We’ve been talking about anxiety this week in my coaching groups and I asked the women on the MyMT programmes a question. It was this: ‘If I sat you down right now with a blank piece of paper and said to you, “What causes you to feel anxious?” what would you write down on the list? Then if I was to say, put some percentages on each anxiety-trigger and turn it into a pie-chart, then how might this pie-chart look? Which piece of the pie is your greatest source of anxiety?
I bet if you did this exercise (which I hope you do) then you would have both emotional and physical triggers on there. Anxiety has a complicated network of causes – not just from changing oestrogen and progesterone – but in menopause because of your changes in oestrogen levels then other sources of stress can accumulate. Feeling stressed about other things, from work to home to kids to ageing parents and financial concerns AND going through menopause can tip you over the edge.
We all have various sources of stress that cause us to become more anxious, but the one ‘anxiety-trigger’ that you may not have written on there is your physiological ageing. As you continue to lose oestrogen as you pass into menopause, your nerves are ageing too. But it’s not only your nerves, it’s your brain too. Both structures are losing oestrogen and this contributes to feeling as if your heart rate is racing especially when your feel over-whelmed with all the things going on in your day. This is why HRT helps many women feel calmer and reduces their anxiety. It is replacing some of this oestrogen lost in our body. It attaches to various receptors, especially the ones on our nerves and blood vessels. Some herbs do the same too.
Once I understood that my nervous system changed as I got older and went into menopause, it changed my entire outlook on my feelings of anxiety.
I never thought how my nervous system ages and it certainly wasn’t discussed by my Doctor as he pulled the prescription pad over for writing up a script for HRT. But although I went on this for a while and for many women it is a god-send, I also had my head buried in women’s healthy ageing research. Something that changed my life and enabled me to change my whole approach to managing symptoms in menopause, especially my symptoms of anxiety.
What I learnt surprised me. I never fully appreciated that arriving in mid-life would cause so many changes to our organs in the body. You see, for decades, menopause conversations have mainly focused on the loss of our reproductive hormones in menopause – the master hormones from the pituitary gland (Follicle-Stimulating Hormone and Luteinizing Hormone) which in turn send messages to our ovaries to produce oestrogen and progesterone. These messages as we know have controlled our menstrual cycles for decades. But there’s more to this conversation too. Menopause, is the biological gateway to our ageing and when I began to explore the ageing research about all the changes that go on in our body as we move through menopause and into our older years, the conversations in the ageing research went beyond the reproductive hormones and lead me down numerous paths that I never dreamed of going in the quest to understand what was changing in my body in this life-stage. One of the paths I went down was to better understand the causes of our feelings of anxiety and racing heart rate. I was already on HRT, but still I felt that there was no change to my feelings of anxiety, especially when, like most women, stressful situations and feeling over-whelmingly time-poor would gather momentum almost daily. I felt frustrated, grumpy and full of confusion about why, when I have coped with things all my life, I felt like I wasn’t coping. My body was also taunting me with added stress of weight gain and not sleeping and nothing I did or took, seemed to help this. I knew it was a cocktail for post-menopause health chaos.
But as I began to explore the physiology of our nervous system as we go through menopause, I realised that our brain and nervous system is ageing. That’s what happens to this system when we begin to transition menopause and lose the function of oestrogen.
As you age, your brain and nervous system go through natural changes and this happens earlier than you think!
Your brain and spinal cord lose nerve cells and weight (atrophy) and yes, there are gender differences. Women’s brain and nerves age more rapidly than men’s do … but we can keep this between us for now can’t we?! In women as we lose oestrogen, our nerve cells may also begin to pass messages more slowly than in the past. As I mentioned to women on the MyMT programmes just this week when I’ve been talking about lifestyle solutions for anxiety, when we have a lot of information going through our brain every single day, these neurons (nerves) have to transmit messages faster than ever before, but we aren’t allowing for the fact that our nervous system slows down it’s function as we age. The research shows that this starts after the age of 35 years.
That’s why if your anxiety levels are increasing and you are going into and through menopause, then it isn’t just to do with your changing reproductive hormones. And yes, please get medical support if you need to – but because the changes are also physiological, then there are lifestyle solutions that you need to put into place as well.
If you are feeling that your anxiety has increased, then don’t blame yourself for ‘not coping’ when all your life you have coped really well with all that you do. Tell yourself, it’s not you, it’s your ageing nerves. ???? That’s my first rule for you. We typically beat ourselves up when emotionally we feel anxious, but feeling anxious happens due to your ageing nervous system as well. You know the ‘brown spots’ on your skin? Well think of these inside your body along the length of your nerve fibres as well. Our nerves therefore change in their efficiency as we go through menopause. What happens is that the messages from our brain don’t move along them as fast as they have done in the past when they have had lots of oestrogen.
Hence, our ageing nerves need our thinking and actions to slow down a bit. When anxiety rules our day, our sympathetic nervous system dominates, so we also need to stimulate the help of our calming para-sympathetic nervous system to balance things up a bit.
When we have a lot of messages going through our brain and we have a lot going on in our day, our nervous system is ‘under stress’. The part of the nervous system that automatically controls our thinking, feeling and ‘being’ is called the autonomic nervous system and comprises a stimulatory system (sympathetic nerves) and a calming system (para-sympathetic nerves). Both work in conjunction with our heart so stress and anxiety increases heart rate and blood pressure and calming activities and thoughts lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Your brain is part of your nervous system. It is the ‘mother-ship’ for your nerves and this is why our spinal column and every single nerve in the body comes off the base of our brain.
Therefore, when our thoughts are many and complicated because of all that we do AND because our nerves are losing oestrogen, the result is that our nerves aren’t passing messages as efficiently and are in distress. In response our heart rate increases and we stay in ‘fight or flight’ mode for as long as the brain is hyper-active. The result?
