Anxiety and menopause: “taming the beast” starts with knowing what it is
Author: Magnus Wood
Anxiety is a very common symptom which lots of women start to suffer from at soon as they enter peri-menopause. For many, they have never experienced anxiety before. Those that have, can often find their feelings of anxiety get significantly worse. The starting point is to know you are not alone, but it also helps to understand what anxiety is and what causes it.
We live in constant state of battle between the emotional and the rational. Between the “Oh my God this is the worst thing that ever happened” to the “Maybe it’s not so bad.” We are biologically programmed to respond immediately to threats. But that threat nowadays is more likely to be an email than something skulking in the undergrowth that wants to eat us. Consequently, many menopausal women have problems with anxiety; some so chronic they are overwhelmed by panic attacks that are as unpredictable as they are unexplainable.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is perfectly normal and very common. Many women every day suffer anxiety about something. It could be thinking about the day ahead, worrying about the children or simply having to do the weekly shop. Or it could be anxiety that doesn’t relate to anything in particular – unidentified anxiety. During menopause, many women feel completely overwhelmed on a daily basis.
Women usually suffer more deeply from unidentified anxiety because it is hard to pin down why you are feeling it, and so tricky to deal with. Some women can suffer both types of anxiety in the same day, the same hour even. Some are so overcome with anxiety they don’t want to get out of the bed in the morning. And many don’t. Staying at home, unable to face the world. Anxiety can make you imagine that things in your life are much worse than they really are. So, anxiety can be more debilitating than stress because the external factors that cause stress come and go, but anxiety can persist even when its causes are not clear.
How we suffer as a result of anxiety
Anxiety expresses itself psychologically, physically and in our behaviour. The charity Anxiety UK list common physical symptoms as:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased muscle tension
- “Jelly legs”
- Tingling in the hands and feet
- Hyperventilation (over breathing)
- Difficulty in breathing
- Wanting to use the toilet more often
- Feeling sick
- Tight band across the chest area
- Tension headaches
- Hot flushes
- Increased perspiration
- Dry mouth
- Choking sensations
And the thoughts we have as a consequence of anxiety as:
- Thinking that you may lose control and/or go “mad”
- Thinking that you might die
- Thinking that you may have a heart attack/be sick/faint/have a brain tumour
- Feeling that people are looking at you and observing your anxiety
- Feeling as though things are speeding up/slowing down
- Feeling detached from your environment and the people in it
- Feeling like wanting to run away/escape from the situation
- Feeling on edge and alert to everything around you
Most commonly, the behaviour we display as a result of feeling anxious is avoidance – we simply ignore, stay away from, or pretend that the thing we know that is making us anxious doesn’t exist, or will go away on its own. Avoidance as a solution to anxiety is short-term, and often makes things worse as whatever problem that is making you anxious has more time to build and come back at you even worse.
What causes anxiety?
Avoidance made sense when there was something skulking in the undergrowth that wanted to eat us. Avoidance of the “I’m going to get outta here” type, and not the “there’s nothing wrong here, it will be fine” type.
Anxiety is caused by your emotional brain kicking off and winning against you thinking about it
At the top of each kidney your adrenal glands would respond to nerve endings firing like crazy because of what you have just seen or heard and would produce a surge of chemicals that enabled you to respond to dangers. Adrenaline and noradrenaline would make you hyper-alert as your heart rate increased pumping more oxygenated blood to your muscles and brain, so that you could “fight or flight”.
All very useful for you when there were real dangers to be faced. A whole lot less useful when general stress has built up and you are responding to an identified anxiety or a general sense of anxiety you can not quite pin down.
So, the real cause of anxiety is how the emotional, biological you is responding to specific events or situations you find yourself in.