This post was updated on May 20th, 2019
Using Mindfulness When Dealing with Infertility
Judy Robinson (Clinical Psychologist) on Using Mindfulness to Ease the Distress Our Thoughts Cause Us When Struggling with Infertility
Judy Robinson is about as good as it gets when it comes to helping people help themselves through better understanding the patterns of thought and behaviour that cause us distress and learning to guide these thoughts in a more healthy manner. As a practicing Clinical Psychologist who has trained under the world-renowned founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic in Massachusetts, Jon Kabat Zinn, Judy delivers a highly intellectual, yet compassionate blend of East meets West insight into the world of using mindfulness for overcoming infertility and the associated negative emotions.
Even if you’re the most resilient person out there, if you’re dealing with infertility in any way, then understanding and practicing mindfulness can be a meaningful, real-world way to improve your happiness. I seriously could not be more enthusiastic about this topic and Judy could not have explained the topic any better in this interview. It is a must read!
In this interview we explore:
- What mindfulness is using examples of common experiences
- The benefits of being mindful when overcoming infertility
- Using mindfulness to manage common fertility-related distress like the two week wait
- How specialised infertility meditation can help you become more mindful and
If you liked reading this interview as much as I enjoyed bringing it to you, please let me know in the comments below. I really want to produce more content for you on this topic in the future but I want to know if it is something you are also interested in before I do.
Links and resources included in this episode:
And her clinic
Mindfulness practitioners that I think are awesome that you should check out:
Guided mindfulness meditation for infertility tracks:
Jon Kabat Zinn, Mindfulness & Mindfulness Training
Kym: Thank you Judy for taking the time to speak with us today. I was hoping that we could start by you telling us a bit about yourself and why you became interested in mindfulness meditation for infertility.
Judy: Hi Kym, thank you for inviting me – it’s a pleasure to be here. My journey started way back when I was a child. I had a lot of curiosity about people and minds and the spaces between people, so I was always fascinated with the idea of a mind. When I went to university I eventually got into studying psychology and became a clinical psychologist.
As part of my self-care and to prevent burnout, I was practicing yoga and meditation. For a long period of time, I kind of kept that separate from my practice as a psychologist until yoga, meditation and mindfulness actually started developing an evidence base in the scientific research which was very exciting for me.
In 2009, I went to a training retreat with Jon Kabat Zinn and Saki Santorelli in Sydney and it was an opportunity for me to really start to see that I could integrate mindfulness and meditation into the way that I was working. It really opened up this world where I could integrate my own personal practice into the way that I was working.
I really focused on that through training in MBSR therapy, which is a group program. This has given me the opportunity to run groups and train people in mindfulness meditation and it’s also given me an opportunity to really integrate that into my work in my individual practice. One of the other bonuses is that I now get to do professional development where I can go and do mindfulness meditation retreats to learn about mindfulness and sit with some experienced practitioners. I find that very nourishing for myself and for my clients.
Kym: I think for me your knowledge of mindfulness is something that really makes you stand apart in clinical psychology as mindfulness is still relatively new amongst clinical psychologists at this point. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation is quite a hot topic at the moment with a lot of successful athletes and companies like Google starting to embrace the concept.
The definition of mindfulness
Kym: Before we go any further I was hoping that you might be able to explain what mindfulness is for those of us out there who haven’t heard the term before or had the concepts behind them explained.
Judy: I’ll use the definition that Jon Kabat Zinn uses, because it really seems to me to cover the basics:
Jon Kabat Zinn says that “mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally and that this attention is paid to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
So mindfulness is really about being fully present with intention, and the non-judgemental aspect incorporates having deep acceptance of the experience of being present. Being non-judgement also incorporates the other aspect of mindfulness which is the idea of self-compassion. There is a growing body of research that supports the concept that self-compassion is an important aspect of mindfulness – almost like the other side of the coin.
Kym: I know when I first heard about mindfulness, it made sense to me in theory but it was very difficult for me to get my head around it in terms of actually personally using it in my day to day life.
To create more context, are you able to provide some examples of how people can be mindful or practice mindfulness so that we can better understand it?
Examples of mindful experiences
Judy: I think there are some situations in that we are naturally mindful and I like to use those as examples. I think that fundamentally it is a simple concept. It’s a natural aspect of our functioning and the way that our brain works.
