Many women experience low mood, anxiety and sudden flashes of irritability during menopause – but what can we do to cope when extremes of emotion hit? Health Psychologist Dr Deborah Lancastle explains…
Stress, emotions and menopause
Stress can make your body react by causing physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, and tiredness. Reducing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions can help to rebalance negativity and give you a “breather” which helps you to cope (3,9) Trying different strategies to try and increase your positive emotions may help to improve the emotional effects of the menopause, make your experience a bit easier to bear, and help to overcome some of the effects that stress has on your body. Emotion-focused and cognitive strategies are particularly likely to help because they help to relieve negative emotions, increase positive emotions, and give you a little break from the stress of dealing with the challenges of life during the menopause. Problem-focused strategies that involve changing or improving a problem can be helpful too, because reducing or removing a problem will make you feel relieved and happy!
Some strategies you can think about using to help with emotional concerns in the menopause are below:***
1. Seek social support
Try talking about the way you feel with people you trust. As well as helping you to feel better this will let those people know that you are struggling at the moment and that you need some empathy, care, and support. Try not to worry that people will think you are moaning. If you don’t tell people how you are feeling they might not guess and won’t be able to help! Also, the chances are that people who know you well have noticed that you are ‘not yourself’. They may be a little worried about you, and will be genuinely interested, concerned, and willing to help. You could also talk to women of a similar age to you. The chances are they will empathise with you because they are feeling much the same!
2. Distract yourself
Even if you are trying various different solutions to issues with your menopause, you may still find that unwelcome worries are unexpectedly popping into your head and bothering you. One solution that has been shown to help deal with such thoughts during a medical challenge is distraction (7). Try some strategies to distract yourself, such as treats and pleasant activities, or activities that keep your mind busy such as puzzles or learning a new skill or language. Distracting yourself can give you some relief from negative thoughts for the period of time you are busy with other things. Don’t forget though that it won’t be helpful to distract yourself so much that you don’t try to do something to solve the problem! One tip is to allow yourself a set period of time each day where you think whether there is anything you need to do or change and use distraction at other times to control those worries popping back when you don’t want them(7).
3. Focus on the positive
Even in the most stressful and demanding of situations, studies show that focusing on anything positive that can be found, or on everyday events that cheer people up can help increase positive psychological wellbeing (3,8). This is not easy when life is challenging! It’s also certainly not right to tell anybody what they ‘should’ feel positive about. Every life is different, and people have different ideas about what might or might not be good in their lives. Some possibilities, however, include:
- Good support from a friend or loved one
- Helpful medical treatment
- Improvements in symptoms
- A particularly pleasant event
- Having a treat to look forward to
There will be other highlights, although it might involve some ‘mental gymnastics’ to discover what your personal positives might be. Thinking more about positive parts of your life and less about the parts that stress and distress you should help you to feel more positive and help you to carry on and keep going with your efforts to cope.
4. Get moving
The physical health benefits of exercise are well known, but did you know that exercise can also help you feel better emotionally during the menopause? In a study of 2600 menopausal women in Finland (10), women who completed the recommended amount of physical exercise said they were less anxious and depressed, and their physical symptoms, memory, and concentration were better than women who were less active. They also believed their health and quality of life was better than other women their age! Finland (like the UK) recommends being physically active on several days each week. There’s a good overview of the benefits of exercise for menopause here.
5 Take time to relax
You might find it helpful to set aside some time where you can practice some relaxation techniques, such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and meditation. Although studies of relaxation in the menopause tend to be small and don’t give very strong evidence that these techniques always help women with stress and mood during the menopause, relaxation techniques seem to have some benefit when they are used with prescribed medication (e.g., blood pressure medication). You might find it helpful to set aside some time where you can practice some relaxation techniques, such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and meditation. A large study of Dutch and French women who used relaxation techniques, regular physical activity, acupuncture, and avoiding stress during the menopause reported that they were as happy with this approach as they were with HRT! (12)
The importance of positive emotions
Positive emotions have an important role to play when life is challenging. Although it may feel very difficult to even think of feeling happy, content, or optimistic when times are hard, studies show that positive emotions can help people to carry on and keep going with efforts to make things better, help to boost psychological resources, and help to undo the effects that feeling sad and angry can have on the body.
About Dr Dr Deborah Lancastle
Dr Deborah Lancastle (PHD) is a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registered and British Psychological Society (BPS) Chartered Health Psychologist with special interest in the psychosocial aspects of women’s reproductive health. Her extensive knowledge and experience of the psychological principles explaining how women cope with reproductive health issues means she’s well-placed to advise across a range of women’s reproductive health concerns. Read Deborah’s full biography here
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What is a ‘decision aid’?
Decision aids are guides about different types of health concerns that you can work through on your own before discussing with your family and GP. They are good sources of help because they are based on research evidence and are kept up to date. There should be a date on a Decision Aid telling you when it was last reviewed and revised. For example, The Decision Aid called “Menopause: Should I Use Hormone Therapy (HT)?” by Healthwise.Net (see resources box) has sections dealing with these common questions about the menopause: What is menopause? What is hormone therapy? What if you don’t take hormone therapy? What are the benefits of taking hormone therapy? What are the risks from taking hormone therapy? Why might your doctor recommend hormone therapy? Decision Aids are written to be easily understood and can be a great starting point for you to think of questions you can ask your GP that give you the extra information YOU really need to help you decide on what can be done to help. *Health warning: The advice given here is not meant to take the place of formal mental health care. If you are feeling upset, anxious, or depressed, and self-help and TLC don’t help, please contact your GP for advice. ** It is very important that you seek medical advice for any new, changed, or persistent physical symptoms from your GP. *** Although these coping strategies can help people cope with their emotions they are not meant to take the place of medical or psychological care. Please seek help from your GP if you are concerned about the stress or distress you are experiencing. **** Check with your GP that it is okay for you to start or increase the amount of exercise you do.
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