Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known as PTSD, usually requires the sufferer to have witnessed or experienced a life-threatening situation, or an event that could cause serious injury. A recent study suggests, however, that the diagnosing criteria may need to be altered to accommodate a large group of women that are displaying symptoms of PTSD, despite the fact that their physical lives have not been threatened. These women have undergone fertility treatment.
The lead author on the study, Allyson Bradow, director of psychological services at Home of the Innocents, a non-profit organization that helps families in need, understands the pain and trauma of women that have undergone fertility treatments; she understands it because she felt those very same feelings after receiving fertility treatments herself.
“The definition of trauma should be expanded to include expectations of life,” Bradow said. “Having children, expanding your family, carrying on your genetic code – that’s an instinctual drive that we have as human beings. And when that is being threatened, it’s not necessarily your life being threatened, but your expectation of what your life can be or should be like.”
At age 26, Bradow conceived her first child naturally, but as she and her husband tried to conceive a second child several years later, they found that they could not do so naturally. Doctors diagnosed the couple with secondary infertility, a diagnosis that is given to couples that experience infertility after the natural conception of a child. Bradow and her husband decided to undergo fertility testing and treatment after the diagnosis; she explains how the experience changed her.
“The general diagnosis of infertility, or not being able to have a baby, is kind of this giant earthquake that rocks your world,” she said. “And then there’s all the aftershocks [of fertility testing and treatment].”
She says that the feelings she experienced went well beyond the typical depression and grief that have previously been linked to fertility treatment. After speaking to other women, she found that she wasn’t alone. She started to wonder just how many other women were affected by the same symptoms. It was this curiosity that sparked her research.
Bradow and her colleagues surveyed 142 participants that had received fertility treatment and had visited an online support group for infertility. Of those recruited, 97 percent were women.
During the survey, participants were asked a number of questions to help researchers determine whether or not they were displaying any PTSD symptoms. They were asked to use their fertility treatments as their traumatic experience.
Overall, 46 percent of the group met the criteria for PTSD. Of that 45 percent, 75 to 80 percent said that they felt upset when reminded of their infertility problems. An example trigger included things like seeing commercials for baby diapers. Other symptoms commonly noted by the group included feeling distant or “cut off” from people, irritability, hopelessness, and changes in personality.
Because such a high percentage of the people surveyed had reported symptoms of PTSD, Bradow says that the diagnosing criteria for the condition should be changed. This would help sufferers in more ways than one. First, it would help to ensure that they receive treatment for their condition. Secondly, it could help increase the chances that counseling would be a part of the fertility treatment, but Bradow says it may not be possible; fertility treatment is already expensive and doctors may be reluctant to add extra costs for their patients. Still, Bradow says that the rarely discussed psychological effects of fertility treatment should be shared with fertility patients.
“They’re focused on getting you pregnant…and that’s their job,” Bradow said. “But we also have to consider the psychological impact of what happens when you’re getting medical interventions through this.”
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