Anxiety, Menopause, and the Power of Mindfulness | Stella
Anxiety & mood
15 MINS

How mindfulness can help ease anxiety

byJo Godden

When your thoughts are giving your mind a beating, stop, take a breath and feel reassured that you can overcome anxiety. Mindfulness in menopause can be a real help.

Feeling anxious can be utterly debilitating, stealing your peace of mind and overloading your brain with unhelpful thoughts and agonising, lingering worries. We take a look at what works to help you manage when your mind won’t switch off, making it difficult to function day-to-day.

I thought mindfulness was a load of rubbish before trying it. Now I take myself off for a walk on my own when I need to with my earphones in and have an app on my phone with mindfulness practice. It is my time out and I can switch off my mind. It helps me a lot”

Jane

Low mood, anxiety and loss of confidence are common menopause symptoms and can blind side even the most level headed of us into thinking a situation is insurmountable when we have always been the accomplished multitasker. When life feels overwhelming, we can berate ourselves when we feel we are not coping adequately enough, making the situation even worse. It is, quite frankly, exhausting.

Read more about menopause and anxiety in our symptoms library.

Top five things that help with anxiety

  1. Mindfulness – We’ve interviewed mindfulness expert Vidyamala Burch who explains how it can really help with hot flushes, memory loss anxiety and to cope with any unwanted experience.

  2. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – Stella offers a CBT programme designed to help with menopause symptoms. Sign up to the waiting list and discover how reframing your thoughts can shift your mindset remarkably.

  3. Simple exercise – Get outside for a walk or cycle as fresh air and being in nature are great mood enhancers. Swimming, dancing, yoga and strength training also help. Keep focused on the activity and the released endorphins help prevent anxiety from getting a stranglehold on your mind.

  4. Getting good quality sleep – Make sure you are getting plenty of sleep and overhaul your bedtime routine. Put down your mobile and switch off the TV – try reading instead. Avoid going to bed when you are either too full or too hungry. Cut down on caffeine and avoid alcohol for the best chance of decent sleep.

  5. Lifestyle Staying hydrated and enjoying a nutrient-rich diet can improve your mental health. Talk to your work about flexibility so you can balance self-care when symptoms strike with work responsibilities. Keeping a mood journal to help to track your symptom patterns and feelings is useful, as well as talking to a counsellor or coach.

If you want to get off this rollercoaster ride of overthinking and feeling blue, menopause can herald the time for self-care and new healthy habits. There are some simple techniques you can try that will take just a few minutes of your day but can make a big difference in finding space for soothing moments to relax. Practised regularly, they can help you navigate difficult feelings and feel confident next time you recognise anxiety rising or smothered by overwhelm.

Are you normal?

Anxiety and stress are common reactions to everyday life, but it can become supercharged as midlife provides new challenges as we steer our way through family, work pressures and finances (and, sometimes, even global pandemics). Living with the impact of menopause symptoms such as brain fog, hot flushes, reduced libido, weight gain and disturbed sleep are stressful and can leave you feeling tired, frustrated, out of control and vulnerable. 

When your emotions build up and your stress response is constantly triggered with threat hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol flooding the body, the effects on our physical and mental health can be significant.

You might suffer headaches, muscle pain, an upset stomach, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt and hopelessness, extreme fatigue, high blood pressure, light-headedness and heart palpitations. Worrying about these symptoms can keep the vicious circle firmly in place. Find out about the red flag symptoms during menopause.

While this is a common menopausal experience for many, it does not mean you just have to accept it. There are treatments and self-care options available that can help so you don’t need to struggle each day.  

Does menopause cause mood swings?

Menopause can lead to changes in your mood, anxiety and lower energy. This is due to the body adjusting to the decline in oestrogen and progesterone hormone levels. As a woman ages, both hormones fluctuate and decline overall. It is thought that oestrogen has an effect on serotonin which is the ‘feel good’ hormone, so decreasing levels of oestrogen may lead to more mood swings.

Progesterone decline could also have a negative impact on sleep as it has a snooze-inducing effect. Lack of restorative sleep can have a detrimental impact on mood. Hot flushes, sweats, joint aches and pains, bladder problems, sleep apnoea and restless legs all take their toll on quality shut eye. Is there anything else you can throw in there, I hear you cry?!

Will these feelings go away?

To reduce anxiety, I like going to the gym or swimming in the sea. When you are fully focused on the treadmill, sit ups or breast strokes, you are in the moment”

Rachel

There is hope as hormones do settle and become more balanced postmenopause. During perimenopause, when the anxiety can be wholly overwhelming, it is important above all to be kind to yourself. Easier said than done, we know!

Menopause is a very personal experience, so too are self-care and treatments. Try different options and keep positive if one doesn’t work for you. Go back to it another day and there may be a different result. Mindfulness during menopause is a really great place to start as foundation for an alternative way of approaching life. The old adage is true – if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got.