Take a sunrise for example, if we’re observing a sunrise, we’re really drawn into that experience with a fresh mind and with open eyes, with an attention that meets the rising of the sun. It’s quite easy to really be there as we’re observing the sun rise, to really be present. There’s something about that experience that draws us in to being connected to the experience.
There are a lot of activities that we are conducting on a day to day basis where we are naturally mindful. Another easy example is when we’re on holidays, when we wake up in the morning and we’re eager to get out there and to observe what’s there to be experienced. We are paying such close attention because we’ve got such a relaxed alertness, and that’s such a natural part of mindfulness.
Sometimes, I think people are practicing mindfulness when they are doing activities such as surfing. Surfing is a wonderful mindfulness practice because it requires one to be fully present to maintain balance and it engenders a sense of freedom. It’s part of being in nature, I think nature naturally draws out an experience of mindfulness. And babies do too, it’s those activities where we feel really able to be up close to the experience.
To me, mindfulness is what actually happens in the spaces between the distractions of the thoughts and intrusions that surround us as human beings. Mindfulness is always there and it’s really just being able to actually drop into that in a way that’s free from what’s usually holding us captive.
Mindfulness enables us to really be present in the here and now.
Mindfulness meditation for infertility benefits & how it can help when overcoming infertility
Kym: That’s so funny that you mentioned surfing. I’m one of those people who especially need to practice mindfulness because my mind’s always racing. I’m always either planning something for the future or thinking about something in the past. Surfing and yoga are probably the only two times where it’s very natural for me to really experience the present.
How does being mindful, not only for dealing with infertility, help people in general? Maybe you could explain some of the benefits of why we would want to practice mindfulness and mindfulness meditation?
Judy: There is a lot of evidence coming out from the scientific community around the benefits of mindfulness. The quantity of research is increasing exponentially and seems to be covering a broad range of things. There is obviously some evidence for health and wellbeing, stress-management, and there’s also been a lot of brain research that’s indicating benefits for brain development via an increase in the white matter of the brain that actually helps to process information.
For my work, and how I’m applying mindfulness though, I’m really interested in the psychological benefits. There’s evidence around relapse prevention for depression for the mindfulness based cognitive therapy groups for example.
There is also the evidence from my own experience of listening to the people that I’ve been working with around a sense of freedom and empowerment to actually develop a relationship with experience that feels more comfortable; that feels natural; and that feels free from the habitual patterns of conditioned thinking and overlays of experience that seem to get us all tied up in knots. All tangled up so that we’re caught up in something that’s preventing us from truly being content and feeling at peace with our lives.
Using mindfulness when dealing with infertility
Kym: Mindfulness has certainly been a big help for me through my experiences of dealing with infertility and clearly this skill can help us in many different ways. Are you able to explain how applying mindfulness in general might help women that are dealing with infertility?
Judy: There is a lot of evidence now for the body mind connection. Mindfulness can really help with a sense of relaxation and peacefulness so that there is less of a struggle with what’s actually happening at a mental level or even what’s happening at a physical level. This gives us a deeper level of peace and acceptance within our experiences of infertility.
Even this idea of paying attention can help if we come back to the definition of mindfulness. Just by paying attention and feeling a sense of being in charge of where our attention is going, can be very empowering. If we simply ask the question “where is my attention right now?”, we can see that it’s not necessarily in the here and now.
Our attention likes to wander off and try to predict what’s going to happen next, or go back over what’s just happened. In order to gather our attention so that we are in charge of where it’s placed can be very empowering. For women dealing with infertility, and for anybody really, to feel that sense of knowing that I am paying attention to being here, now can be very empowering.
Meditation for infertility and being intentional
Judy: The other important aspect of the mindfulness practice that can benefit women with infertility is this idea of “intention” and “paying attention on purpose”. This means being able to ask ourselves questions like, “what is my intention in this experience?” ; “ Am I here to give myself the best opportunity to achieve my purpose?”; or “what’s the outcome that I’m looking for here?”
