March 26, 1996 in Features

Changes Occur Before The Change

Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syn

The first thing you need to know is this: Menopause is as individual as a thumbprint. No two women experience it alike.

While few women have severe problems, almost all women experience some menopausal symptoms. An estimated 20 percent sail through with little difficulty; another 10 percent or so are temporarily incapacitated.

In between are all the rest - 70 percent of women - most of whom probably don’t know that the peak of hot flashes, emotional symptoms and bleeding problems occurs over the months or years BEFORE the actual event of menopause.

This first phase, perimenopause, is the least understood and potentially most confounding part of the menopausal passage. Perimenopause is a lot like puberty. Surges and dips in hormones are the most severe and unpredictable.

Estrogen is involved in at least 300 bodily processes. Thus, when it dips below levels the body has come to depend upon for 30 years or more, predictably the body is thrown out of balance.

The brain’s brain, the hypothalamus, cannot coordinate many functions with its usual precision and may play havoc with your sleep, temperature, appetite, libido, menstrual cycles and mood, making you feel temporarily estranged from your body.

When does it happen? Researchers admit they have underestimated the number of younger women who experience all the symptoms of menopause, even though they still have periods. The latest surveys reveal a surprising number of women in their early 40s are perimenopausal.

“I’m really angry - I don’t have time to deal with this.” The reaction from an accomplished friend of mine is typical of today’s high-achieving woman in the Vietnam Generation.

Ellen was 47, married with two young children, about to fly off on tour to promote her first book. Her body backfired on her. She was jumpy, irritable, and worse, she couldn’t remember her own material.

The mood swings characteristic of perimenopause may bring on sadness, malaise, mild depression, irritability, poor concentration - in general, the feeling of being on a roller coaster. Western medicine still fosters the erroneous assumption that these TEMPORARY mental symptoms herald a marked deterioration in the mental health of postmenopausal women.

Exactly the opposite is true. Studies now show that women in the postmenopausal years show less evidence of any psychological problems than younger women. It is women in their mid- to late 40s who manifest a peak in minor mental symptoms in the five years immediately prior to the end of their menstrual cycles.

Resistance to accepting that one has entered the long passage leading out of youth and fertility and into unfamiliar territory is perfectly understandable. But remaining resistant to that reality blocks a woman from entering her Second Adulthood.

Here is where many busy, active working women may trip themselves up. None of these women have any idea of the mess menopause can make of their lives if they remain in denial or rage.

“You can’t run away from it,” I told my friend. “What you have to do at this stage is listen to your body. Take the pause. You’ve earned it.”


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syndicate

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