Mental Health at Menopause - Tips for staying sane!

This month saw Mental Health Awareness week and Wake up to the Menopause week on BBC Breakfast. As both subjects are passions of mine, I couldn’t decide which to write about. So I’m combining the two!

Around the time of the menopause one of the most common symptoms is increased anxiety. It is also true that if you have suffered from trauma and it is as yet unresolved, you are likely to find it rearing its ugly head at menopause.

I’ve mentioned the benefit of Ashwaghanda before but this adaptogenic herb is a wonder. An adaptogen is a herb that supports your body acclimate to stress. Stress is the root cause of anxiety so anything you can do to prevent or manage stress will also help.

Often at the transitional time of menopause, women are at their most busy; running a business or working long hours, managing family life, coping with elderly parents; all of which is stressful. Making time for yourself is the most important thing you can do. Women are notoriously bad at this. We feel guilty if we step away from our family. We feel that we SHOULD be there for everybody else, but this is stressful and you run the risk of compassion fatigue. Yes, it’s a thing!

Doing something that is relaxing, allows you to switch off mentally and that calms your nervous system will benefit. Literally step away from technology for a time.

Research shows that spending time in nature is fabulous for your mental well-being, so why not go for a brisk walk in the park or the countryside. Spending time with others, especially if they are understanding of what you are going through is extremely supportive. After all, a problem shared is a problem halved as they say. Find your tribe and regularly spend time with them.

If you are suffering from depression and finding it difficult to function, there are many things you can do. Rhodiola is another adaptogenic herb that can help with stress, anxiety and depression.

If you are taking ANY other medication, it is always worth speaking with your GP to make sure it is safe to take supplements. However, you might consider speaking with your GP anyway as according to Dr. Rosemary Leonard, author of Menopause - the Answers, anti-depressants can also suppress other menopausal symptoms.

Diet is important. What you eat can effect your mental health. Speak to a nutritional therapist if you need to but the two most important things to cut down on are alcohol and sugar. Alcohol may be your go to when you are stressed but the high you receive from the release of GABA is short lived. You go for another drink and another and soon find that you only feel that same high after a bottle.

Sweets, chocolate and carbohydrates are another choice when stressed but will spike your blood sugar levels and maybe even give you a high, but you will crash down very soon after and feel hungry again. At menopause we tend to gain weight around the middle which usually heightens your risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus the weight gain doesn’t help your self esteem if you are already suffering mentally.

From a yogic perspective, practicing daily will support your mental, physical and physiological well-being. Observe your energy levels and mental state and consider whether to practice some grounding techniques, strong poses or gentle stretches. There is something for every mood and even a breathing technique that cools your hot flushes. Pranayama is magical for mental well-being, as is chanting and meditation. Ten minutes of practice a day is better than one hour a week. If you come to a class, try and practice at home too. You are welcome to photograph my lesson plan to remind you of what you enjoyed.

Cardiovascular exercise really benefits you physically and mentally. I know it can be difficult to fit it in but ask your family to help. Perhaps they can cook for themselves once a week so that you can go to a class . You might take a ten minute walk before eating your lunch. Little and often is better than nothing at all and really boosts your mood.

The most important thing is NOT to suffer in silence. You are not alone. I am a great believer in choice so do your research, never dismiss advice, try something and if it doesn’t work, try something else; whether that is homeopathy, herbs, medication, yoga, meditation or counseling. What works for your best friend might not work for you, so keep an open mind.

Community, support and exercise will greatly benefit. Reach out to me or anyone else who might be able to help. If women are ill informed about menopause, men are going to be less so. TELL your partner and family what you need; it might be the only way you get your needs met.

Talk about the menopause. The more you do, the better educated future generations will be and the easier the transition will be for our daughters.

Go well . Namaste.

Anneliese

Finding Space in a Frantic World - Part 2

Following on from last month’s post when you were invited to practice the 3 step breathing space as a way of ‘checking in’ to your sense of self, we are going to continue by looking at further areas where self awareness can make a big difference to our sense of space.

Posture. When life gets on top of you, physical tension builds up in the body. Most commonly, the shoulders protract in an effort to protect your heart; your emotional centre.

