In one swift motion, a needle plunges into my body, and a warm sensation takes over. I blot the area and wipe away a speck of blood. This sounds like a scene from a horror movie or the pages of a mystery novel, but it's not. It's a typical night during another round of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, treatment. My husband or I administer four shots a night, enduring a buffet of physical and emotional effects from a bloated, sore belly to constantly fluctuating emotions.
I'm not alone. Up to 57 percent of women who've dealt with IVF report anxiety symptoms and 26 percent clinical depression—and these figures increase for those going through repeated, unsuccessful attempts. However, at 40 years old with two baby losses, several rounds of IVF, dwindling insurance coverage, and (so far) no baby, I find comfort in an unlikely source: erotic Hollywood thrillers from the 1990s like Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction.
Watching erotic thrillers has gone from secret to a proud self-care practice that aids me through the often isolating road of infertility. It's well-documented that stress and infertility are connected, and according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, acute and chronic stress can affect egg quality and fertilization outcomes as well as influence your well-being during pregnancy and into delivery. It's why fertility experts consistently say stress doesn't cause infertility, but infertility causes stress. After getting injected with hormones each night, many women lie down with a book or calming affirmation. I, however, turn on a sexy thriller—they work better than rounds of meditation or mantras. Sometimes my husband watches them with me, but usually, this practice is the entertainment equivalent of a she-shed.
It might sound counterproductive to watch high-stress movies complete with murderous femme fatales during stressful times, but sinking into a campy thriller allows me to escape into a world where nightly needles and daily blood draws don't exist. No matter how lousy or bloated I feel, actresses like Ellen Barkin, Michelle Pfieffer, or any femme fatale helps me feel like a sexier, more confident version of myself.
I'm not alone in my thinking, according to Allison Forti, PhD, associate director of the Department of Counseling Online Programs at Wake Forest University. "Enjoying high-stress media can definitely be stress-relieving, and two defense mechanisms can explain this: displacement and projection," she says. "This kind of entertainment provides an outlet for projecting untapped emotions...with the potential to buffer out real issues and help us handle life's challenges."
Watching these thrillers (and movies overall) has played a significant role in helping me stay sane, but they can only do so much. "Films like this can't cure depression, but they do diminish some anxiousness," confirms Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a psychologist and life coach. "Watching suspenseful movies can alleviate melancholy symptoms. Due to the rush of adrenaline that runs through your body when you're involved in something intense."
If I'm completely honest, the adrenaline rush is only part of the appeal. Disappearing into scary, sexy movies is a way for me to satiate my desires to feel sensual again, too. When focused singularly on procreation, the act of love, literally making it, gets lost in the shuffle.
When I don't feel particularly good about myself, I find solace in these women instead. Living vicariously through gorgeous, screen seductresses, I bask in their confidence, and, for a moment, I can ignore my own flailing sex life and channel a fake one. "People going through a hard time in life may be drawn to thrillers to cope," says Dr. Forti. Perhaps that's why these movies are so cathartic to me while undergoing IVF.
Still, this isn't a universally appealing self-care habit. "For some highly sensitive or empathic people, watching any stressful media can actually cause psychological distress," Dr. Forti says. "The sympathetic nervous system activates, and the body gears up to fight or flee." Though I benefit from them, for someone who doesn't, it could actually induce stress.
Watching these movies can potentially raise viewers' self-esteem and life satisfaction, Dr. Forti says. Escapism is one explanation, but social comparison is also a factor. Comparing yourself to a fictional character whose life seems far more interesting, or even dangerous, can (if only momentarily) ease the burden of real-life problems. "When our lives feel overwhelming or depressing, we can view an exhilarating thriller where the protagonist's life is more seductive or dangerous and feel a relief or emotional discharge," she says.
Struggling to have a baby changes life dramatically and these challenges shape anyone who experiences it. But there should always be something tangible to provide some escape. For me, that self-soothing is found on the screen. Whatever my reality brings, I can always find comfort, even if just for a few hours, inside the safety of a fantasy world.
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