Time to change the way we talk about the menopause

Menopause is an inevitable rite of passage for all women but bizarrely it can still be a taboo topic that few of us seem prepared to discuss. Arlene Harris finds out more.

Time to change the way we talk about the menopause

Menopause is an inevitable rite of passage for all women but bizarrely it can still be a taboo topic that few of us seem prepared to discuss. Arlene Harris finds out more.

Menopause, like menstruation, is an inevitable part of adult female life — we all go through it at one stage or other, some women as early as their 30s, others not until they are in their 50s.

And while some sail through it with no issues whatsoever, those less fortunate will be plagued with hot flushes, mood swings and other such hormonal delights.

But while it is most definitely a rite of passage for all women, it is still, bizarrely, a topic which most seem reluctant to talk about.

Indeed, when trying to find women to chat to me about their experience, I was faced with a blanket ban on mentioning any names, including most surprisingly, a GP who was happy to tell me about her menopausal symptoms, providing she could remain anonymous.

In the current climate, when everything and anything is discussed openly, why on earth are women seemingly ashamed to admit that they going through the menopause?

It was this question which prompted Aisling Grimley to set up www.mysecondspring.ie — a website dedicated to discussing the telltale signs of this totally natural stage of our lives.

“I first noticed hormone action when I was about 47 as my menstrual cycle got longer and I had bursts of irritability, breast tenderness and fuzzy head symptoms which reminded me of pregnancy,” she says.

“Five years later, the symptoms are ongoing — some days I lack confidence, other days I feel irritable, I get the odd night sweat and hot flush as well but fuzzy headedness and memory issues are more disruptive and can feel like an ambush.

“But when I first started experiencing these symptoms I looked online for advice and couldn’t find much, so I set up My Second Spring after doing a digital skills course as I wanted to have a very accessible ‘best friend’s’ approach to talking about menopause.”

She obviously hit the nail on the head as the site has become increasingly popular — both in Ireland and abroad — and together with perimenopause coach Catherine O’Keeffe of www.wellnesswarrior.ie the Dublin woman has just released a second e-book on the subject of menopause and the anxiety which surrounds it (When Worry Becomes a Worry) — and has another currently in the pipeline.

“I set up My Second Spring in 2013 to address the dearth of menopause information online,” says Grimley, 54, who lives in Dublin with her husband and four daughters.

“It started with a few hundred readers, an email newsletter and a few events I would hold in my kitchen. Now the site has 2m visitors annually and we are working on our third menopause-related e-book and run regular (public) events.

“Anxiety is our second most popular topic on My Second Spring. We have half a million women seeking anxiety information and it is the symptom most asked about.

"When we reach midlife, the withdrawal of the calming effect of oestrogen starts making us a little more on edge, then we develop a host of symptoms which throw us off course — and which we worry might be signs of a more serious health condition.

“Many often don’t make the connection between hormone changes and anxiety and mood. So this book has a calming effect as it says; ‘It’s okay, you’re not alone in this, we know what is going on, let’s break it down and begin to work on it.’ And that alone can be a massive relief for women.”

Co-author Catherine O’Keefe agrees. “We zero in on anxiety in perimenopause and beyond,” says the married mother of three sons.

“If women are slightly prone to anxious thinking before their 40s, this can really escalate with the arrival of perimenopause.

"We have seen this first hand over the last few years on My Second Spring where competent, level-headed women who raise families or hold down responsible jobs can be really blindsided by menopause’s anxiety acceleration.

“The fluctuation in oestrogen and progesterone in the menopausal years has been known to cause anxiety and depression. Then on top of that hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, increased migraines, low libido and memory loss often give rise to health anxiety as women try to figure out if they are going crazy or merely growing old fast.

“We have also found that often women haven’t connected that hormonal shifts can be the trigger for anxiety and once they realize that, the response is initially relief. Then they can take back some kind of control over their anxiety and moods.”

O’Keefe, who is also a homeopath, says the new e-book seeks to give practical tips on how to manage all forms of anxiety — from panic attacks to generalized anxiety — on a daily basis and from a long-term perspective also.

“There are several tips and techniques covered and our hope is that each reader will be able to derive their own set of tools which works best for them,” she says. “These include first aid tips for when anxiety strikes hard and fast and then long-term tips for working on and incorporating into your daily life.”

The health coach says learning how to deal with the anxiety surrounding menopause, will hopefully help women to talk about it.

“It’s like mental health,” she says. “It has taken people a long time to start talking openly about this and there is still a way to go. While menopause is certainly talked about more than it was in my mum’s generation, the symptoms can feel deeply personal to most women.

"And I find that many don’t even talk to their best friends about symptoms and also find it hard to discuss with their partners.”

But Aisling Grimley says while many are still reluctant to discuss ‘the change’, the next generation should be more open, which will in turn make it easier to get through.

“It’s totally natural, but menopause has a poor image as has a long list of symptoms, most of which aren’t workplace water cooler subjects,” she says. “Since I set up My Second Spring, it has changed a lot and our website is proud to be part of that, but it takes time.

“I believe the new generation of perimenopausal women will be more in charge of their menopause and that will lead to much more open conversation. In fact, I’d say in five years conversations (on the topic) will be no big deal."

"Women will talk about it — in real life, online and at events. But its starts online and in print as that’s where women feel safe.

“So I would advise women to seek information, lots of it. Many websites and menopause books take different approaches — find the one that resonates and ensure you have a good GP who listens and gives proper attention to menopause management.”

How to ease symptoms of the menopause

■ Build exercise into your daily routine— it’s so important for physical and emotional health.

■ Ensure you reduce and/or eliminate sugar and caffeine and introduce phyteoestrogens (such as flaxseeds, oats, barley and soy) into your diet — they mimic the action of oestrogen and have been shown to lessen symptoms.

■ It’s very important to keep a wide social circle as this can be a time of anxiety and women can go into themselves, which exacerbates the issue.

■ Brain exercise is as important as physical exercise and is often forgotten but will keep your mind alert.

■ Most women are not drinking enough water and this affects the body and brain. Drink water, not caffeine regularly.

■ Ensure you have good sleep hygiene in place

■ When Worry Becomes a Worry is available from mysecondspring.ie, e-book format, €12

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