ENLIGHTEN UP! a blog
Self-awareness stories: lighting our way to clarity, contentment and resilience in a complicated world.
ENLIGHTEN UP! a blog
Self-awareness stories: lighting our way to clarity, contentment and resilience in a complicated world.
Menopause, the ‘M’ word has emerged from the shadows and is now part of our cultural consciousness. The Pause, as it is sometimes called, is seen by the medical profession, Big Pharma and many women as the end of fertility, the beginning of aging and a condition to be medicated. Given our modern health care and longer life spans, women in America can anticipate spending close to one-third of their lives in a post-reproductive state. That’s a long time to see life through a glass darkly!
Let’s Enlighten Up! and see menopause as a transformative experience, a Pause that refreshes.
Looking at menopause in a positive light for American women takes a bit of doing. In 2015, Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a professor in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive health at Yale Medical School was quoted in a Reuter’s Health article discussing cultural differences in women’s experience of menopause:
“In societies where age is more revered and the older woman is the wiser and better woman, menopausal symptoms are significantly less bothersome. Where older is not better, many women equate menopause with old age, and symptoms can be much more devastating.”
In America, older is not considered better if you are a woman, at least not yet. Need an example? Look at some language used to describe menopause. Google: synonyms for menopause at https://www.powerthesaurus.org/menopausal/synonyms. You will find a long list filled with unflattering and unhelpful words:
UGH! GIVE ME A BREAK!
And don’t get me started on how menopause is depicted in ads and pictures — so many images of sad looking women with their hands clutching their heads. It is time for a positive change in how we view and manage this transition. Movies, television and books are beginning to present positive images of older women but right now that beginning adds only one drop of truth to an ocean of ignorance.
What can you do about it? You can change your perspective so start with yourself, right now, this minute. It doesn’t matter if your menopause transition is past, present or years in the future. Your menopause is like your fingerprint — unique and personal. The way you perceive and move through this transition can transform your inner and outer experience.
One way to change your view of menopause is to see how it fits into your life span. There are many ways to divide a life span. Online they range from four to 12. I like to keep things simple so let’s go for four:
In general, midlife seems perfectly timed to align with menopause. It can be seen as moving away from a more active time of life toward a more contemplative one. Many western writers and thinkers, such as Marian VanEyke McCain, Christiane Northrup, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes, support this view. They point to the drive that moves women to begin an inner journey, address unfinished business, and claim the wisdom and power inherent at this time of life. Seen from this perspective, menopause is a natural transition that can enrich the journey from midlife to the senior years.
However, as lovely and transformative as that sounds, there are stressful challenges women may face. While doing research for my master’s thesis on menopause, I discovered a long list of possible symptoms including the most common:
And two surprising uncommon ones:
How can you deal with menopausal stress? Start with the first layer of self-awareness, your physical body. My menopause date is many years in the past but trust me, stress still visits. I walk. I do yoga and I dance like no one is watching. I’ve noticed that if I skip more than a few days without exercise, I become passive, petulant and pissy – not a pretty sight.
Your exercise choices will be like your menopause experience — unique and personal. The Mayo Clinic says:
“Exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever. Being active can boost your feel-good endorphins and distract you from daily worries.”
One way to keep your menopause stress from going meno-Postal is to take a meno-Pause and find a way to exercise. With firm intention, a little research and a healthy dose of discipline, you will find a way to incorporate some form of exercise into your life.
Adapting exercise for menopause will depend on your specific needs. For example, moving slowly, taking time to sense and feel your body move through space tends to cool and calm. Moving faster with more intensity tends to warm and energize. What you do and how you do it will depend on what you need in the moment. It’s a good time to tune into your Witness, the fourth layer of self-awareness and recognize how stress and menopause may be impacting you. Here’s one woman’s story:
P., is a yoga teacher and my friend. When we were sharing menopause stories, she told me she had a lot going on in her life in addition to menopause; a new husband, a twelve year old daughter from a former marriage, a late life two and a half year old baby girl from the new marriage, a stressful job as a researcher for a domestic violence project, a new yoga business and a pending appearance as a witness in a sexual harassment suit. Usually efficient and punctual, she was experiencing growing periods of mental fuzziness. In addition, she had been losing track of time, not showing up for some appointments and being late for others. She was experiencing what for her was an uncomfortable level of inner turmoil. About this state of affairs she said, “I don’t really think I have more stress than usual. It’s just that I feel it more now.”
