We all go through physiological and psychological changes as we age. With these changes, support, communication, and understanding helps us feel better. In some case we have learned that certain topics are embarrassing or shameful and this communication gap can foster misperceptions, isolation, and occasionally feelings of weakness or self-doubt. So let’s open up the conversation on menopause and all the other wonderful complexities of aging.
For those that have not lived through menopause, one of the tricky things to understand is that there are many differences with respect to timing and impact. For example, the process usually starts between the ages of 40 and 56, but from time to time may not happen until a woman is in her 60’s and when it begins it may last from one to fifteen years.
Responses to menopause can range from minimal perceived effects through to a whole range of symptoms including; hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, less vaginal lubrication, and moodiness. To compound the experience, midlife changes may also be taking place at the same time – sometimes making it tough to distinguish between the two. In these difficult times it is helpful for a woman to understand that it is a normal process of aging even if it comes with extreme symptoms. It’s also important to understand that just because a woman struggles with menopause does not mean she is going crazy.
Estrogen receptors in the brain perform complex work and are not fully understood. Some of what we know is that they play a role in gene action and good cholesterol; and that they affect the neurotransmitter chemicals associated with mood and stress. During menopause the intricate, multi-hormone reproductive signaling loop is confounded. This can cause estrogen production to crank up, crash and crank up again. We don’t know exactly why, but something interferes with most women’s thermo-regulatory symptoms producing hot flashes. For some women this can place a disruptive strain on neurotransmitters in the brain affecting memory, attention and emotion—for others, there is minimal affect.
Sometimes, with well-meaning and empathic intention, our support system and society at large emphasize women’s changing roles and existential issues. In so doing, they often pay short shrift to the major hormonal changes that may be occurring. If you or the women in your life report that they are not feeling themselves, that they sometimes feel like they are burning up from the inside out, that they can’t put words together, or are experiencing terrible insomnia and horrendous mood swings – take this seriously and be understanding and compassionate. While it is good to have a sense of humour, it is even more important to address the dismissiveness and lack of understanding that many women face during menopause. Balance, and a healthy lifestyle are important, but support and understanding is key.