We all remember the rollercoaster of puberty: growth spurts, voice changes, body hair, and hormones wreaking havoc. We would like to believe we have left all of that in the halls of our high schools. However, women are actually gearing up for another round of drastic hormonal changes later in life.
Menopause is a biological process that marks the end of women’s menstrual cycles. During menopause, your ovaries decrease their production of estrogen and progesterone, you stop producing eggs, your fertility decreases, and your periods stop. The average age women experience menopause is 51 but can occur much earlier or much later as it is unique to each individual. While menopause is usually naturally brought on, it can be expedited by chemotherapy, radiation therapy, an ovarian insufficiency, or an oophorectomy which is a surgery to remove the ovaries. 
While physical side effects of menopause, such as hot flashes, are well-known, you may not be aware of its mental impact. Dealing with extreme body changes can be emotionally taxing and fluctuating hormone levels can bring on their own detrimental challenges. While menopause is a time of great change and transition, it can also be an opportunity for you to take the reigns and reclaim your body and mind.
What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting
Throughout your life, your ovaries produce estrogen and progesterone, two hormones necessary for your reproductive system to conceive, carry, and deliver a healthy baby. As you age, your ovaries stop producing these hormones which is why your ovaries stop releasing eggs and your period halts. Changes in these hormone levels are responsible for an abundance of the symptoms women experience during menopause. Estrogen is responsible for fat distribution, vaginal lubrication, and tissue growth which explains some of the bodily changes you may see. However, estrogen also affects neurotransmitters in the brain that control mood, sleep, libido, and other cognitive factors, and the fluctuating levels of this hormone can induce mood changes and hot flashes. While progesterone mainly supports the female reproductive system, it can also emit a calming sedation effect on brain receptors. Therefore, wavering levels of progesterone can cause anxious feelings, irritability, and disturb your sleep.
Physical Changes During Menopause
Considering menopause is one of our body’s natural processes, it is expected that we see physical changes because of it. According to the Mayo Clinic, common signs of menopause include:
- Hot flashes
- Disrupted sleep
- Lower energy
- Irregular periods, if any
- Vaginal dryness
- Night sweats
- Weight gain
- Thinning hair
- Dry skin
- Frequent urination and Urinary Tract Infections, and
Mental Changes During Menopause
The truth is most women feel the invisible changes of menopause before they can see the physical ones. Not only can menopause exasperate existing mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but a study by Cambridge University showed that women were 2-4 times more likely to experience a major depressive episode around the onset of menopause. Additionally, you cannot discount the toll physical changes can have on mental health. Confronting age, remedying body image, and lack of sleep coupled with hot flashes can cause bouts of irritability, depression, and anxiety. Some other mental effects women experience during menopause are as follows:
- Mood Swings
- Decreased libido
- Mild depressive symptoms
- Trouble focusing
Prioritising Your Mental Health During Menopause
Menopause can be a trying time filled with complicated feelings. You’re transitioning into a new chapter of life and the body that has carried you through adulthood is now changing once again. Your mental health can suffer as you experience weight gain, decreased libido, and confronting your changing body. It is important to be proactive. Identify what is ailing you and attack it at the source. Below, we dive into ways you can master your menopausal mind.
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- Meditation: Meditation is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, elevate your mood, aid sleep, and reinforce the connection between your body and your mind. Taking a few minutes each day to meditate can help you rebalance especially during periods of extreme mood changes and irritability. Check out YouTube and apps like Headspace for guided meditations and breathing exercises.
- Exercise: A study done by the Medical University of Silesia showed women participating in higher levels of physical activity during menopause not only decrease the severity of their vasomotor symptoms, but also improve their quality of life and mental health. Whether it be cycling, yoga, or tai chi finding an activity that gets you moving and that you enjoy can improve your mood with bursts of endorphins and help you navigate weight changes during menopause.
- Journaling: Recording your thoughts and feelings in a daily journal can be a powerful tool to track your mental health. It helps you put a finger on exactly how you’re feeling, work through why you’re feeling this way, and create benchmarks so you compare your mental state during highs and lows. An article by Psychology Today covers different types of journaling techniques so you can find the right one for you.
- Focus on a balanced diet: Make sure to eat a healthy diet. Proper nutrition can help mediate weight changes brought on by menopause. Also, being proactive about your health serves as a great motivator to keep you on the right track. Focus on lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. Avoid foods that are high in caffeine, salt, or are especially spicy as these can trigger hot flashes and anxious feelings. Researchers are still exploring the benefits of including foods that are rich in phytoestrogens, such as cruciferous vegetables, soy, berries, seeds, and nuts.
- Get enough sleep: Menopause can drastically disrupt your dreams. Lack of sleep leads to a vicious cycle of increased irritability and low energy. Prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep by turning off your devices 30 minutes before going to bed. Create a routine to get your mind ready for sleep whether it is a nightly meditation or a cup of tea. Feeling properly rested gets you ready to take on the world.
- Have a healthy sex life: Your body is changing, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! More frequent sex can improve your mood and make you feel more connected to your partner.
- Reach out to others: Battling mental health can be a lonely journey, but you’ll come to find out you are not alone! You can help fight the stigma by reaching out to others in times of need. A conversation with a friend or a licensed therapist can help build a support system to navigate especially dark times.