In the past decade there has been a major shift in the way menopause is reported. The story told over and over again goes something like this: the symptoms were so horrendous that I was going to lose my job/relationship/mind, then finally my doctor prescribed HRT and I got my life back!
When I wrote my menopause series five years ago, I searched in vain for positive depictions of ‘the change’ but all I found were the same old horror stories.
How negative stories impact our menopause experience
Has menopause always been a devastating experience but too taboo to talk about? Or has this predominantly negative narrative impacted our perception of our symptoms?
A recent ground-breaking review of menopause research concluded that our social and cultural attitudes contribute to the experience of menopause. The subsequent medicalisation of this life change has also fuelled these perceptions.
The review demonstrated that despite menopause being a natural event for half the population, media reporting was overwhelming negative. Furthermore the research found a strong correlation between being exposed to negative attitudes towards menopause before reaching this point in life, with the severity of symptoms when women went through it themselves.
The evidence suggests that this shift in our perception of menopause is relatively new. Even twenty years ago, 90% of Australian women reported that they had a positive experience of menopause.
This echoes a large US study of over 2,500 women aged 45 to 55 published in 1991. It showed that the majority of women reported relief or neutral feelings about the thought of their periods ceasing and these feelings became even more positive as women experienced menopause. Quite a different story to today’s narrative.
Further systematic reviews cited in the paper showed overwhelming evidence about this correlation between negative attitudes and expectations before menopause being a predictor of the likelihood of distressing menopausal symptoms.
In short, if you think menopause will be horrendous, it’s more likely to be so.
Changing the narrative around menopause
I love synchronicity. The week before the research was published, I made a short video about the upsides to menopause. Spurred on by yet another media story about the horrors that could only be cured by drugs to suspend this natural transition, I felt compelled to share an alternative narrative.
A cancer diagnosis leading to surgical menopause wasn’t the ‘change’ I’d planned. Despite being initially catapulted into an abrupt hormonal shut down, on reflection there have been many positive ‘side effects’ that surprised me.
- No more periods. As a woman who’d lived with endometriosis, it wasn’t until my periods stopped that I realised just what I’d been putting up with for all those decades.
- Greater emotional stability. The biggest surprise of menopause was actually a reduction in emotional ups and downs, which was contrary to what I’d been led to expect.
- Putting yourself first and letting go of people pleasing. [link] As women we tend to be the peacemakers, putting the needs of others before ourselves. Many women find after menopause the ‘need to please’ diminishes. Being less inclined to put up with situations that don’t serve us, is another gift of menopause.
Is menopause a ‘hormonal deficiency’?
There are times when taking HRT is advisable. In particular for women going through an early menopause (under the age of 40), who may need to supplement their reproductive hormones until they reach their mid-fifties.
Occasionally menopausal symptoms are severe and require some relief. But this should be part of a care plan – looking at diet, exercise and even psychological support. Not an open-ended prescription alone.
Menopause now often coincides with a stressful time in life. The trend to have children later has created the sandwich generation, when women may be caring for teenagers and elderly parents at the same time. All while juggling full-time work, other responsibilities and their own hormonal changes.
Has menopause become a barometer of stress, more than a ‘deficiency’ of reproductive hormones? Transitioning through menopause can be like shining a light on the cracks, to make us aware of what’s not working and where the stressors are. Drinking alcohol or caffeine, psychological stresses or simply not getting enough sleep can ramp up hot flushes and other unwanted menopausal symptoms. There are lots of ways to support this time of life naturally.
A new narrative
What if we changed the narrative and framed menopause as a time for women to literally ‘pause’ and prioritise self-care? We could use this as an opportunity to share the mental load at home more fairly. Or prioritise time to nourish our mind, body and social connections. It could be a prompt to change to way we exercise, to focus on movement and activities that makes us feel good, rather than as a punishment to “burn calories”. For some women who’ve been at war with their bodies throughout their reproductive years, it can be time to call a truce and start to work with their physical and psychological needs rather than override them.
Naturopathically, when we work on stress, support the nervous system and put self-care practices into place, these once severe symptoms usually become less noticeable.
This life change comes with many positives if you choose to embrace them. But culturally we need to be part of the change that celebrates our worth at every age. Changing the narrative around menopause, not just for own sake but for society as a whole, is a positive first step.
Resources for an easier menopause
If you’d like some expert support navigating menopause, please book an online consultation.
About Gill Stannard
With more than 30 years of clinical experience – Gill is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected naturopaths. She works with clients around the world to create happier and healthier lives.