entire lifestyle to include only things which she believed would help her to conceive. She spent hours every day on infertility chat rooms and seemed to know as much about infertility and medical treatments as a reproductive endocrinologist. Although her relationship with her husband was strong, he had finally drawn the line and said that he was only prepared to do one more cycle of IVF. He could see how much their attempts to get pregnant were affecting her, and he did not want the next 5 years of their life to be on hold while they continued trying.
Although terrified at the prospect of stopping, she knew that she could not go on like this for much longer. Her health and psychological wellbeing were suffering, and she felt she no longer had the energy to keep on struggling. Knowing that this was her last attempt at IVF, she decided to try hypnotherapy. She was hoping that hypnotherapy would help increase the chances of success, but also knew that she needed some help to cope with each stage of IVF, as well as the outcome.
Mary is a very typical example of the kind of IVF case that I hear. In a situation like this, I like to follow a simple six stage therapeutic framework:
This framework has come to be known as the Fertile Body Method, and can be applied in varying ways to the treatment of any fertility case. Below I have illustrated how this method was used in Mary’s case to help bring about the changes that she wanted.
After hearing about Mary’s situation we began detailing what outcome she wanted from the hypnotherapy treatment. I used solution focused (4) questions get a detailed and specific goal for therapy. Through this process we identified significant markers along the path to this goal, as well as some of the resources she may need to get there.
Mary’s goal focused on wanting to feel ready mentally, emotionally and physically for the IVF treatment. We discussed in detail, what this would be like and how she would know she was prepared in the way she wanted to be. We identified some unhealthy beliefs that would need to change, as well as what she would need to be doing differently before and during this cycle. She then went on to describe how she would feel when all of this is happening.
Mary knew she would need inner strength to be able to come to terms with the possibility that it may not work, and greater perspective so that she could see how her life could be happy without her own children.
Once the outcome for therapy was clear, we began by looking at how we could restorebalance to Mary’s life. This stage in the process is vital, and really needs to precede all other therapeutic intervention. This stage ensures that general wellbeing is restored and that the client is in a stable and resourceful state before continuing to address more complicated issues.
During this second stage we did some work together to help her give the different areas of her life the attention they needed. We created mini-goals to identify what changes she would like to make to her relationship, social life, work, hobbies and lifestyle. This immediately broadened her narrow baby focus to include the rest of her life. She began putting more energy and time into the areas of her life which gave her a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. I also taught her self-hypnosis so that she could enjoy some time each day in deep relaxation.
After a couple of weeks Mary felt that she was well underway to having a more well rounded life, and was already noticing the benefits of having made these changes. Now in a more stable and resourceful state it became much easier for her to access her inner resources which we worked together to develop and build.
Mary now felt ready to begin to address her fear of being childless and resolve some of the unhealthy beliefs she had about herself as an infertile woman. She believed she was a failure if she didn’t have a baby of her own, and that she had let everyone in her family down. She also believed that her life could not be worthwhile without children. All of these beliefs were contributing to her high levels of anxiety and preventing her from coming to terms with being childless.
With a combination of cognitive behavioural techniques and hypnosis, Mary was able to overcome her fear and begin to see how she was worthwhile irrespective of whether she had children or not. I also asked her to create a picture collage of how she would like her life to be like if she did not have children. During this process she began to think about what some of the benefits of not having children might be and was able to see how she could be happy without children. This brought her such a sense of relief and she explained that she felt as if a weight had been lifted.
I created a tailor made self hypnosis CD with specific guided visualisations designed to help enhance fertility. The CD contained visualisations for the different stages of IVF: stimulation, embryo transfer and implantation.
We spent our second last session together focusing on helping her to feel ready andprepared for the IVF treatment which was due to start within the next couple of weeks.
I also taught her some self help tools which would help her to feel more in control throughout the treatment.
Mary used the self help tools and self hypnosis CD throughout her IVF treatment and booked her last appointment with me after she had heard the results of treatment. To her absolute disappoint, the IVF treatment failed. When I saw her for our session together I was so inspired by the courage and strength that she showed. Despite being very disappointed that the treatment had not worked, she felt she was able to handle it because she knew that it no longer meant the end of her world. She also told me that the treatment had gone really well and she had felt the best she had ever felt. She knew that she had done everything she could and it was now time for her and her husband to focus on building their life together. Because the outcome of the IVF had been unsuccessful the focus of the session was to support Mary through this time of grief and moving on. She came to see me after that for one more session to help support her to maintain some of the positive changes that she had made in her life and to continue to build a happy and fulfilling life for her and her husband.
When I received a phone call from Mary 3 months later to say that she had conceived naturally and was pregnant, I was shocked but not surprised. The work we had done together had helped Mary to make many changes to her life, and above all else had helped her to let go of the anxiety and fear that she had about being childless. How and why she conceived will forever remain a mystery. However the transformative journey that Mary undertook in an attempt to become a mother, will have a long lasting effect on her and her family’s future. It may even be that it was a very necessary part of her unique preparation for parenthood.
Time and time again I have witnessed the wonderful effects of hypnotherapy on couples undergoing IVF treatment. I feel very passionate about the benefits of hypnotherapy becoming available to more people with fertility problems and would love to see it offered as a standard part of IVF treatment.