Ah, the joys of being the female of the species…. You have to wonder how we cope.
Is it that nature allows us enough time between each hormonal challenge to forget the last one? We remember the joys of pregnancy but block out the more grizzly details. We have a vague recollection of starting our menstrual cycle, but it’s covered by the fog of the passing years.
Most of us don’t think about the menopause at all until we reach our forties.
Even then I didn’t give it too much thought, researching it certainly hadn't entered my mind. As with all things, the passing of time is the key. One minute menopause is a lifetime away - and the next, well you’re living the dream. Often with a body and a mind that you no longer recognise as your own.
Is it all in my head?
I thought baby-brain was a challenge until now. To say I was unprepared for my first encounter with perimenopause is an understatement. Looking back I’m not sure when I became aware that things had started to change. The first clue could have been the increased frequency of teary outbursts. I expected something more obvious though, so when the first black mood took hold, I started to piece the puzzle together.
It scared me to feel so low for no real reason. I'm lucky to have never experienced this until my late forties. One minute I’ll be fine and the next a black veil descends over me, draining away all joy and positivity. Of course, I’ve been down before, like most I’ve had the blues, been full-on upset, angry even - but I generally know why.
In first-aid training, they describe one of the symptoms of the onset of a heart attack as “a sense of impending doom”. It was only when I joined the ranks of the perimenopausal that I fully understood what this meant.
There comes a point when you have to make a decision about how you are going to deal with it. Mine was the first time that I heard menopause symptoms can last for up to 10 years. 10 years!!! That was the kick I needed - I had to fight back.
Once I had the measure of my elusive opponent, I started to recognise it for the shape-shifter it was.
Now I’m like Sherlock Holmes taking on the notorious Moriarty who appears at the most inconvenient of times and in the oddest of places.
I'm on holiday with my nearest and dearest, having a lovely day out, and out of nowhere, a black mood arrives. Aha, Moriarty, my dear adversary, I've learned to recognise you for what you are in an instant. Easy when there is no other plausible explanation.
My understanding entourage has by now become accustomed to these temporary transformations. They often identify what's happening before I do. We may have to change plans at the last minute to give me time to shake him off, and we do, good-naturedly and without blame. And when the fog clears we continue with our day.
It’s easy to be brave when you have your crew with you. Not always the case if you are alone when a low hits you.
Lonely, I’m so lonely …
I’ve found that attempting to think away the blues can be too much, leaving me feeling teary and powerless. But I don’t want to give in, so, to give my objection gravitas, I say out loud:
“This is not real, it’s my hormones playing games with me, I have no reason to feel down”
and then I list every reason I can think of why I won’t let my hormones bring me down today. It may sound crazy, but I promise you it works. What may appear on the outside as a bit of madness is keeping the inside sane.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that the usual incessant chatter in my head has increased of late. Whether this is due solely to menopause or can be attributed in some way to my working from home alone is unclear. I suspect a bit of both.
The way we talk to ourselves can be damaging, never more so than when we are going through change. Self-criticism can lead to stress and anxiety, which many believe worsen the effects of menopause. All the more reason to work on silencing that inner critic and “giving yourself a break”.
There are many books, articles, and workshops out there on this subject. The message running through most of them is to replace your inner critic/chatterbox with a more calm, compassionate voice. To learn how to be patient and forgiving with yourself. It does take some work but the benefits are enormous.
Let’s get physical
If the mental challenges aren't enough there’s a whole smorgasbord of physical symptoms to entertain and delight too.
My current favourite is the hot flashes (also known as night sweats). I've never really known how to dress for the British weather. But now, how my partner copes with the 25 changes of possible layers before we go out, I’ll never know. Luckily he's the patient type.
Recently we’ve hosted a round of family quiz nights on the internet. I often find myself stripping from two cardigans and a blanket to a vest top then back again in the space of the first 4 rounds! I have no idea how this is going to work when pubs and restaurants open up and we start going out again. I may need to have a wheelie suitcase full of clothing options in tow!
The duvet that was previously reserved for only the warmest summer months has now been on the bed for over a year. The normal one has been consigned to the back of the wardrobe. And most nights I get to a point where even that is unbearable.
I also sleep with the window open, even in winter, and keep plenty of layers close by so that I can adjust if needs be. It doesn’t solve the problem completely, but it does mean that I spend less time uncomfortable during the night.
My latest and most tiresome symptom is insomnia. Again, being one of the lucky ones, this had only troubled me very infrequently in the past. Recently though my brain doesn’t want to shut down. And worse, if I do get off to sleep and then wake in the middle of the night, I often find it impossible to get back to sleep.
I’ve found that I get a better night’s sleep if I do some exercise during the day. My routine most days now looks something like this:
Morning: 20-30 mins of Yoga
Lunch or after work: Aerobic Exercise (walk, run, cycle or swim)
Evening: 10-15 mins Yoga followed by 5-minute meditation
For yoga, my current favourite site is Yoga with Kassandra, you can find her on the internet or on YouTube. The reason I’m so fond of these classes is that she “gets on with it”. When you are pushed for time in your day, you know you can load up a video and get straight into doing yoga. She’s knowledgeable and her videos are easy to follow (even if you can’t “do all of the poses” right away).
For my aerobic exercise, I keep myself accountable by using Strava. There’s a free version of the app that lets you connect with your friends and keeps track of your activities. I’ve been using it to record my runs and cycle rides recently and it does a great job.
After I do all this I’m worn out, and when my head hits the pillow I can get a good night's sleep.
Improving strength, cardiovascular fitness and flexibility also help reduce the long-term effects of menopause.
So what do you think?
Can we beat the menopause at its own game? With a lot of determination, some creative thinking, a compassionate voice, and a strong sense of what’s best. I, for one, believe we can.
Lots of love and encouragement,
The Reluctant Achiever
The Reluctant Achiever is written by professional copywriter Wendy Ann Jones.