It’s a common belief that the child-bearing years are pretty much consistent from one decade to the next. Then, somewhere around age 50, a woman starts the phase of menopause, which lasts for several years after that.
Actually, menopause is really only one day – the day exactly one year after the last menstrual period. Perimenopause, the period leading up to that day and for a year afterward, can last as long as ten years. And the changes that occur during this time – especially the emotional ones – can have a major effect on a woman’s life.
The term “perimenopause” literally means “the time around menopause,” which is why it covers the period both before and after the cessation of menstruation. This is the time when a woman’s body is ending its fertile stage. The levels of estrogen and progesterone, the two major female hormones, begin to drop – and sometimes rise unpredictably as well. This fluctuation can cause changes in brain chemistry that can affect the way a woman thinks, feels, and believes about everything in her life.
The physical symptoms of this time – hot flashes, menstrual irregularities, and the like – are fairly well known. But there are emotional changes as well. Some, like mood swings, may imitate those of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). And certainly PMS may become worse during this time. But others are more fundamental – and more pervasive.
Estrogen and progesterone aren’t the only hormones whose levels drop during this time. Physicians and scientists have brought up the role of oxytocin, which tends to bring out the “caregiver” in a woman.
As oxytocin levels go down, a woman may become more focused on herself and her own interests than on the needs of others. She’s more likely to make decisions that promote her own independence and autonomy. She may decide to finally finish that education she put “on hold” when she started having children. Or she may decide to leave an unfulfilling relationship. Statistics show that most divorces of couples over 50 are begun by women.
Needless to say, this can be a challenging time. A woman who’s spent most of her life taking care of others may have trouble adjusting to taking care of herself first, and may feel guilty about it. The people she lives with, loves, and cares about may begin to wonder if they ever really knew her. Even when menstrual periods stop – a sure sign that hormones are involved, and menopause is imminent – there may still be many conflicts to resolve.
Some women sail through this time with only minimal problems. Others have symptoms so severe that they require medical treatment. For these women, the first thought may be hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and medications like antidepressants. But many physicians, recognizing the potential problems with these treatments, are now recommending that other, milder actions be taken first. They emphasize healthy diets, regular exercise, and stress relief, including “pampering” time.
If you’re a woman who’s experiencing some of these effects, consider that they may not be just a bad case of PMS; you may actually be entering the phase of perimenopause. If you feel sometimes that your life is changing faster than you can deal with it, and you’re worried that your self-esteem or your relationships may be suffering in the process, take heart. What you’re going through is a normal process. Talk to your physician or other health care provider and get suggestions about how you can cope. Your life will eventually settle down again, and all the changes you’ve gone through will be for the better.