By paying attention, on purpose; by being in the here and now so that we are free from all the usual conditioned thinking like what we should be doing, what should’ve happened, and what may happen; we’re free because we are in the present moment. We are doing that without judgment. We’re doing that with self-compassion. So we might notice the following for example:
“Here I go judging the situation or wishing that something was different in this situation, and I’m noticing that and I’m bringing compassion toward myself. I’m noticing that maybe there’s some judgment but I’m not judging the judgment. I’m actually bringing some kindness to myself, and therefore some kindness and compassion to my relationship with my experience.”
Using mindfulness meditation for infertility & the associated negative emotions when dealing with infertility
Kym: I thought what we could do is: If I maybe suggest some situations where I personally have struggled mentally over the past four years dealing with infertility and kind of lay out a few situations, you might be able to give specific examples of how to use mindfulness meditation for infertility in order to deal with those negative emotions and ultimately be closer to overcoming infertility.
Managing emotions during the two week wait
Kym: The first one I thought about is something that I went through over the years, over and over again, and I think is something that most women struggle with. I’m talking about the two week wait. I know that during those two weeks I was definitely never living in the moment. It was a really hard time for me. I was just waiting to get that test to see whether or not I was pregnant. Maybe you could give some advice on how we can use mindfulness in order to deal with the “waiting and not being happy, because all we can think about is the future” situation?
Judy: I think if we come back to the definition of mindfulness again which is that it’s about being here-now, in the unfolding moments, we can see the two week wait as two weeks of many unfolding moments. This is an opportunity to do anything other than wait. It’s an opportunity to cultivate patience. It’s an opportunity to provide the best environment – to provide our souls with the best opportunity – for something to emerge.
My suggestion would be to see what we can do to pay attention in this situation and if we are struggling to pay attention in the here and now during the two week wait, then actually engage in activities that draw us into being present. Go and watch a sunrise, or go surfing! Whatever activity you can come up with, to help you be present.
Sometimes it could be just going for a walk in nature as part of that two week wait routine. Set in place some things that really help to draw you into being present, to paying attention, and to really being with the experience of being in the body in the here-now, observing whatever is occurring as it unfolds.
The other thing that you drew my attention to in your introduction to this question was the kinds of thoughts that are occurring in the two week wait and how those thoughts can be quite strong and grab a hold. There’s an impatience in the mind and a “wanting to know”. The mind is feeling threatened through the uncertainty and we want to appease it. I would suggest that the way to look at this is to accept that we don’t know what’s coming, but we certainly know what’s here now. It’s okay to be here now; and when we’re here now, we are okay.
If we can observe those thoughts as thoughts: “Oh, there I go tormenting myself again”, “There I go wishing again”, “There I go hoping again”, or whatever the actual experience is; then we can bring some compassion and kindness to the thinking as it’s happening. We can observe the kind of thinking that’s taking us away from being present and instead can cultivate an opportunity to be present. When we are present we usually find that actually it’s okay.
Managing feelings of failure when overcoming infertility
Kym: One of the other things that I’ve really struggled with throughout my infertility journey was the feeling of being a failure. I have felt like it was my fault that I wasn’t getting pregnant and I was failing at this thing that women should be able to do naturally. I’ve felt guilty I haven’t been being a good enough wife and fulfilling my duties to produce children for my husband.
I have experienced all these different emotions when dealing with infertility and I suspect that this might be something that is quite common for other woman also overcoming infertility. Would you possibly be able to give some examples of how we can use mindfulness to deal with these feelings?
Judy: I’m sure all the women out there appreciate your candid explanation of your experience of those intense feelings, and I’m sure that many women can relate to that in their journeys through life, let alone through infertility. It is part of the human condition that we tend to put this suffering on ourselves through our thoughts and the way we take these experiences so personally.
I think that mindfulness can really help with this problem by drawing us into a relationship with that aspect of the human condition that let’s us observe our experiences of painful thoughts and feelings in a way that allows us to be more compassionate with that experience itself. An example would be to think to ourselves, “here I am noticing these thoughts that I am a failure.” If we had a friend telling us that they think they are a failure or telling us about those thoughts, what might we say to that person that would offer them kindness and compassion? What would help them to put their situation into perspective?
Mindfulness allows us to do this with ourselves because we are observing our experience in a way that lets us offer compassion to ourselves with regards to these kinds of thoughts:
“Here I am noticing that I’m a failure and I’m welcoming that thought. I’m noticing it, I’m welcoming it. It’s okay to have that thought.”
