Sarah and I have been close friends and the idea to bring our modalities together was formulated during one of our weekly walks. I was explaining how counseling and stress reduction training techniques were used to help fertility patients cope with the emotional distress they often experience. When I noted that the intense stress of infertility can be compared to someone undergoing cancer treatment, Sarah experienced an “Aha moment.” She had been working with cancer patients on the infusion ward at OHSU. In this setting, it is well-recognized that the stress of the disease and the chemistry that the patients have to endure respond extremely well to regular massage and compassionate touch. Sarah noted that there are many studies showing massage on cancer patients decreases their pain and nausea and improves their well-being. We became excited about the possibility that massage could complement counseling in helping the women undergoing fertility treatment who, like cancer patients, also experience high levels of stress and endure chemistry in their treatments.
While individual and group counseling have long been viewed as an important source of support and care for patients with fertility challenges, this has not been the case with massage therapy. Sarah told me that she has been a massage therapist for over 16 years and not once come across a woman who reported being in the midst of fertility treatment. She speculated that the question would likely not even be on most massage therapists’ intake form and went on to add that there is no formal massage therapy training to work with this group of amazing and courageous women.
After much thought, research, and conversation with nurses and acupuncturists in the field, Sarah built on her experience with the cancer patients to develop an approach specifically for fertility patients. She describes her massage for these patients as a “Massage Induced Nap.” The purpose is to encourage rest, lower blood pressure and anxiety, and soften the symptoms associated with the fertility treatment. Sarah explains that often, when patients experience pain in a particular part of the body, they detach from that area to protect themselves from suffering even more. For instance, when a woman has to inject into her belly numerous medications, multiple times a day for weeks, she can become disconnected with the very place that she needs to connect with. Soothing, gentle massage combined with breath work can re-establish that connection.
The counseling I do as a psychologist also focuses on connections---connecting people with their emotions and supporting a healthy mind-body connection through teaching stress reduction techniques that promote a physiological state of relaxation. I also encourage women to become more connected to their bodies by listening and being responsive to their bodies’ needs for nurturing through healthy physical activity, nutrition, rest, and self-care. Fertility challenges can undermine a woman’s relationship with her body, potentially causing her to feel “broken” or angry at her body for not doing what she wants it to do. In my sessions, I also emphasize identifying ways to relate to one’s body with more compassion and appreciation.
Given the parallels between my work and Sarah’s, we became inspired to see what would happen when we combined massage therapy and counseling. We developed a “back-to-back” massage/counseling wellness session and started offering it to fertility patients. The session starts with 40 minutes of massage, which is followed by a 10 minute reflection period, and then completed with a 40 minute counseling session. This wellness session has been a great introduction for clients who have not experienced much of either modality.
Stress is clearly experienced both emotionally and physically. Sarah’s experience in massaging fertility patients is that it gives patients the opportunity to identify and feel where they are experiencing tension---typically in the head, face or neck---and to become aware of any emotions associated with that tension or place in the body. Having a counseling session afterwards, allows clients to verbally express that stored emotion and be supported in their experience of that. My experience as a psychologist has been that, following a 40 minute massage, patients came into a counseling session much more connected to their bodies and emotions, open and ready to receive what counseling has to offer. In client testimonials given after the back-to-back massage and counseling wellness sessions, the clients reported feeling more supported, nurtured, and empowered with relaxation/meditation tools to use at home.
“I was impressed with my sessions with Sarah and Britta, and I highly recommend all IVF patients take advantage of their services. I underwent the massage and counseling session the day before I began my shots, and it was a lovely, soothing, therapeutic way to begin this process. Sarah emphasized the mind-body connection and the importance of being connected to my body during the scientific procedure. Britta is a calming presence with a sympathetic manner, and she gave me good relaxation and coping techniques. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated my time with them and would recommend them to anyone who would like a healing, connecting, calming, oasis during what can be a very stressful time.”
Since the back-to-back massage and counseling wellness sessions were so well-received, it was clear to us that, in addition to counseling, massage is a great support during the various stressful stages of fertility treatments. This seems to be even more true if the massage therapist is well-versed in fertility treatment protocols, as several patients described feeling less awkward not having to explain and educate about the details of their treatment. Women who have received massage before, during, and after their IVF treatment have expressed feeling nurtured, supported, and “whole” again. They have also reported that massage gave them time for some much needed rest and an opportunity to “turn off” the churning of the mind.
“I went to my appointment with Sarah Watson with the thought “what do I have to lose by trying something different? We have been through 8 cycles of IVF over the past 9 years at different clinics. I had never had a massage centered specifically around the procedure I would be having that week (transfer). The time spent talking and the actual motions of the massage (especially those centered on head, heart, and womb) were very meaningful to me, and really helped me center myself in the moment. It helped me to let go of my worries and reflect on the miracle of my strong body, with or without a baby. For me it was a much-needed feeling of connection---a connection I didn’t even know I was missing! I’m very glad I went (Something interesting to add: the cycle was successful and my baby boy is due in six weeks. It has been a healthy and good pregnancy). “
As a result of how well massage, in addition to counseling, has been received by patients, we now offer “massage only,” “counseling only,” and “back-to-back massage/counseling wellness” sessions at the Healing Connections Center and continue to look for creative ways to better serve those experiencing fertility challenges.
Britta Dinsmore, Ph.D. Parents via Egg Donation Director of Mental Health www.Healingconnectionspdx.com
Britta Dinsmore, Ph.D. can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Sarah Watson, LMT can be contacted at Rubpdx@gmail.com