Managing individual symptoms is another matter. Hot flashes are one of the most common. In her book, The Wisdom of Menopause, Christiane Northrup, M.D., defines a hot flash this way:
“Also known as vasomotor flushing, the hot flash occurs when the blood vessels in the skin of the head and neck open more widely than usual, allowing more blood to shift into the area, creating heat and redness.”
Typically triggered by falling estrogen levels, hot flashes usually stop a year or two after the actual menopause date. However, in some cases women may experience hot flashes for years. M., another friend of mine was surprised and appalled to be experiencing hot flashes a decade after her last period. When I told her it was normal, although understandably uncomfortable, she said, “Why didn’t my doctor ever tell me that!” I’m guessing that her doctor didn’t know and never read Northrup’s book!
In general, if a woman has an adverse response to stressful events, the more hot flashes she may have or the more intensely she may experience them. Conversely, the more effectively a woman handles stress, the more likely she is to experience milder hot flashes or have less intense reactions to them.
If you have hot flashes, try techniques that cool and calm. Here is a breath practice that can be done anytime, anywhere. No mat, chair or yoga pants needed! It is one of my favorites.
Cooling Breath for Hot Flashes
This breath practice often stops a hot flash if caught as the flash begins. Practice the Cooling Breath consistently so it will be readily available when you feel a flash or a flush coming on. This technique has helped several of my yoga students and a few others, including my flashing friend, M., who does not have a yoga practice and is not interested in starting one.
How it works: the inhalation brings cool air into the body. The exhalation releases warm air out.
As you think about your menopause experience, past, present or future, here is something to keep in mind:
“There is no more creative force in the world than the menopausal woman with zest.” ― Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist
“Self-care is how you take your power back.”
― Lalah Delia
The best and most important way to jump-start your self-care routine is to manage your stress levels.
A certain amount of stress is normal and necessary. If we didn’t experience positive stress every second of the day, we wouldn’t breathe, our bodies wouldn’t function, our brain would stop working and we’d die – pure and simple. Unhelpful stress, on the other hand, is any event that interferes with our equilibrium on the physical, mental and emotional levels.
Here’s my personal definition. Stress is anything that makes my upper lip curl, my stomach sink or my head explode with anger, fear or shock.
Unhelpful stress can result from a variety of power sucking sources. Here is a partial list:
Behavioral, Medical or Mechanical
Fight or Flight
Whether the source of stress is life-threatening, nerve wracking or simply annoying, the instinctive physiological response is to resist or run away.
When a short-term stress event occurs our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase. Blood is shunted away from the abdominal organs to the arms and legs as adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the body to prepare us to fight or run. When the situation is over, or if we are able to shortcut the stress response, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and the body experiences a reduction in heart rate and muscle tension. Our breathing slows and the body releases acetylcholine, which gives us a sense of balance and well-being that restores some of the power lost in dealing with the stress event.
Long-term stress from habitual fight or flight responses can have serious physiological effects on the body such as:
To be caught like a ‘deer in the headlights,’ to be so frightened or surprised that you cannot move or think. For example:
After the freeze can come action – fight or flight. Personally, I’d like to think that in the ‘stranger’ scenario I’d fight and in the disaster scenario, I’d find a way to run but one never knows what one will do in a traumatic situation until it happens.
These fight, flight and freeze responses show up in non-life threatening situations that happen to most of us all too often. Here are two of my stress stories.
At a family Thanksgiving dinner, one of my close relatives said something to me so outrageous and offensive that I froze in disbelief not knowing how to respond. After my stunned freeze moment, I elected for flight, excused myself from the table and engaged in silent fuming in the upstairs hallway of my mother’s house. I still have a strong visceral memory of my reaction and the hurtful words that caused it a full twenty years after it happened. Flight is my go-to response in conflicts that cannot be peacefully resolved.
Here’s a scarier one.
I came home from work one day to find that my house had been broken into. My television and several items of jewelry were stolen. I froze and panicked. After the freeze moment passed, I went into fight mode. I called the police, nailed the windows shut on the ground floor, installed an alarm system and got a dog. It was scary but not-life threatening. In that scenario, fight was my go-to response. I took action and got my power back.
