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When the COVID-19 pandemic made its grand entrance into the world, it was, to be brutally honest, the least of my worries.
I was already in my own isolation hell, suffering with hot flushes, night sweats, fatigue, sleep disturbance, depression, forgetfulness, weight gain, decreased libido, increased facial hair, and inflammation. This additional layer of panic and fear was like water off a duck’s back to me. A very menopausal duck.
How had it come to this?
Despite moving to Spain four years ago (from the UK) to embrace a slower-paced, healthier lifestyle, I had managed, over time, to recreate my fast-paced lifestyle and unhealthy habits.
It kind of crept up on me.
I did start out being mindful, and spent a lot of my first year here just being—enjoying the mountains, the beaches, the Mediterranean sea, the endless sunshine, wonderful people, delicious, fresh food, coffee to die for. It was easy to just relax into absorbing the newness of it all.
Then, inevitably, money began to run low and that niggling (ego) voice kept harping on at me about “doing” something useful. So, I got a job (two actually), made friends, moved houses (three times), took up smoking again (it’s so cheap here!), adopted a stray cat, and set up a new business. Busy, busy, busy.
Back to square one.
Slap bang in the middle of all this, I started noticing some undesirable physical and mental changes, which I managed to ignore for a while. When I say “ignore,” I mean, I Googled them, freaked myself out, and immediately swept them under the carpet—like any normal person would.
They didn’t go away. Annoyingly. So I eventually had to seek medical advice, when the physical symptoms were leaning toward unbearable and, low and behold—diagnosis: perimenopausal. Lucky, lucky me.
I didn’t even know this was a thing until I had it. It’s the glorious phase before the actual menopause—like a practice run. It starts for most women around age 45, and can last for up to 10 years—we’re in this for the long haul ladies. I just remember thinking this seemed like a really long, laborious, uncomfortable way of saying farewell to my fertility.
Diagnosis made, I still changed nothing. (I’m a slow learner.) I read about the things I should be doing and they all seemed a bit tedious, requiring me to make sacrifices and changes to my lifestyle. I wasn’t ready to give up all the things I most loved in life—cigarettes, caffeine, sugar, spicy food, alcohol. Plus, with all of my busyness, I simply didn’t have the time.
So I chose the “head in the sand” approach and just continued as normal with my hectic life. Most of the time I managed to tolerate (at best) the symptoms and ignore my body’s cry for help.
On March 14, 2020, the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. As one of the worst affected countries in the world, the whole of Spain was ordered to stay at home with immediate effect.
Halleluiah! my body cried.
Forced to stay at home alone for the last 70-plus days, I’ve had no choice but to confront myself and the changes going on inside me. Without the distractions of being busy, I’ve really felt every symptom—magnified by the mild panic and stress surrounding the lockdown situation.
It hasn’t been easy—and there have been tears, tantrums, and meltdowns along the way—but I’ve stayed with the discomfort and worked through it and come out the other side. I’ve found a way to be much more at ease with myself and this fascinating stage of my life. I’ve become curious rather than dismissive or resentful. I’ve woken up, made friends with “her,” and I’m finally making the adjustments needed not only to improve my physical health, but also to nurture myself through the mental and emotional challenges this life stage presents.
It’s kind of impossible to give advice to other women entering this life stage—as much as I’d like my experience to be of benefit to others—as no two people are alike. Every woman’s experience will be different, so there’s no one magical solution.
However, I do believe, for all of us, it’s about finding a new balance, accepting that change is inevitable, and committing to making the right choices for ourselves in this next life phase.
Here’s what I’ve learned on my 70-day journey of acceptance:
1. Do the research and seek professional help if needed. We owe it to ourselves to learn about what is happening to our bodies, and what they need from us right now. Slow down and listen carefully—they will tell us. (Spoiler alert: it’s not wine!)
2. Consider hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I decided this wasn’t right for me, as I’m not a big fan of the “bandaid approach,” but I have friends who’ve gone down the HRT route and they swear by it.
3. Try out some alternative therapies, such as hypnosis, acupuncture, or meditation. It’s worth exploring all avenues in our search for relief.
4. Talk about it, even if it makes other people uncomfortable. (I can confirm, it does.) There are some amazing support groups out there, so we can connect with other women going through this, and realize we’re not going insane. There is absolutely no need to suffer in silence.
5. Eat well, mainly plant-based, and invest in some high-quality supplements. Dietary needs are different from what we needed in our 20s, 30s, and early 40s—for example, it’s important to balance blood sugar and to add phytoestrogens to our diets (soya, chickpeas, lentils, flaxseeds, tofu, tempeh). We don’t have to completely eliminate caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods, but reducing them certainly makes a big difference.
6. Get active. Not only will this keep our weight under control, it also makes a huge difference to things like our mental well-being, heart health, and bone density. Aim to include a balance of strength, aerobic, balance, and stretching exercises throughout the week.
7. Establish new routines that better support our bodies and their changing needs. I’ve returned to a daily yoga practice, and use guided meditations as part of my bedtime routine. Both reduce the amount of stress hormones my adrenal glands release. I’m also drinking a lot more water. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest difference.
8. Get good-quality sleep. This is the time when our bodies recharge and repair cells and tissues—not only do we look and feel better after a good night’s sleep, we also strengthen our immune system, increase memory function, and support weight loss. I’m fortunate to be living in Spain, where an afternoon nap is obligatory (siesta!). If you need a nap, find a way.
9. Give ourselves a break. There’s no right way to deal with this. Let’s just keep researching and trying out new ways until we find what works best for us, with self-love and kindness.
10. See the funny side. I found a bag of frozen peas in the dishwasher on Monday. What else am I going to do in a situation like that but laugh. Laughter really is the best medicine.
Perimenopause (and menopause) for many women is a trying time (and by “trying,” I mean f*cking awful).
Fluctuating hormone levels causing all these physical changes, with the addition of not being sure what’s happening (or if there’s anything we can do about it), can be overwhelming, and leave us feeling disempowered and alone.
We need to talk about it—like we talk about periods, childbirth, breastfeeding—sharing our experiences and supporting one another. There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about.
We can also look at our lifestyles and be honest about the changes we need to make now. Let’s not waste this valuable gift of quiet time, slowness, and reflection. Let’s use it to really think about our physical and mental health needs, and act now—before the Great Pause lifts, and we all rush back to our old habits and routines.
There’s never been a better time to change.
Sorry—must dash—have a big old moustache to wax!