The flight was at 35,000 feet and Dame Judi Dench was talking. My earphones were on and I was watching the in-flight movies as you do when you’re on the long haul from New Zealand to the United Kingdom. ‘Lunch with Four Dames’ had been on my to-watch list for a while. Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright let the cameras in on a friendship that was more that half a century long. These four acting greats were discussing their careers and reminiscing about their humble beginnings in the theatre. But it was Dame Judi’s comment that got my attention when the interviewer enquired what she might change about her life – “I think I would like to learn about mindfulness” she mentioned thoughtfully. “I think it would have helped me in my career.”
I have no idea what this great actress was alluding to, but her comment has stayed with me because I had to discover the practice of mindfulness too. Especially to help me lose weight, sleep better and reduce my hot flushes too. For an active, on-the-go mother juggling parenting, studying, a university career and at the time, caring for my mother when I could, slowing down my mind and body in a purposeful way was difficult to do. But when we are addicted to working, being busy, rushing around and taking care of other people, the only way that we can give ourselves permission to rest, is simply by collapsing. But rushing around and then collapsing AND going through menopause wears everyone down around you too.
Over 2000 women have joined me on the two MyMT programmes to date – and as my bonus to them, I’ve developed a module called ‘Mind Your Mindfulness’ – I like to think that they have listened to it and followed the powerful advice in it. We are a generation of women who still have a lot of stress in our lives and managing this stress matters for our health, weight and symptoms as we move through menopause.
This module takes women on a journey through the evidenced mind-body psychological strategies that not only help their hormones to stay balanced, but also improves their health and their happiness. Somewhere along the way over the past decades many of us lose sight of ‘who we are’. Our body shape has changed, our health has changed, our stress levels have increased and our view of how we want to live our life may have changed too. As our mood hormone, serotonin, lowers due to changes in oestrogen, it’s a time when menopause melancholy can overtake and overwhelm us. It’s hard to stay motivated some days, but as my favourite behavioural psychologist the father of sports psychology, Professor Mihalyi Cszikszentmihalyi says,
“The first step in any transformation is to gain a clear understanding of one’s self – the image you develop about who you are is set in your consciousness. If you want to change your sense of self, then at first, you must come to know yourself. Once we realise what our demons are, we can set a path towards achieving change.”
Re-discovering the freedom and joy of living mindfully when stress is ever-present in our lives is important. And I’m not just talking about emotional stress. Physical stress from inflammation accumulating in our joints, muscles, liver and gut create when we aren’t sleeping arrives in menopause as well.
How Mindfulness Helps with Stress and your Weight Management
Many of the fabulous women who join me on the MyMT programmes feel stressed and emotionally drained . Busy with parenting, careers and caring for others and busy trying to keep the wheels from falling off in the home. It’s tough. But many are exhausted because they arrive in menopause and not sleeping night after night wears them down. As Melbourne SwimWorld Manager, Anna said, “I was so exhausted, but we women just have to keep on going don’t we?” I felt the same as well. Life becomes an enormous struggle and for many, when the weight starts to creep on, we try to exercise harder as well.
Whilst exercise for our health is ‘good for us’, over time, the ‘perfect storm’ of insomnia, being busy and menopause negates the benefits of the exercise and sends our symptoms soaring. Hot flushes, night sweats, sore joints, changing gut health and a racing heart rate arrive … and the belly fat sneaks up too. Our body begins to have a mind of it’s own.
How I wish that instead of listening to all the advice at the gym to do Boot Camps, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and other exhausting workouts, that I was told to do mindfulness exercises instead. My body and brain were exhausted and my adrenals, which control the production of our stress hormones, went into over-drive. It’s the same for many of the women who join me on the programmes and it’s such a privilege to be able to teach them that mindfulness matters – especially when we want to lose our menopause fat and calm down our hot flushes too.
- Do you feel stressed and exhausted?
- Do you worry constantly?
- Do you have a racing mind and feelings of anxiety?
- Are you sleeping?
- Do your moods swing all over the place?
- Do your energy levels go up and down erratically as well?
- Are your joints sore and you feel hot all the time?
When stress builds up emotionally and physically, it contributes to inflammation in our tissues. We often think of feeling stressed as an emotional phenomenon that affects your thoughts and emotions, but it is physical as well and affects your physical wellbeing as well as your behaviour. In the past we have indeed been able to cope with all that we do in a day, but as our reproductive hormones change during menopause, the strategies that have helped us cope with stress in the past may no longer work. This is due to a number of changes that occur with our nervous system as we age and combine this with sleepless nights, then our body becomes even more stressed because we don’t heal and recover overnight.
