The story goes that menopause symptoms come about because of aging ovaries and sex hormone decline. Part of that is true. But that story is not the whole story.
Shifts in sex hormone production are part and parcel of the menopause transition. But not every woman has menopausal symptoms. Plenty of women have no complaints from the body. There are even women whose skin stays mostly wrinkle-free, taught, and supple way past menopause! Even when their hormone levels are on par with women who struggle mightily with menopause symptoms, these women don’t seem phased. Why? We’ll explore this question in this series.
It’s fair to say there’s more to menopause symptoms than ovaries saying, I quit.
Otherwise, every menopausal woman through all of time would have symptoms. The old story about ovaries and hormones is too simplistic. Yes, the body responds to these changes. We don’t want to mislead you into thinking it doesn’t. The trouble is that focusing on hormones alone makes a problem out of this passage. Strict emphasis on hormones also does not consider the beautifully complex ecosystem that is a woman’s body and person.
Menopause Doesn’t Have to Be a Struggle
What can we learn from women who seem to breeze through menopause and ‘never’ age? If you ask them, they’ll tell you that, for the most part, their weight hasn’t really changed. They still want good sex and have the energy to say yes to that desire.
They may have had occasional breast tenderness, menstrual cramping every once in a while, and maybe some PMS type of mood swings, but nothing too out of the ordinary. They’ll likely say they’ve had a hot flash on occasion and perhaps woke in the night in a sweat, but those episodes have been few and far between. Maybe they don’t sleep as well as they used to. They get a little more tired at day’s end, but by and large, for these women, life goes on without a fuss.
Of course, these women are aging. You can see they’ve passed thirty-something, but you swear they look 10, 15, 20 years younger than they are. And by look, we don’t mean society’s definition of youthful beauty. We mean vibrancy, glowing wellbeing that exudes vitality.
These women may hold a secret for the rest of us.
Honoring the Menopause Passage
How might women journey through midlife and beyond in ways that honor the body-self? Our sense is that question might have something to do with the earlier one about what we can learn from women who seem to glide effortlessly through menopause and into the second half of life. Honoring the menopause process grants a cease-fire to the war we wage on our bodies.
If we let loose the grip of the ‘hormones on the decline’ story, we come into a new relationship with menopause. We come into our own experience and tell a story that feels true. We claim our bodies, ourselves, as whole and always changing. And we glimmer at a new way of knowing and being in the world.
Celebrated Black American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
Honoring our body-self through menopause and aging brings us home to what we already know but have been searching for all of our life.
Often liken the changes of menopause to those of puberty. Only, we’re on the other side of the fertility arc. The body – and therefore, our whole person – is drifting along a sea tide of hormone changes.
In puberty, the tide was coming in. The body was younger. She could roll with surging hormone currents and sweeping tides of change. It wasn’t always easy, but we got through puberty and soon followed a new internal rhythm: our menstrual cycles. The body knew how to adapt to all these changes.
Some of us later went through pregnancy, birthing, and then nursing an infant. All the while, our body restored herself and returned to the internal monthly rhythm. Each of these events was another sea tide of change. For a miraculous number of us, the body made her way without trouble.
Even if things were not always smooth, the body knew how to sow a fertilized egg into a ready womb, nourish a budding human into full form, and usher a baby into the world. The body knew how to make milk, let it down, and offer it in full flow to a growing child. Sex hormones were in flux, tending in the backdrop to every subtle and not so subtle shift necessary to nourish a new life. The body knew how to take care of herself and the life now so dependent on her own.
Hormone Shifts Ask the Body to Adapt
Natural menopause is a normal part of aging, and it’s not caused by surgery or another medical condition. The definition for this term includes one year without menstrual bleeding, in the absence of any surgical removal like hormone replacement therapy (HRT), or overactive thyroid diseases such as hyperthyroidism.
Most women experience some variation in the timing and type of their periods before they end. Often, these changes happen during perimenopause when hormones shift naturally. However, skipping your period can also indicate that something else may need attention, such as stress or diet issues.
In menopause, the hormone tide is going out. The body is not old by any means but older than a pubescent body. This midlife body might have had a baby or more, or maybe not. Either way, she’s worn more days on her hips, back, and shoulders. She may not flex as easily as she did before. Remember rolling through cartwheel after cartwheel like a spinning Ferris wheel along a sandy beach? Arching like a golden gate in the perfect C-curve of a backbend?
The hormone passages of our lives ask our body to adapt. They impart a certain amount of stress on the body. It’s not that there’s a problem – clearly! Our bodies were made to step into fertility, bear children, and leave our reproductive years behind to give energy to other matters.
That agility that made cartwheels and backbends a breeze when we were young reflected the body’s inner flexibility to change.
As we get older, we naturally lose some biological bend and sway. Some of it, we can restore with wellbeing practices. Some of it, we trade for an inner resilience of heart and mind we didn’t have when we were younger.
Midlife invites us to play with resilience – body, heart, and mind.
The Body Needs a Resilience Reservoir
During change, a resilient body can better cope than a body that’s tapped out. We’re likely to have some trouble if there’s not enough in the reservoir during the menopausal transition. The body starts to fuss. She has symptoms: weight gain out of nowhere, PMS-all-the-time kind of mood swings, insomnia symptoms, flat-out exhaustion, vaginal dryness, hot flashes, night sweats, hair loss, urinary incontinence. The list goes on. You can find variations on this on the millions of web pages that pop up with a Google search “menopause symptoms.”
If you’re like most women beyond 40 or 45, you don’t need to do a Google search. You know what your body knows – that something’s different, and sometimes what’s different brings about complaints. Those are your menopause symptoms.
The body’s resilience decides the severity of menopause symptoms during this transition and even how we age. Accompanying the body through this change are dreams, losses, deepest yearnings, and beliefs. . . . All of it plays on resilience.
The Bend and Sway of a Resilience
The American writer, Robert Jordan, provides a beautiful image of resilience:
The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.
Being resilient during the menopause transition is like embodying the willow. If we fight this transition, something in us begins to break a little – our spirit, our soul.
The body is changing. She came into life prepared for this passage. The menopause transition has something to show your life. Maybe the body will have some symptoms, but she’s less likely to be plagued by them if she’s not spent already . . . if deep inside, there’s a reservoir to be tapped into while she’s adapting.
We don’t practice resilience to prevent menopause or aging. We practice resilience to lend a hand to the body’s know-how to adapt and do so more easily. The journey through menopause is one to embark on wholly – body, heart, and soul.
Gateway to Vibrant Wellbeing
- What sensations, images, words, or reflections come to you as you reflect on the changes over the past year and your body’s responses to those changes?
- What sensations, images, words, or reflections come to you as you imagine your body adapting to the menopause transition with the bend and sway of a willow tree?