Over time, the more protracted you get, the more the body has to compensate in order to be able to look straight ahead. You are likely to develop tension in your neck that may cause headaches. I often see a permanent crease in the neck after years of compensation. Alternatively, the head is pushed forwards and the curves of the spine become exaggerated. These physical changes result in a decrease in lung capacity as you are literally restricting their ability to expand. The breath becomes shallow, often in the chest, which sends a message to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that you are stressed. The pattern of lacking mental, emotional and now physical space perpetuates. Shoulder protraction may begin with poor posture which still sends a message of stress and even depression to the brain and body, culminating in actually feeling that way even if you were not before.

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So what can you do about it? When sitting, raise your hips slightly higher than your knees. This allows the hip flexor muscles (at the top of your thighs) to switch off and enables your pelvis to sit in ‘neutral’ so that the natural curves of your spine are supported by gravity. It helps to support the lumbar curve so that this part of your back can rest and you can maintain length throughout your spine without creating tension. Any deviation to this and you have to compensate as you can see in the first two images above.

Whatever table or desk you are sitting at, it is important to make sure that your chair is at the correct height so that you don’t have to hunch your shoulders to use your keyboard or write or even eat. Make sure your computer monitor is at eye level. It might be a good idea to purchase a separate keyboard if you use a lap top for hours every day. The worst thing of all for posture, is to sit side on to your desk. Do what you can to be able to face your monitor squarely. If you regularly have to turn, turn your whole body not just your neck or spine, otherwise you risk developing a scoliosis by only ever rotating in one direction. Sitting with the legs crossed will in time create an imbalance in your pelvis which will carry on up the spine, so uncross your legs and sit with your heels under your knees instead.

Try this exercise daily to maintain mobility in the shoulders and relieve tightness across the chest.

Emotions You are probably aware that negative thoughts such as worry and doubt cause the sensation of anxiety in the body; butterflies in the tummy or the literal feeling of adrenaline surging through you. Negative thinking therefore, causes stress. The brain and nervous system only understand stress as threat and will essentially do what is natural to support you in escaping the threat. You will be forced to take shallow breaths into the chest in preparation to run or fight. So in order to relax the nervous system we need to move the breathing into the belly so informing the brain that you are in fact in a state of rest. Thoughts are not facts. So write positive affirmations and post them around you! ‘I am confident’. ‘Overcoming challenges builds strength’. Or as I saw on the final of The Great British Bake Off; ‘I have won’ (the great British bake off). Making affirmations in the present tense, as if they have already happened, helps us to think more positively.

Breath Lying on your back with your knees bent, or sitting upright with your lumbar spine supported, breathe into your belly as if you were inflating a balloon both upwards and width-ways. This may feel alien to begin with, especially if you are used to chest breathing. You may have to imagine your rib cage expanding first and then bring the breath down to the belly.

With practice this action will inform your ANS that you are relaxed. If you are familiar with Ujjayi breathing, this pranayama will slow your breath down and help you to relax more. You should aim to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. Initially however, you may need to keep the ratio equal and gradually lengthen the out breath. This is particularly important if you are depressed and/or suffer from lethargy, as lengthening the out breath makes us more relaxed and as a result, for some at least, a little sleepy.

I like to start my day with this breathing practice while still lying in bed. It is also a helpful practice to lull you to sleep and to give you mental space at the end of your working day.

Do you ever get home with the feeling that the last thing you are ready for is your family pouncing on you and demanding your attention? One of the biggest gifts you can give your family is time to yourself first. After all, I’m sure they would rather enjoy your company when you are relaxed and jovial, than when grouchy and snappy! Let it be known that before you spend time with them, you need 5 minutes to lie down somewhere quiet and focus on your breathing.

In addition to the breathing practice, you can use the out breaths to visualise your back, neck and shoulder muscles relaxing; melting like butter into the ground beneath you. Stay for as long as you need to so that you relieve some of the tension of the day.

If this sounds like your life, you might find the Stress Busting Yoga on the first Sunday of each month a helpful lesson to take. During the two hours from 10.00 - 12.00, we practice some strong asana to rid the body of stress hormones and include some restorative poses, deep breathing and relaxation or meditation to help you feel restored.