Hence, over time the accumulation of emotional and physical stress creeps up on you and every day becomes a struggle. I wonder if Dame Judi Dench felt like that in her 50’s as well.
Practicing mindfulness can help you reduce your stress because you learn to develop an awareness of what is going on in your everyday world. It is an ancient practice, nestled in Buddhism, that allows you to ‘be in the moment’. In this context you begin to become aware of the thoughts that trigger your thoughts, the emotions that can turn into conflict, irritability or frustration, the physical signs that your body isn’t coping (not sleeping, more hot flushes and sore joints) and the subsequent behaviours that arise from the stress you are feeling. This is important to understand for your weight management too. When we feel exhausted, it’s easy to ‘gobble on the go’ and eat sweet foods or too much food because we feel tired and upset. We all know about the 3pm chocolate binge don’t we?
I often talk about mindfulness in the private facebook MyMT™ Coaching Community. This is where women read my posts about all things menopause and follow my themes for the weeks that they are on either of the MyMT™ programmes. It’s also where women can ask questions of me or post their own tips and ideas – it’s a wonderful community of support. I love how women from all over the world are in there – we might all be isolated geographically but we are connected via our symptoms in menopause.
Understanding the connection between your nervous system and the changes to it in menopause:
For so many women with busy, active lives there are hundreds of thoughts going through our brain every day. These thoughts can be positive and negative 😊 – this means that the nervous system which sends messages around your body stays active all day long and into the evening too. If we are struggling with stress and having negative thoughts, then the part of the nervous system that dominates, is the Sympathetic Nervous System. This controls your ‘fight or flight’ responses.
Every time you are thinking, moving, and/or exercising, your body has fired up the part of your nervous system called the Sympathetic Nervous System. This is the system that controls thoughts and actions. It’s our stress-response system, our fight or flight response system. But here’s the thing – our stress-responses weren’t designed to stay activated all day long and into the evening. When this happens, it throws out the balance of your lovely, relaxation, calming nervous system – the Para-Sympathetic Nervous System.
When the Sympathetic Nervous System dominates your internal environment, this throws out the balance between the two nervous systems. – and this leads to increased stress, anxiety, heart palpitations, irritability, weight gain and a liver, gallbladder and gut that can’t digest food very well. Over time, your sympathetic nervous system becomes the dominant system.
That’s when you feel more wired and tired, anxious and irritable and/or your gut health, hot flushes and weight are causing chaos too. When your sympathetic nervous system dominates all day long, your food isn’t being digested well, you make the wrong choices with food and you feel grumpy, irritable, bloated and frustrate easily. Yes, I felt all those things too. I had no idea that my sympathetic nervous system was dominating and therefore, contributing to weight gain, despite all the exercise I was doing. I notice this all the time now when I observe mid-life women at the gym.
But there’s another reason for all this chaos during menopause and it’s why I want you thinking about mindfulness.
Our nervous system is ageing too.
As we move through menopause and lose oestrogen, our nerves change in structure too. Our nerves rely on oestrogen to help to send signals along the nerve axon or pathway. Our blood vessels rely on oestrogen too. Oestrogen helps the elasticity of our blood vessels. Both these systems are intricately connected and as we move through menopause and we lose the role of oestrogen, the changes on these two systems alone can affect the quality of life for many women. We can feel more anxious, more wired and tired and we can feel hopeless, un-motivated and more easily over-whelmed. For women who have coped all their lives, these feelings can be challenging.
The changes that occur in our body as we move through menopause clash with our modern lifestyles. It’s why, most of us need to re-balance up the competing nervous systems and make time in our day to dampen down the dominant sympathetic system and allow our calming para-sympathetic nervous system to dominate as well.
How we do this, is to focus on understanding that the second longest nerve in the body, the VAGUS NERVE, needs some calming and quiet time too.
Positioning menopause in our ageing, changed my life …. and the way I live my life.
This was the starting point to understanding what was really going on with how I felt and the weight I was gaining and the inflammation I was feeling in my joints and muscles. Whilst I still felt ‘young at heart’ in my mind, I had no idea about the numerous changes that were occurring inside me, as the natural decline of oestrogen and progesterone led me into the next phase of my life. One of these ‘lightbulb learnings’ was all to do with the ageing of our nervous system.
As we age, the release of the transmitting chemical that helps signals to pass freely from one nerve to another are blunted. What this means is that signals between our brain and our major organs, including our heart, liver, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, muscles and skin, don’t get to these places very fast. In technical terms, ‘the conduction velocity (speed) decreases’. That’s why when we are feeling stressed, overwhelmed and we are rushing around, the connections between your brain, nerves and muscles don’t work as well as they used to.
