Growing up with archetypes like these, it’s no wonder that the postmenopausal years, and aging, can sometimes be seen as a thing to fear.
So, this Halloween, let’s take some time to break down the seemingly frightening myths of ‘The Change’, and ask ourselves how scary is menopause really?
Let’s get scary
While we don’t want to spoil a good spooky story, just know that this one has a happy ending. Yes, there are twists and turns, unexpected symptoms, and perhaps even some tears⸺but there are also special potions, remedies, and a support cast to help you through.
Now let’s get scary.
Menopause (or, more accurately, perimenopause) usually begins in your early to mid-40s when your ovaries slow down the production of estrogen and your egg stores decrease in quantity and quality. Your periods become irregular and gradually slow until, usually in your mid-50s, they’ll stop completely. Once your periods have stopped for 12 months you have reached menopause.
Falling levels of estrogen may trigger a whole series of side effects, besides changes to your periods. You may experience big emotions that come with hormonal changes (think puberty all over again), strange sweating, hair where there shouldn’t be hair, and brain fog that can sometimes make it hard to remember the simplest things. With all this going on, it may feel like you’re Jekyll one moment and Hyde the next.
Everyone’s journey to menopause is unique, but there are some common symptoms you may experience, including:
The prospect of sweating uncontrollably, crying, or yelling or no apparent reason is enough to scare anyone silly, right? Add in a thickening waistline, a bit of facial hair and a poor night’s sleep and these experiences might fit right into a Grimms’ fairytale.
But unlike Grimms’ fairy tales, the ‘crone’ in this story is actually just a normal woman, experiencing a normal physical change, alongside millions of other women experiencing the same changes at the very same time.
Rather than a scary crone hiding out alone in the woods, you are in fact part of a worldwide gang of women whose bodies are going through a change as natural as they come. By one estimate there are 47 million women reaching menopause every year and by 2030 there should be around 1.2 billion menopausal and postmenopausal women in the world.
And unlike the fairytales, you and your millions of menopause club members don’t need a knight in shining armor, or an axeman in the woods, to save you. You have the power to write your own menopause story.
Making menopause famous
The media landscape in the past 15 to 20 years has changed enormously and the old maiden, mother, and crone archetypes are evolving. Media personalities who may once have faded into the background as they aged are not only vocal, but vocal on everything menopause
They’re working with a new postmenopausal archetype: the wise woman, a time of power and growth. For these women, menopause and all that goes with it is not something to be hidden in the shadows.
Michelle Obama has talked candidly about hot flashes on Marine One on her podcast. She said, “I’m dressed, I need to get out, walk into an event, and literally, it was like somebody put a furnace in my core and turned it on high, and then everything started melting. And I thought, ‘Well, this is crazy—I can’t, I can’t, I can’t do this.’”
“Any person who's going through menopause who's going to work every day in a suit, you can be drenched in sweat, down to your core, in the middle of a freezing cold office, and have to shower, and change clothes, and fix your hair all over again.”
“There's a lot of stuff that women need to talk about, so some, some of these cultural norms change, like, how you dress.”
In 2008, Gwenyth Paltrow took to Instagram to talk about the need to rebrand menopause; “Menopause gets a really bad rap and needs a bit of rebranding. I remember when my mother went through menopause and it was such a big deal, and I think there was grief around it for her and all these emotions. I don’t think we have in our society a great example of an aspirational menopausal woman.”
Oprah Winfrey, with arguably the largest audience of menopausal and postmenopausal women in the world, has also spoken about her experiences. In a 2019 edition of her magazine, she said, “So many women I’ve talked to see menopause as a blessing.”
“I’ve discovered that this is your moment to reinvent yourself after years of focusing on the needs of everyone else.”
Get loud about menopause
It’s hard to ignore 1.2 billion women, especially if one of them is Oprah.
When it comes to changing the conversations about menopause, you have power too. Part of conquering the fear of menopause is bringing it out from the shadows and losing the shame.
It’s sad that very few women feel they can discuss their symptoms and experiences with their friends, partners, or colleagues. A study conducted by Bonafide showed that only 20% of women talk to their friends about their experiences, while another study showed that only half of women felt they could talk about their symptoms at work, even though 62% said it was affecting their work-life.
The more we talk about menopause, the more we normalize it.
By shaking off the shame of what you’re experiencing (after all, there is no shame in experiencing something every other woman will eventually experience), we can start to normalize our experiences.
If you need adjustments at work— whether it’s turning up the air conditioning, having access to showers, or even just letting your colleagues know you are having perfectly normal hot flashes—then speak up! The odds are you are not the only one.
It’s the same with your home life; by opening up to your family and friends about your experiences, not only are you giving them an understanding of any changes they may be noticing in you, you’re also giving them the opportunity to support you.
Considering Bonafide’s study showed that only 9% of women talk about their experiences with their mothers, you also have an opportunity to change the experiences of the next generation. The more that younger men, women, boys, and girls are exposed to this phase of life, the less scary it will be when they or their friends/partners/coworkers experience it in the future.
Take control of menopause
The fear of menopause is probably felt more in the West than in other cultures, and we can learn a lot from them and their attitudes towards this stage of life.
One thing we can do is stop treating menopause as an ending. Women spend approximately one-third of their lives postmenopause, this is why, in many cultures, it signals the start of a new beginning.
In China, menopause is considered a time of rebirth, while in Japan, the word for menopause, Konenki, means renewal, season and energy.
In many Arab, Asian and First Nations cultures, moving on from childbearing years brings social freedom and higher status in society. You are honored for your wisdom, not ignored because of your age. You become the elder, the wise woman, and someone to be respected.
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Seek help for menopause
Some symptoms of perimenopause can be awkward, unpredictable, and at times, scary. But that doesn’t mean you have to put up with them. There are many management options available:
Hormone replacement therapy
Many of the symptoms experienced during menopause are triggered by falling levels of estrogen. Hormone replacement therapy seeks to correct the hormone balance by returning estrogen, and sometimes progestin, to the body. This can be done through tablets, creams, gels or patches.
While hormone replacement therapy is the most effective treatment on the market, it does come with risks and isn’t an appropriate treatment for everyone, especially women with a history of breast cancer.
Hypnotherapy for hot flashes
Hypnotherapy to manage hot flashes aims to reduce the frequency and severity of hot flashes by targeting the mind-body connection. In clinical trials, hypnotherapy was shown to reduce the frequency of hot flashes by 70% after five weeks, and 80% after continued practice.
Hypnotherapy has also been shown to help improve sleep quality and feelings of anxiety.
While menopause doesn’t need to be scary, it’s OK to not feel OK! Hormone fluctuations at this time can affect your mood, so it’s not uncommon to experience anxiety or depression at this stage of life.
If you’re feeling like menopause is getting the better of you, not the other way around, then it can be a good idea to seek out counseling or talk to your doctor⸺they can be a big help.
Also know that you are not alone in feeling like this. Oprah has said of her experiences, “Suddenly my attitude toward most things was “whatever.” I wasn’t vibrant. My whole world dulled down a couple of notches.”
After speaking to her doctor, she found management tools that helped her to see her world, “returned to technicolor.”
The Wrap Up
The time leading up to menopause can feel scary. Symptoms can include hot flashes, insomnia, weight gain, and brain fog. In the past, women have managed this natural change privately. But with an estimated 47 million women reaching menopause each year we have a lot to gain by normalizing this experience. Aside from tackling the social stigmas around the menopause experience, we can also improve our journey by managing our symptoms and reducing their impact on our life.