The Beauty of Menopause
“The only thing that is constant is change,” the somewhat overused quote first uttered by the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, well, it just makes me mad. I don’t like change. It cramps my style. But in my own spiritual evolution, I have come to accept that fighting the inevitable is a recipe for continual suffering. Realizing one day that things weren’t going to stop changing, I made the decision to make friends with change. Things.Keep.Changing! So, I better learn to get used to it. Pema Chodron, my favorite American Buddhist nun (okay, the only one I know of) discusses in her book When Things Fall Apart, the notion of being “nailed by life” and our tendency to run the other way. She says that most of our suffering is based on our fear of impermanence and that part of being fully alive is “to be continually thrown out of the nest.” So, perhaps one of the most profound practices we can incorporate each day is to change our perception of change. Perhaps change isn’t so bad after all. Maybe there is a way to actually exercise our ability to perceive life’s ever-changing “obstacles” as “opportunities”. And, perhaps this is how to access the true beauty in life.
This brings me to menopause. Yes, through Greek philosophers and Buddhist nuns, I find answers to this grandest of all metamorphoses. (We women are the biggest of the beautiful “butterflies) In decades past, negative euphemisms such as “The Change” or “The Big M” instilled a certain shameful foreboding in women, but those times are gone (yay, change!). Today, we have strong, highly intelligent, spiritually wise voices, such as that of Dr. Christiane Northrup, teaching us that menopause is to be embraced and actually celebrated.
“Women have a cycle where they bleed in tune with the moon. It is the cycle responsible for all human life on earth. It is the cycle that connects you to your creativity and to the very essence of the tide coming in, the tide going out, the seasons, the sap going into the roots and then rising up, and we have been taught for 5,000 years to be ashamed of that cycle.”
Preach it sister! WOW. I am moon, ocean and tree sap all rolled into a life-creating-swirl of awesomeness! Dr. Northrup goes on to explain that menopause is a grand transition, in fact, a “developmental stage,” that is much much more than “raging hormones”. This is a time when a woman’s brain is actually being rewired and in fact, there are 48 million of us in the world all experiencing this same “circuitry update” at the same time, making us a collective force to be reckoned with! Watch out world, we are changing and not afraid. (Okay, maybe a little. But remember, another wise woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who told us to “do one thing every day that scares you.”) So, how do we ordinary women learn to adopt more of Northrup’s wise and encouraging outlook and exercise Ms. Roosevelt’s courage? How do we gracefully journey through this transition on our way to become “the queens of ourselves,” embracing this beautiful rebirth? Easy. We work hard at it.
Northrup says that the hard work is learning to shift from taking care of everyone else to practicing the fine art of self-care. If we can start to learn better self-care during the 1st ½ of our lives, most especially when experiencing other uniquely female “opportunities” such as PMS, then we will be better equipped to embrace the beauty of menopause. She says that PMS is a time of “premenstrual truth-telling,” during which we have about 400 monthly chances to notice our issues and practice this important work of self-discovery and self-care, preparing us for the grand crescendo of menopause. In her books, Women’s Body is Women’s Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause, Northrup discusses a “fountain of youth” molecule called nitric oxide that is produced by the body. (No, not nitrous oxide that the dentist gives you that makes you giggle!) This one is produced in the very lining of our blood vessels during times of joy and pleasure. Nitric oxide is our key to transforming the old stigmatized menopause into a rebirth. And, there are research-based practices that have been proven to not only increase our nitric oxide, but to unlock the key to the wisdom of reinvention of which Northrup speaks.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) conducted a meta-analysis consolidating 18 clinical trials from 6 countries that studied numerous mind-body practices that positively impacted menopause (and certainly increased that fountain of youth, nitric oxide). These practices have been shown to quell the stress hormone, cortisol, while increasing the “happy hormones” dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. This biochemical magic will help the body/mind compensate for the progesterone (the calming hormone) our menopausal bodies are producing in lesser amounts.
Here, I will touch on 4 practices the study cites that have made a personal impact on my life as well as many of my client’s lives.
Yoga: Have you heard the latest research citing that a regular yoga practice is more powerful against cognitive decline (foggy brain anyone?) and guards better against mental health issues than more conventional methods? TO DO: Go get your “down dog” on, ladies! If you can’t find a local studio that you feel at peace with, many studios are now offering streaming video of live classes in which you can participate while in the comforts of your home, for a fraction of the price!
Meditation: Another study tasked 14 menopausal women to adopt a meditation practice for 8 weeks and found a dramatic decrease in numerous symptoms, most drastically in hot flashes that had a 67% decrease! TO DO: Challenge yourself to establish a daily 10-15 minute mindfulness meditation practice. A simple way to hold yourself accountable and achieve your daily goal is to mark your calendar/journal/schedule each day for 21 days after you meditate. After that, you will be well on your way to owning a new transformative habit. If the idea of sitting quietly on your own is too intimidating at first, check out one of the numerous guided meditation apps like Headspace, Mindfulness or Calm.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: PMR has been shown to have a significant impact on insomnia (one of the common menopausal symptoms). TO DO: Each night, as you are lying in bed for sleep, lay on your back with your eyes gently closed and work your way up your body from your feet to your head. Focus on each body part, as you tense the muscles and hold the contraction for about 10 seconds, then release. Each time you tense a muscle group and release, allow yourself to experience the feeling of complete relaxation as you sink further into your bed. (When I guide kid clients through PMR, I tell them to allow their relaxed muscles to feel like spaghetti noodles or heavy jello.)
Breathwork: Deep abdominal breathing activates the Vagus Nerve, the part of the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation branch of the autonomic nervous system) that influences every organ in our body. TO DO: Practice 4-7-8 Breathing. Set your timer for 2 minutes. Close your eyes. Breathe in for a count of 4, while inflating the belly. Hold the breath for a count of 7. Exhale slowly and steadily to a count of 8 until the belly is completely deflated. Personally, I use 4-7-8 abdominal breathing for the first couple minutes of my meditation practice. I then let go of my focus on the counting and move into a mindful stillness. If I find my mind is wandering, I gently release my thoughts and come back to the breathwork until I am centered again.
Part of practicing self-care is learning how to stop striving for perfection. Perfection is an illusion invented to make us crazy and self-critical. Let it go! You and I will never get it all done anyway. Enjoy the moment and don’t overwhelm yourself with change. Use that innate female wisdom of yours and choose 1-3 things from Tracy’s list and perhaps incorporate one practice from my list of 4 and try these new habits for 21 days. Practice awareness and notice positive change.
And, maybe, like me, you will heed the advice from our ancient philosophers and modern teachers and will work to become better friends with this transformative time of female rebirth and change…the beauty of menopause.