You feel more wired, anxious, irritable, tearful and then you beat yourself up because ‘you aren’t coping’ – does this sound familiar?
However, when you add to this not sleeping and if you are still getting your periods and are in the follicular phase of your cycle (menstruating), your autonomic nervous system and heart rate stays elevated overnight too. You then wake up feeling wired and anxious so high-stress situations in your day just compounds your anxiety levels further. In menopause, it’s given the technical name of ‘autonomic arousal’. In athletes prepping for a competition, their heightened anxiety is given the technical name of ‘trait anxiety’. The difference in athletes is that this is given a ‘positive spin’ as it serves as a positive psychological experience putting the athlete ‘in the zone’ for competition.
Pauline used to have a lot of anxiety in her life too. Busy as a nurse in an aged-care environment, she used to email me about her heightened feelings of anxiety. She was already on HRT. One of the things I asked her was, ‘What is making you feel anxious at work?’
Her response was:
“Working in a busy aged-care environment, I worry about the residents and as a senior nurse, I feel as if my anxiety levels are high when there are management and staffing concerns that I don’t feel confident to address. There are also many residents who pass away and it affects me greatly.”
So, I told her that she could only control what she could control and put in place strategies for her to take time to pause and slow down her thinking, but also to re-frame her thoughts from negative to positive. My mother was in a similar aged-care home having had a stroke so I knew exactly why Pauline was taking on the emotional stress of her patients. But what she wasn’t factoring in was the physical stress of working long shifts in the afternoon and doing lots of walking. In fact, she wore a pedometer for me and discovered that on average she was walking 11-12km a shift. Her increased heart rate, feelings of anxiety and emotional exhaustion were not just from thinking about her patients. The triggers were also physical and in fact, she wasn’t eating enough carbohydrates or having enough food with B-vitamins to help her energy levels at work (more on this tomorrow). Not only did she need to change her diet to prevent physical anxiety, but she also needed to move beyond the emotional turmoil that was locking her into increased feelings of anxiety too.
Re-framing our thoughts is a strategy that we should all practice. Just like winning athletes do. Our famous All Blacks rugby team always move their thoughts pre-competition from anxiety to excitement.
I told Pauline to change her thoughts too. Instead of focusing on the situation and worrying about her residents and the challenges inherent in aged-care management, I got her to think about how lucky the residents were [and their families], to have someone look after them so lovingly and to have someone who genuinely cared about them at this stage of life. So, I told her that a strategy to use is to slow-down her thinking and instead of a worrying, perplexed frown on her face, put a smile on her face instead. When we smile, it changes our thoughts from negative to positive no matter the situation. Go on, try it right now. Smile. ???? Now take a deep breath at the same time. Your heart rate will slow down too and despite the adversity in your thoughts, you can think more clearly and make a plan for moving forwards. When we are anxious all the time, it prevents us from finding solutions to our problems.
When I received this email from Pauline a few weeks later when she had completed the MyMT programme as well as the ‘Mind Your Mindfulness’ module I have designed for both programmes, I was so excited for her.
“My stress levels decreased due to slowing down my thoughts with my deep breathing and letting go of things that are difficult to change. I am also off my anti-depressants and HRT. My mental health is so much better and I feel less anxious as I now have the tools to let go, I cannot continually worry about the things I cannot change. The compassion I have for my residents is, at times over whelming and I know now that when I finish my shift I have done my absolute best for every patient in my care. My home time is used to relax and chill, an easy way to recharge the batteries. I now love life and have lost over 8kg too. I also realised that my anxiety about work was preventing me from sleeping as well as the changes in menopause. With all the strategies in place from your programme, I am now able to close off from work and go to sleep naturally. I wake probably 2 hours earlier in the morning and feel as if I really do want to get up and face the world. Which I have been doing recently. Totally unheard of prior to commencing your MyMT programme.” Kind regards, Pauline.
A typical day for most women is full of anxiety-inducing events. As we transition through menopause, the loss of oestrogen going to your oestrogen receptors throughout your nervous system compounds your feelings of anxiety and causes your heart rate to increase. Some of you will get more hot flushes, some of you will experience a heart rate that feels like it is ‘racing’. You must slow it down. Yes, you can take HRT, that isn’t a problem, but you must also focus on the following solutions too:
- Re-frame your thoughts from negative to positive (if you are at home and it is after work, then go and take a shower to help you unwind and move from your ‘work’ to your ‘home’ environment – I use lavender soap these days – you can’t feel negative using lavender soap). ????
- Slow down your thinking because your brain is hyper-active and this controls your heart rate and nervous system. Listening to music is great for this.
- Drop and relax your shoulders and take a few deep breaths before responding to any stressful situation – the same way athletes are trained to do before they compete.
There are numerous other lifestyle solutions that help women to reduce their anxiety in menopause which I have in the 12 week programmes and the main one is getting back sleeping all night.
If we aren’t sleeping then our heart rate is more elevated in the morning and then this continues throughout the day. But there is more to just sleeping too. You also need to understand the role of the B-vitamins to reduce anxiety as well. I spoke about these in the coaching group yesterday where hundreds of women join me for added information and inspiration to help them adhere to the online programmes. Vitamins B6, B12 and B9 (Folate) are powerful vitamins that we need to help us in menopause because they help our ageing brain and nervous system to function better at a time of life when we still have so much going on.
When you are ready to feel better during your menopause transition, then come and join me and the hundreds of other women who have made it their choice to thrive in menopause through my powerful lifestyle solutions programmes. Every strategy has been researched from my studies into women’s healthy ageing and waiting in your learning hub now if you can come on board, are all the solutions for your to feel back in control at this important stage of life.
Wendy Sweet, PhD/ Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT Coach.