Recently we signposted 2 important days; World Mental Health Day and World Menopause Day, so today I would like to focus on mental health and anxiety along with solutions.
Podcast with Women In Sport
To celebrate World Menopause Day, the charity Women in Sport invited Dr Heather Currie and I along to their first menopause podcast. We talked about the importance of exercise during menopause but I also talked about my personal menopause journey. I hope it helps you. https://tinyurl.com/y53db22h
This can be a big problem for some during menopause. I had my first panic attack at 46 whilst in my studio, which I’ve had for 13 years and was considering giving up, along with my career of 25 years as a fitness professional.
Why did I suffer so badly? As a result of a life-changing car accident and two shoulder operations, I was the most physically inactive I had ever been in my life. I am so glad that I chose to take control instead and I now feel great.
I have been a clinical exercise practitioner for 25 years now, and have worked with vulnerable older adults to learn about the aging process and how to help them through evidence-based exercise. I have learnt how to modify physical activity for a condition or the contraindications to exercise due to certain medications.
Working with women in their sixties through to their eighties, I also learnt how to help these women increase their balance, bone density and functional capacity to help with everyday living.
I also eventually learnt that the reason these women fan themselves and moan that the room is too hot or cold or that some of them are really grumpy some days could actually be down to the massive decline of oestrogen and suffering with menopause symptoms such as painful joints, low mood and dry vagina. That can make anyone feel grumpy!
I know of women who have gone on a low dose of oestrogen much later in life—in their seventies or eighties—and it has made a huge difference to their quality of life. Many cannot or choose not to take HRT but understanding the related symptoms is really important.
We have oestrogen receptors all over our body, including our brains. For many of us, a decrease in oestrogen can have a massive impact on our mental health with symptoms including brain fog, poor concentration, self-doubt and anxiety. I have worked with many women who have been at the top of their game and have had to step down from their jobs due to crippling anxiety. I understand exactly how they and many of you feel.
It is good to remember this does not last forever: many of those women that I am referring to are now back on top of their game—including me!
How to cope
There are many ways we can combat anxiety and mental distress. I will, of course, concentrate on physical activity first.
Becoming breathless regularly will help how you feel—it will not only have an immediate positive effect on your mood but if undertaken regularly it will also have a long-term, positive impact on your energy, focus and sleep.
Becoming physically active will help with stress, which in turn will have a positive effect on mood and anxiety. When we exercise, we put our body under “stress”—but a good type. Feel-good endorphins such as dopamine and serotonin are released that make us feel happy. The hormone enkephalin, a natural painkiller, is also released (pain can make anxiety worse).
Exercise starts a type of “fight or flight” response within us, so when we are faced with a stressful situation, we are practiced at coping better—this helps with anxiety as well as hot flushes, which can be brought on by stress.
K I S S
Keep it simple, Sexy! I am asked many times on what type of exercise women should be doing. It really is down to the individual, taking into consideration some simple guidelines. Becoming breathless, stretching, resistance work and practicing mindfulness and meditation all need to be embraced.
Breathless: feel-good, short-term and long-term effect.
Stretching: less pain in the joints that the muscle crosses, and holding stretches have a feel-good effect on the brain.
Resistance work: a strong body will promote a strong mind, plus is will help keep the belly fat at bay which is going to have a positive impact on mental health.
Mindfulness/meditation: taking time out for yourself is a must during menopause. If sitting cross-legged is not for you then find something that helps you stay calm and takes your mind off everyday “clutter”. There are many apps on the market now, as well as YouTube, many of them free.
Any exercise is helpful but exercising outside helps with mental health more so than exercising inside does.
Sometimes, especially with the internet and social media constantly firing messages at us, it can be confusing and we might say, “Oh my, it’s too much,” and not even start. Just ten minutes of brisk walking outside will lift your mood. I do understand that if you are feeling low, in pain, tired and just plain rubbish it’s hard to even think about getting out of the house, never mind exercising!
Tips to get moving if feeling low:
- Put on some of your favourite music and move at home. Dance like there is no-one watching, I do this regularly and it makes me feel great!
- Have children or grandchildren? There are some great dance games on game consoles.
- Stairs are simple and so effective! If you follow me on Instagram you will see me regularly take the stairs if I cannot fit “exercise” into my day. I always feel better for it.
- Stairs at home, at work or on your commute—they’re something that can easily fit into your day. How many times do we say, “I just haven’t got the time?”
- Simple stretches on a chair can help you feel connected with your body. Sometimes when we are low and in pain we disconnect. I promise you—if you are kind to your body, then your mind will appreciate it.