How can mindfulness help during menopause?

Vidyamala Burch is the founder of Breathworks, an internationally-renowned mindfulness organisation, and leads on the mindfulness programme and exercises for Stella. She is a total advocate of mindfulness and menopause, and how it can defuse the power of anxiety after it helped her recover from devastating injuries to her spine while in her teens and 20s.

A hospital chaplain helped her realise that while her body might be broken, she had the capacity to be aware of her mind. She never looked back. Fast forward 35 years, and Vidyamala is embracing what she calls her ‘cronedom’ as she moves into her post-menopausal sixties. 

This sage woman is bringing her years of experience of Buddhist teaching and her own mindfulness practice to now help others. These include a range of guided sessions exclusively for Stella that encourage being in the moment with breathing and other mindfulness techniques designed to cultivate calmness and a sense of increased control. We say yes to that!

How does mindfulness work?

I am conscious when I have a hot flush that people will notice my red face and sweating. This just heightens the anxiety. Talking about it and sharing really helps so people can understand”

Jane

Mindfulness is very simply awareness. Knowing what is happening mentally, emotionally and physically in each moment and then making choices in how you respond, rather than being at the mercy of knee jerk reactions. You stop whatever you are doing, even just for a few moments, and choose to come into your body, breathe and allow everything to settle. Through this, you engage the calming parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your heart rate and easing muscle tension.   

The principles of mindfulness apply to any unwanted experience. You are not denying any unpleasant feelings you might have, but you learn to dial back habitual reactions such as secondary tension, anxiety or frustration. You learn to notice the unpleasantness with a kindly awareness and allow it to settle – letting go of secondary strain. This makes life much easier to manage.

Mindfulness can be seen as ‘mind training’. Just as you train your body in the gym to be physically fit you can train your mind muscle memory to interrupt the noise of between 30,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day and work with your circumstances rather than raging against them.

How mindfulness helps menopause symptoms

Vidyamala experienced perimenopause/menopause between the ages of 47 and 53 and found the early days particularly difficult with body image and then memory problems plaguing her.

“I felt like my brain suddenly resembled gruyère cheese and everything was falling through the holes and would be lost forever. I did catastrophise for a bit, but applying mindfulness to this experience of memory loss, I kept paring it back to each moment. All I knew was that in this moment I struggled to remember a particular thing, but it didn’t mean I was losing my mind altogether or getting dementia. I noticed the secondary experience, the fear and anxiety and breathed and softened, breathed and softened and kept coming back to the felt experience of each moment. Paring it back to that basic experience again and again was really useful.”

Listen to your body

She met her hot flushes with the same curiosity, turning towards them and recognising the prickly heat in the spine, the weird crawling feeling that built in intensity and then became heat pouring through her body.

“Rather than panicking about it, I had the awareness of the sensations that were changing all the time and the fact they fade. By riding out the physical sensation, being aware of each moment and what I was feeling in my body, I could let it come and go until it naturally faded and passed. Don’t contract against it. Normalise it as a natural part of the menopausal experience and be ready for the next time.

“There is a choice – ask yourself, ‘do I feed the tension and reactions to unwanted menopausal symptoms or do I respond with clarity and kindness?’

“By doing mindfulness, you change the default setting of your mind and nervous system, bringing a quality of rest to your experience. The practice of ‘stop, breathe and settle’ again and again throughout the day can be a friend during menopause journey.”  

Renewed confidence

Vidyamala’s memory is now much better after menopause has passed and she says she has confidence like never before.

“This is who I am. As you get older you see the illusion of worldly ambition. What I have now is being comfortable in my own skin. I joke with 30-somethings saying ‘poor you, you have another 20 years to wait until menopause!’ I would not want to be young again, I was immature and tortured.”

She ends with a positive note, “Menopause is usually described in terms of loss (youth, looks, brain). But if we can take the grieving process analogy, the final step is acceptance and a new doorway. The plusses? Being caught up with how you look is futile and it is liberating to be a little bit freed of that now I have come to terms with getting older. I am more balanced and emotionally stable than I have ever been. I like being a crone!”

What to do if your feelings aren’t easing

Anxiety can have a very profound effect on your physical and mental health. If you are struggling, try and talk to someone such as a friend or your doctor. You are not alone.

  • Shout is a free, confidential, anonymous text support service with trained volunteers there to help you with what you are experiencing including anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Text SHOUT to 85258 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • The Samaritans are also available to talk around the clock, whatever you are going through. Reach them by calling 116 123.

Final word

We need to understand how many women are misdiagnosed with depression rather than menopausal anxiety?

Read Ida’s story on how walking helped her low mood and find out more about the stages of menopause on our blog.