The result? – You feel anxious and stressed. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase and you feel ‘on-edge’ daily.
Understanding how our Vagus nerve ages is important. It is part of your para-sympathetic nervous system – your resting and digesting nervous system. When we understand this, then we can use specific strategies to build our resilience to its ageing and to help to calm it down so that we digest food well which helps us to manage emotional eating and to manage our weight.
Optimal vagus nerve functioning helps you to feel more in control and calmer. When you don’t let your symptathetic nervous system dominate your para-sympathetic nervous system, you begin to lose weight, digest your food more effectively, absorb nutrients and you better control your moods, temperature, breathing and blood pressure. Your hot flushes start to reduce too.
This is why, during our menopause transition and beyond, we need to focus on helping our lovely Vagus nerve do it’s job.
SLOWING DOWN our thoughts, actions, breathing and eating every day matters to our symptoms. This is why, becoming more aware of ‘you’ matters, including when and why you feel most stressed.
Mindfulness training is gaining momentum and it’s why I include it in the MyMT programmes. Not only as a well-being intervention, but as a weight management intervention too. It enhances the quality of our consciousness.
Mindfulness is defined as the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present – this includes awareness of the physical environment too. When we place mindfulness techniques into our day, our brain activity slows down as does our breathing and we get a boost in our immune health as well.
How do we become more ‘mindful’?
Mindfulness starts with self-awareness. So the first thing to begin to practice, is to pay close attention to what you do every day. then begin to notice how you feel in different activities, places, times of day and with different people. When you reflect on how you feel in different circumstances, then this helps you to identify when and why you feel a bit stressed and when to activate your calming para-sympathetic nervous system.
Self-awareness is the start of change and yes, I had to be more conscious of this too.
When you become more self-aware, only then can you start to experiment with different alternatives for changing aspects of your daily life, that no longer work for you, e.g. eating at different times, getting up earlier or going to bed earlier, having some ‘alone time’, practising mindfulness strategies such as paying attention to your breathing and movement.
You can practice your mindfulness anywhere at any time. Mindfulness isn’t just about visiting a yoga class or pilates studio. To me mindfulness is what you practice in your every-day activities so you become more mindful. It helps you to slow down, switch off and become ‘present’.
Once you understand when you feel most anxious or stressed, then you can begin to add mindfulness strategies into your day. I like mindful walking and mindful breathing.
Mindful walking is powerful too. You walk slowly and allow yourself to be in the ‘present’. I find that it’s a great time to focus on my posture. Holding shoulders straighter, breathing more deeply and pushing the big toe into the ground as you walk improves blood flow around the body. You pull your mind back from wandering and just focus on walking and your breathing instead. It is very calming and very different to the high-intensity, high-impact exercise which I’ve done for years. It takes practice to slow down.
Every day now towards the end of the day, I also do some slow movements of my body. I do this in bare-feet and just do some slow graceful movements such as you see in Tai chi. When we have a lot going on in our life, it’s hard to calm the mind and fire-up our lovely para-sympathetic nervous system. But if we are going to over-ride the effects of menopause and the loss of oestrogen and help our body to adjust to these changes, then taking a few minutes every day to slow down our thoughts and move our body in a calm way, is important. This is also important for liver and gallbladder function as well, because it helps our bile production which is important for digesting and metabolising fats in our diet.
Allocating time for mindfulness to help our weight loss is crucial and it’s why I have a bonus module about this in the MyMT Transform Me weight loss programme.
Chronic stress makes your menopause symptoms worse. It increases our stress hormone called cortisol and if you have been joining me in the MyMT community for some time, you will have heard me discuss this powerful hormone which, when high all day long, keeps us feeling tired and tearful.
Mindfulness matters in our menopause and post-menopause years. It’s not too late for Dame Judi Dench to take it up! That’s because it is becoming well evidenced in anti-ageing research as well. Mindfulness strategies help you to slow down – mentally and physically. In Asian meditative traditions mindfulness practices help to release what is termed “monkey mind.” This is the distracted thinking whereby it’s too easy to focus on past, or future events or things that are irking us as we go about our day to day lives.
I like that.
If you are ready to turn around your symptoms in menopause and manage your weight as well, then you will discover my powerful strategies that I’ve researched to achieve this using lifestyle strategies that work. Your ‘Mind Your Mindfulness’ module is waiting for you in whichever programme you choose to come on. I can’t wait for you to join me.