The friend response, not surprisingly, has been noticed more in women than in men. Women tend to seek support from friends and social groups in times of stress. According to the research, women tend to friend as opposed to fighting or fleeing. Of course, this depends on the individual and the situation. And yes, in the Thanksgiving and home burglary stress stories, I did call a friend to vent and share. Getting support from friends is a fulfilling way to take power back from a stressful situation.
Whether your go-to stress response is fight, flight, freeze, friend or a combination of these, the way to deal with stress and take your power back is to build internal resilience. Resilience can be defined as the ability to rebound quickly from a crisis, tragedy, trauma or a serious case of ‘stress mess.’
After a traumatic experience, the ability to move on with life often depends on how resilient you are and how willing or able you are to confront the original traumatic event. Moving forward from trauma often requires help from counseling or group therapy.
According to the article, “The Secrets of Resilient People,” by Beth Howard that appeared in the AARP Magazine November December 2009:
“Highly resilient people don’t fall apart or if they do, it’s not for long. They call on their inner strength and recruit outside resources to keep moving forward. And they ‘tweak’ their future expectations to fit a new reality be it the loss of a loved one, a life-changing diagnosis or a devastating financial blow.”
Resiliency varies from person to person but scientists agree that there is a genetic component and resiliency, like any skill, can be learned. It’s self-care 101. A good place to start is to friend your breath. The Relaxation Breath is a technique you can do anytime and anywhere.
What it is
It is a breath technique that does four things at the same time. It:
Science has found that in addition to its metabolic functions in keeping us alive, how we breathe has a relationship to how we feel. For example, when we feel stressed, angry or in pain we often hold our breath, breathe rapidly or take short shallow breaths. When we become aware of how our breath reacts to stress, intense emotions or pain, we can begin to manage our breathing, which in turn can affect how we feel. Regular practice will help you build resilience and short cut your response to unhelpful stress.
How to do it
The Relaxation Breath lengthens calms your nervous system, ‘in the moment.’
1. Sit with your spine comfortably aligned.
2. Soften your chest and shoulders.
3. Close your eyes or keep them slightly open with a downward gaze.
4. Inhale normally. Exhale normally.
5. After exhaling, hold your breath out and silently count “one thousand one, one thousand two.”
6. Repeat and continue for 2-3 minutes or longer if you are comfortable.
If you practice regularly, you will be able to use this technique in situations when you must stand and keep your eyes open.
Here are a few more self-care practices that help you build resilience:
Be connected: Be social, join groups and ask for help when you need it
Be optimistic: See life as a glass half full not half empty; find humor even in awful situations
Believe in something bigger than yourself: It can be religion, a spiritual path or just finding joy in nature or a hobby
Be playful: Enjoy yourself in childlike ways often – like dance or laugh when no one is watching or participate in the power of wonder (at the sky, a landscape or life itself)
Give back: Volunteer, help a neighbor, mentor a child or share a talent
Pick your battles: Know the difference between things you can change, solve or control and those you cannot. Understand that in any situation you have only three choices, you can change the situation, change yourself or leave. Pick your battles and the adjust your choices to fit the situation
Stay healthy: You know the rules; eat a healthy diet (make sure dark chocolate is in there somewhere!), exercise in whatever way you can, keep a positive mental attitude. Exercise helps to repair neurons in brain areas that are susceptible to stress.
Actively seek solutions to your problems: Recognize a problem and take action first rather than wait for someone or something outside of yourself to rescue you.
Find the silver lining: Use your personal strength to convert misfortune and difficult situations into some type of a positive outcome; use that strength to see difficult situations as an opportunity to live with clarity, contentment and resilience for a wiser and more balanced life.
If we are consistent with our self-care practices, we build resiliency and can keep our short-term stress events from becoming long-term and chronic.
“Stress is the trash of modern life. We all generate it but if you don't dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life.” ― QuoteGarden.com
BETH GIBBS started her yoga practice in 1968, four months after her son was born and she’s been practicing ever since. She currently teaches all levels therapeutic yoga classes for adults, and specialty classes for seniors in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Beth is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is guest faculty at the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. She writes for the blogs, Yoga for Healthy Aging, and Accessible Yoga. Her master’s degree from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA is in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health.