- Walking for ten minutes outside will help lift your mood. Buddy up with someone—a walk and a chat will help you feel so much better.
- Put it in your diary to meet up with a friend for a walk and a cuppa. How many times do we pencil “lunch”, “dinner” or “drinks” into our busy schedules?
- Resistance exercise will not only help with your bones, but it will help with anxiety and depression. Recent studies have shown that resistance exercise also helps with hot flushes. https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-health-menopause-hot-flashes/weight-training-may-help-reduce-hot-flashes-idUKKCN1ST1WX
- If you are thinking of going to a gym but feel scared, talk to your GP. There are many areas that offer a GP referral scheme where you can attend a gym at the fraction of the cost, when it is quieter, and with a trained instructor that is more sympathetic to how you may be feeling.
Anti-depressants can provide short-term relief from anxiety and some will help with hot flushes and sleep.
HRT can help with many symptoms, including brain fog, concentration, dry vagina, painful joints, itchy skin, mood, sleep and more. Many women are scared because of the breast cancer risk that the press has highlighted—there have been many incorrect reports in the press recently.
We are in fact at higher risk of getting breast cancer if we are sedentary, overweight and eat a bad diet. There are so many different types of breast cancer—not all are oestrogen receptive. I have worked with many women who have a direct link to breast cancer in their family and some even have the BRCA gene. A specialist has prescribed what is right for them and their quality of life has massively improved.
HRT also decreases the risk of osteoporosis and heart disease, which we are at higher risk due to a decrease in oestrogen. The benefits can far outweigh the risk of these diseases and other cardiovascular disease.
Melatonin for sleep; this can be prescribed from you GP. It works for some women and sometimes many symptom’s feel a whole lot better after a good nights sleep.
More information on the benefits and risks of HRT: https://www.guidelines.co.uk/womens-health/menopause-matters-hrt-guideline/200150.article
CBT has also been proven to help with anxiety and hot flushes: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/ioppn/depts/psychology/research/ResearchGroupings/healthpsych/research-group/menos
Reasonable adjustments at home and work
Looking at how you can reduce stress at home and work can be simple and very effective.
I regularly present talks at organisations about how small, reasonable adjustments for a woman at work can have a positive effect on how she feels, which means she can carry on her job more effectively. Some examples: flexible working hours, working from home, a change of uniform, taking fitness tests (police) at a different time to younger male colleagues or changing roles for a short time. Remember, this does not last forever and if you embrace it rather than trying to resist it, it will lessen your anxiety. I know from personal experience!
Do not underestimate how talking can help. How can your colleague at work or family at home know how to make reasonable adjustments if they do not know how you are suffering?
My husband said to me last year, “I didn’t know what was going on, I thought you just didn’t like me anymore.” How sad is that?
Talk now! A problem shared is a problem halved!
Other support networks
If you would like to get moving but feel isolated or not sure where to start, check out a free health initiative that I have been working on. I have been training women as volunteer walk leaders—these walks are free and help many.
Check out our Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/MenopauseActive/ and ask if there’s a walk near you. Please be patient as it’s new and we are all doing it in our spare time! I am training women each week and hope to grow a community of women to help other women. You can also email us on firstname.lastname@example.org
Closed Facebook group We also have our closed group where these wonderful women help each other: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1694658214116003/ I do not have many rules apart from be nice to each other and please, don’t push a product or service.
I find that this is a great platform of support. I regularly post information on there about physical activity but also share how I am feelings especially on my stories; as I feel that honesty is key and it helps other women. When I am feeling low then others send me messages to lift me up.
Recently I was on a yoga retreat in Spain one of the days we went to the beach; I posted on Instagram a video of the sea and this message and I had some wonderful messages back:
“Yesterday we went to the beach. It was too rough to swim: but it’s ok, we sat and chilled and just watched the sea. Forward and back, forward & back; sometimes coming up higher on the shore then others. A little like life and our #menopause journey: 2 steps forward & 1 back. Sometimes dragging us backwards; sometimes rough and sometimes still. Sometimes very angry or glistening, happy & reflective. Being led by our emotions, the environment or the moon (if you choose to believe it – I do) 🌏🌠✨ It can be tough but I hold onto the fact with dear life that even that small step forward is still moving in the right direction. As I choose not to be dragged under and drown; some days are harder than others, and if that is the case just be still and listen to “you”. I am being still today & look into the sun and to a bright journey forward; the biggest thing is I am giving myself permission to be still”
See post here https://www.instagram.com/p/B3JU8MTlTS3/
I hope this has helped you—any comments or questions, do shout!