Many women talk of how confusing it feels when they begin to experience menopause. And while we may know about many of the physical symptoms, we’re often unprepared for the changes it can bring to our mindset, emotions and mood.
When things feel overwhelming, remembering we’re not the only one going through it can be a really useful part of what helps us manage what we’re experiencing. Research shows that over 50% of women experience symptoms like brain fog, word loss, increased anxiety and loss of confidence during menopause. These can all affect the way we feel – and that affects our mood and our mindset.
Alongside this sense of connection with others, it’s useful to know there are some practical things we can do to support ourselves too. They range from tools that help us feel calmer in the moment, to ones that help us change the way we think.
I think of these tools as ‘practical compassion’.
What does ‘mindset’ actually mean?
Before we dive into looking at these tools, it might be useful to quickly explore what we mean by ‘mindset’. When I first heard the term, I didn’t have a clue what people were talking about. And I had even less of a clue about what I could do about it!
The best definition I’ve since found is this:
Your mindset is a set of beliefs that shape how you make sense of the world and yourself. It influences how you think, feel, and behave in any given situation.
So when our mindset is more positive, the way we look at the world is more positive. And the opposite is true if we have a more negative mindset.
We used to believe that people’s mindset was broadly fixed – but neuroscience now shows us how elastic our brains are and that we CAN change our mindset to better support ourselves. This is particularly useful when things are feeling hard to manage and we’re caught in a negative spiral.
In short, our mindset directly helps us manage our mood.
It’s important though that we don’t adopt a stiff-upper-lip, pretending everything is ok. Rather, we’re looking to be more compassionate with ourselves, acknowledging that sometimes it feels hard and reminding ourselves there are ways through.
The role hormones play
So, how do our hormones affect our brain?
We often think about our sex hormones – progesterone and oestrogen particularly – as being centred in our reproductive system. But, of course, they travel throughout our body. And oestrogen (amongst many other hormones) is also recognised as being important for our brain function.
Cortisol, the hormone we commonly associate with stress, actually shares the same pathway through our bodies as oestrogen and progesterone. So when we’re stressed we’re also inadvertently inhibiting the benefits of those hormones. And during menopause, of course, our production of them fluctuates – so the more we can do to reduce excess cortisol… the more we benefit from the oestrogen and progesterone we are producing.
The important thing is that we need cortisol – we need all the hormones we naturally produce! They all have a valuable job to do. But over-production of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline isn’t great for our system.
Excess cortisol also leads to insulin resistance, which can lead to weight gain. Another common symptom of menopause, it can add to feelings of anxiety or loss of confidence, which can in turn affect our mood.
So we can see this potential downward spiral of cause and effect. What we need to do is change direction – to lift our mood and change our mindset!
Three acts of practical compassion
1) Did you know that putting your hand on your heart for just a few minutes begins to release oxytocin, the care-giving hormone?
When we release oxytocin it helps balance out the cortisol and adrenaline that can get activated by feelings of stress or anxiety. You’re basically telling your brain that you’re ok and that it doesn’t need to be so alert.
I spend a LOT of time with my hand on my heart! You can do it anywhere at work or home:
- If you’re heading into something that feels like it might be stressful
- If you’re having a tricky conversation
- If you’re lying in bed, as part of preparing your body for rest
2) Take a deep breath and hum out for as long and as slowly as you can. Repeat twice more. Notice where in your body you feel the vibration of the hum.
The ancient part of our brain responds to an upsetting email in the same way it would have responded to a sabre tooth tiger millions of years ago. The humming breath is a powerful way of telling your brain you’re safe – because you can’t hum and run from a sabre tooth tiger… I use this one a lot too. A brilliant tool to restore calm.
3) Reframe it to change it. Just as putting a new frame around a picture can transform the way it looks, reframing the way we see something we’re experiencing can transforms how it feels.
So ‘hot flushes’ can become ‘power surges’. And a ‘foggy, forgetful brain’ can become a ‘brain that’s going through an upgrade’ (there’s research that shows this is really what’s happening!) Reframing in this way shows the power of the language we use.
If you listen to friends, family and the media, the language of menopause is often negative. But as we know, when we use negative language, we reinforce the negative feelings. So if we use more positive or neutral language, that negativity can begin to fade. It can be a lovely experiment just to listen out to what you (and others!) say and see how you could reframe it to change the way it feels.
Changing your mind(set)
We can’t choose the timing of our menopause or the symptoms we experience. But we CAN choose how we respond to what we experience. And it’s in making that choice to be more compassionate that we can begin to change the way menopause affects our mood and our mindset.
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