Of course associated with that thought is a very painful emotional experience:
“Here I am noticing this sensation of pain that’s linked with that particular thought or guilt.”
What mindfulness can do is bring us into a relationship with that emotional experience via the sensations in the body that they create (since emotions usually are made up of sensations in the body). Once we are aware of the emotions, we can then come into a relationship with those feelings or experiences with compassion and kindness. Welcoming, and not struggling, but simply being with those experiences in the here and now. All thoughts or all emotional experiences arise, they are born, they grow, they get stable, they start to decline and then they pass away.
When dealing with infertility in particular, there are lots of up and downs. It’s a rollercoaster (I hear those words a lot). We really want to be able to keep in the cart and stay on that rollercoaster in a way where we really deeply know that I’m okay. I am here for me.
Kym: Self-awareness was the first thing for me that mindfulness helped me with, “Oh these are the feelings that I’m feeling”. Even just cultivating that self-awareness in itself seemed to help because that got me to the next stage where I could actually deal with them or be self-compassionate towards myself as you have mentioned.
Before developing my mindfulness meditation for infertility practice I was unaware that I was even having these thoughts, which resulted in the secondary emotions of anger towards myself for being a failure. After starting to learn how to be self-aware, I only had to deal with the primary emotion of feeling like a failure rather than having anger added in on top of that.
Managing feelings of jealousy using infertility meditation
Kym: Okay, I might throw one more situation at you that I know a lot of women get into at certain times. Speaking from experience, I have struggled with feelings of jealousy and the inevitable guilt that soon follows. When you’re struggling to have a baby and you do not know whether you ever will, it’s difficult sometimes to be around other people who are getting pregnant and having kids.
It seems inevitable that feelings of jealousy are going to arise. I experienced that here and there and then I’d have these huge secondary emotions of feeling guilty for being jealous! My mind would say, “how could you be jealous of this friend of yours Kym? Don’t you love them and really want them to be happy? If you are jealous, you must be a bad person.”
I really struggled with this and I think probably others do as well. Could you take that example and walk us through how to use mindfulness to deal with that?
Judy: Yes, I liked your explanation after the last question which was the idea of starting to be able to name thoughts as thoughts and name feelings as feelings because I think you are right. The challenge is to pay attention and then to actually identify these things because we are usually too tangled up in them. Actually stepping back and starting to observe these experiences can be the first challenge.
There is actually some evidence in neuroscience about this idea of naming feelings and naming thoughts. The term used is name-it-to-tame-it. We can only start to rewire our neuro-pathway once we actually can identify and name something. That’s a really helpful concept.
You’ve already named these quite intense emotions: jealousy, and guilt. They are not easy to identify to start with let alone to actually be compassionate towards. There’s all this innuendo about jealousy, and guilt can be such a heavy emotion. Both of these can be very difficult just to be with. So the first step to see that jealousy is a feeling. It’s not who I am. “I am not the jealousy. The jealousy is a feeling that I am experiencing.”
When we can do this, we start to no longer identify with our thoughts and feelings as being who we are. They start to become disempowered in a way. They catch us and capture us and tangle us up in a way that takes us away from being who we truly are. Everyone experiences those feelings. That’s what makes us human. It’s the only thing we have in common as human beings. We are all unique except for the way in which we experience feelings. You’re jealousy is what other people feel when they feel jealous.
The first step is to name the feeling, as a feeling, and to be able to just be with that and even welcome it: “Here I am, feeling jealous and it’s okay.”
Sitting with a feeling until it dissipates using infertility meditation
Kym: I feel like the times that I was able to do that and sit with the feeling and name it surprisingly dissipated which I find really fascinating because you would normally think if you concentrate on an emotion you’re just going to get more and more overwhelmed by it. But when I felt like I was really aware of my emotion, focused on it, and named it, it actually started to go away.
Is that a way of processing emotions? I would definitely suggest to anyone out there to try this one thing where you just name your emotion, think on it, and see what happens. I found that with certain physical pains in my body that seemed to happen as well during a mindfulness meditation. If I am feeling a little bit of neck pain then I focus on that it, and it often disappears which is fascinating!
Judy: In some ways what you are describing is again, the universal human experience. This is the reason why we are not mindful moment by moment because the mind wants to try to make sense of things. It doesn’t want to go with pain, it wants to struggle against pain. There is something that the mind does that takes us away from our natural mindfulness.
