Most every Tuesday night, I attend Roni Sloman’s Flow 1 class at Bella Prana Yoga Studio. I love Roni’s classes because not only are they physically challenging, she weaves in a thought provoking themes.
The theme of her recent class was aging. Roni spoke about honoring our bodies and accepting the physical changes we go through as we age. At the end of class, a student in the class stopped to speak to me. She quipped about the perspective of Roni’s theme from “women of our age.” For a moment, I couldn’t grasp why she was sharing this joke with me. Then reality sunk in: yeah, I’m getting ready to turn fifty and it’s obvious that I don’t look like my 26-year-old self. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and it startles me. I don’t look like the young me anymore. I look older. My hair is turning grey. There are lines and spots on my face and crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes. All the signs of a life fully lived as far as I’m concerned.
But in a world where looking youthful, especially for women, is prized, it can be challenging to face the physical changes we inevitably go through as we age. As I’ve been learning over the last few years, there is a whole other component to aging for women. It is far more challenging than dealing with crow’s feet and it’s hardly talked about. It’s kept in a closet and when you’re deep in the throes of it, if you mention it to a woman who’s been there, you get confirmation (usually in a whisper) that you’re not crazy and they’ve been through it too. I’m talking about the transition to menopause.
There are three stages a woman’s body goes through as her reproductive years come to an end. First, comes perimenopause. This can begin as early as the late thirties or, more typically, in the mid-forties. It is the period of time prior to menopause when the hormone levels begin to fluctuate as your body begins to reduce hormone levels. Perimenopause lasts until your body ceases to produce eggs and have cycles. Menopause is said to have occurred when you have had the cessation of your cycle for one year. Once that milestone has passed, you then enter post-menopause where the body significantly reduces the production of hormones because they are no longer needed for reproductive cycles. This is a progression that occurs over many years and not just when you turn fifty. Because your hormones start to fluctuate during perimenopause, you can start to experience symptoms fast. If you thought (like I did) menopause was just a switch that got flipped and you stopped having periods and got a few other weird symptoms around age fifty, that is incorrect. In fact, the symptoms you can experience during the perimenopause stage, which can begin a few years prior to menopause, can be stronger because of the hormone fluctuations. Hormone levels tend to level off making symptoms more consistent after the cessation of the cycles when menopause occurs and you head in to post-menopause. I am currently in perimenopause. I still have regular cycles but my hormone fluctuations and the symptoms I experience are far stronger and more erratic than PMS. I don’t know what’s coming week to week, month to month. Sometimes my symptoms are mild, sometimes they are really bad. Common symptoms during perimenopause include: changes in your cycle (length of cycle and duration), hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, fatigue, joint ache, anxiety, depression, feeling invisible or loss of confidence, breast tenderness, increased PMS symptoms, bloating, vaginal dryness, decreased libido, urinary urgency or leakage, and weight gain.
The sad thing is, I don’t know all this important information about what’s happening to my body because I was told, I had to go digging for it. About two years ago, I started to feel off and not like myself. For more than a decade I had been very physically active competing in triathlons, duathlons, and running marathons. I was very careful with my diet. The way I felt physically and emotionally prior to this stage of my life was very predictable. I went from this very predictable self to feeling like my body had a foreign invader. My energy level declined and my belly started to bloat so I honed my diet. I cut out meat, dairy, and gluten. I researched herbs to battle the annoying hot flashes and night sweats that robbed me of my sleep. Probably the most difficult symptoms for me to deal with were the mood swings and depression. I became unsure of myself and afraid of everything. I had bouts of depression that would last for weeks. It was such a hopeless, lonely feeling. It was way beyond the blues or sadness. The depression scared me. I felt like I had lost my identity and I felt an emptiness in a life that I knew was extremely full. At the point when I finally decided to seek the help of a therapist, I started to put the whole picture together. I realized what I was experiencing was very real and the result of physiological changes compounded with the stress of life. I found that understanding and acknowledging how my body was changing put me on the path to managing this transition.
I’m not much of a pill taker, so I wanted to work on the depression without being medicated. My therapist recommended meditation. I had practiced yoga for several years, but decided that I needed to do more. I made a commitment to practice meditation. I sat down with my family and asked for help to clear my schedule so that I could make time to get to the yoga studio more often. I read books, I journaled, I used every tool I could find. Slowly, I started to understand my new normal and embrace the changes I was experiencing.
I’m sharing my story because I feel it’s so important that we talk about this for a couple of reasons. The first reason is so women can start to recognize when it’s happening to them. If you are experiencing symptoms or just feeling “off”, talk to your doctor and have your hormone levels tested. Document the changes in your cycles and any symptoms you experience and discuss this with your doctor. Second, talk to your significant other and/or your support system. It’s possible that you might experience symptoms (like I did) that will significantly affect the people in your life that are close to you. The better the understanding, the easier for you to decide when and if to get help. As I have said, the experience can be very different for every woman, from the age it begins to the symptoms. But if we are all talking about it, then there’s bound to be someone that you can relate to and that might help you through the experience.
My sister-in-law sent me a relatable book, The Silent Passage by Gail Sheehy. I think that title says it all. So why don’t we talk about it? Is it because it’s embarrassing? Or is it a signal that our youth is fading in a youth-obsessed culture and we are afraid we will be devalued? Is it hard to admit that we are out of control of our moods? Hard to accept that we aren’t sleeping well so we’re tired in a world where we judge our worth on how much we are doing? Or does it force us to dwell on our own mortality that in turn makes us take a hard look at our purpose in life? I pledge not to be silent or embarrassed about how my body is changing. I marvel at the amazing machine the body is and how it adapts as we age. I welcome this time of introspection. I feel blessed to have learned the things I have about myself. It’s made me put focus and do work on me, that as a wife and mother, I felt I never had time to do before.
When you come to this stage in life, make sure you are taking care of yourself. Your physical health can be impacted with osteoporosis and heart disease in post-menopause. Exercise regularly, eat well, stop smoking, and reduce your alcohol intake to support your health through this transition. Maintain a healthy weight, but if you gain a few extra pounds, welcome it. When you no longer produce hormones through the reproductive cycle, your body is going to get hormones from your adrenal glands, body fat, skin, and brain. Take care of yourself mentally, too. Find tools that work for you. I found meditation, yoga, and journaling to be my best tools. This doesn’t mean that you won’t go through days that are really hard. I still have days that I have to do a lot of work not go over the edge back in to depression. Tools aren’t necessarily going to fix everything but you can do the work. I often tell myself, “I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m not saying you can fix it, but what I am saying is, its workable-so do the work.”
Most of all, during all times of your life but especially in this transition, have compassion for yourself. Love yourself and tell yourself you are enough. Learn to live in the present moment. This will help you let go of anxiety about the future and regret from the past. Being present reminds you that the voice in your head and the emotions it provoked are a story you created (assisted by your hormones) and not the real you. Let the compassion you gain for yourself allow you to share your experiences with other women and in turn have compassion for those who might be having a difficult time. With knowledge and understanding, you can arrive at this second stage of life with contentment and joy; loving all of it, the good and the bad, and knowing more about yourself than ever before.
By Lois Waite, student and teacher in training at Bella Prana Yoga & Meditation