As we come into being aware and paying attention on purpose in the present moment, we can see that what we’ve been struggling against is unnecessary. It’s like the child who is tugging at our pants, who wants our attention. If we simply turn and say, “it’s okay I’ll be with you in a moment” they’ll cease their struggle.
In some ways our body in our experiences is very similar. If we can just actually give the attention that’s required to connect with that experience, sometimes that is all that’s necessary.
The infertility meditation aspect of mindfulness explained
Kym: I know that some people have a bit of an aversion to the term ‘meditation’ because it’s normally associated with being a hippie, wearing tie-die shirts, and flashing the peace symbol at people, but I have noticed that mindfulness meditation is becoming much more mainstream and accepted in western society.
It especially seems to be accepted in the context of productivity, and it is obviously being used for improving health both mentally and physically with Jon Kabat Zinn introducing mindfulness for dealing with chronic pain for example. Maybe you could explain how meditation relates to mindfulness and explain what exactly mindfulness meditation is?
Judy: We have scientific evidence for the benefits of mindfulness and a lot of that evidence is coming from experience using mindfulness meditation where study subjects are sitting quietly, paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment with some object of mindfulness that might be the breath or the body. Mindfulness meditation is about coming back to the present moment by paying attention to the particular object (the breath for example). The idea is that we notice the mind wandering and then turn our awareness back to our breath. If we are sitting and practicing that for any amount of time, be it as little as 3 minutes, we are practicing mindfulness meditation.
The evidence is that between 20 and 40 minutes of that meditation practice is of benefit to mindfulness and well-being in general. Mindfulness meditation is just practicing mindfulness whilst sitting quietly. We mentioned earlier about some examples of practicing mindfulness while we are surfing or when we’re watching a sunrise: while we don’t practice these activities to intentionally be mindful, we are doing so accidentally none-the less. The difference with the situation where we are sitting quietly to meditate is that we are slowing down the practice of mindfulness in the kind of way that we would practice learning any new movement in slow motion.
By practicing slowly, and sitting, we’re helping to rewire our brain. The scientific evidence shows that during meditation we’re actually helping to integrate neural pathways and develop the parts of the brain that help with information processing.
What we now understand is that when we’re meditating we’re accessing a part of our brain where we come into an experiential, or a present-centred network. If we sit, what will happen is that we automatically start thinking. We then go down some habitual thinking-patterns or switch to “automatic-pilot” as it is sometimes called. If we sit for long enough and focus in on being here and now by using the breath or a body sensation as a reference point, our mind will start to settle that habitual pattern of thinking. We can then actually come into a more experiential version of being here and now. This technique of infertility meditation may result in an exponential decline of stress as well!
Infertility Meditation is a work-out for your brain
Kym: I’ve found mindfulness meditation similar to lifting weights or running where it’s a form of practice or exercise, it’s just that I am strengthening my ability to be more mindful. It’s been really interesting for me personally because I had heard about mindfulness meditation, and knew it was something I need to get into because I am one of those people whose mind just totally races all the time.
For me to sit for five minutes and attempt to focus on my breath or focus on a sound was so difficult. Over time however, as I’ve practiced meditating more and more, I have become much more mindful of my thoughts during the day. It almost seems like meditation is a way of practicing being mindful so that you automatically do it in your day to day life where it’s needed the most.
Judy: Yes that’s right! Exactly. Mindfulness, in the original definition that we’re using, is actually about paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, moment by moment, in unfolding moments. Meditation practice is just the brain training used to make accessing that experiential network in the brain more easy throughout the day. Ultimately it’s about being in the present, moment by moment.
Additional information on Judy Robinson and her meditation for infertility practice
Kym: I could just listen to you all day long but I know you are very busy. Before we finish I just want to thank you again so much for taking the time to be on the podcast, and was hoping you could tell our audience where they can find some additional information about you and your services.
Judy: Thank you Kym, it’s been a pleasure. I wish you and all your audience the best with implementing their infertility meditation practice!
I run mindfulness-based cognitive therapy groups regularly here on the Gold Coast and all the information about that is here.
I am also developing a webpage.
And I’m operating a Facebook page that I try to keep updated regularly too.
Have you tried mindfulness meditation for overcoming infertility?