The Brain Catches Fire at Menopause

An exploration of the physical and emotional changes that can spur growth and creativity for women at midlife.

Continued from page 3

Externally and internally, this period is a mirror image of adolescence, a time when our bodies and brains were also going through major hormonal shifts that gave us the energy to attempt to individuate and become the person we were meant to be. At menopause we pick up where we left off in adolescence. It is now time to finish the job.

It should be no surprise, then, that research has documented that those women who experience uncomfortable--even severe--symptoms of PMS are often the same women who have a tumultuous perimenopause, with physical and emotional symptoms that become increasingly impossible to ignore.

As a woman makes the transition to the second half of her life, she finds herself in a struggle not only with her own aversion to conflict and confrontation, but also with the culture's view of how women "should" be. The body's inner wisdom gets its last, best chance of breaking through culturally erected barriers, while shining a light on aspects of a woman's life that need work. To resolve the situation, it is up to the individual woman to meet her body's wisdom halfway.

Debunking the Myth of Raging Hormones
Though hormone levels and mood do tend to fluctuate widely during our reproductive years, and even more widely during our perimenopausal years, research has failed to show any appreciable differences between the hormone levels of those women who suffer from PMS-like symptoms and those who don't.

What has been well documented, however, is that the brains of women who suffer the most from PMS-like symptoms are more susceptible to the effects of fluctuating hormone levels. In other words, it is not the hormone levels per se that are the problem; it is the particular combination of a woman's hormone levels and her pre-existing brain chemistry, along with her life situation, that results in her symptoms. It is estimated that 27 percent of all women who become depressed premenstrually will be very sensitive to the hormonal changes that occur at menopause.

Though we tend to blame perimenopausal symptoms on hormonal shifts in the body, their origins are far more complex. Several women in my practice, for example, have experienced symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings in their later 40s--despite having been on full hormone replacement for over 20 years as a result of hysterectomies and removal of their ovaries while in their 20s. Changes in reproductive hormones alone do not account for these symptoms. They are signals from our mind and body that we have reached a new developmental stage--an opportunity for healing and growth.

Moving Inward
Until midlife, it is characteristic for a woman's energies to be focused on caring for others. She is encouraged to do so, in part, by the hormones that drive her menstrual cycles--the hormones that foster her instincts for nurturing. But for two or three days each month, just before or during our periods, there is a hormonal interlude when the veil between our conscious and unconscious selves is thinner and the voice of our souls beckons to us, subtly reminding us of our own passions, our own needs, which cannot and should not always be subsumed to the needs of those we love.

I like to think of the first half of our cycles as the time when we are both biologically and psychologically preparing to give birth to someone or something outside of ourselves. In the second half of our cycles, we prepare to give birth to ourselves. It is at this time that the more intuitive parts of our brain become activated, giving us feedback and guidance about the state of our inner lives.

A Direct Current of Wisdom
At midlife, the hormonal milieu that was present for only a few days each month during most of your reproductive years, the milieu that was designed to spur you on to reexamine your life just a little at a time, now gets stuck in the on position for weeks or months at a time. We go from an alternating current of inner wisdom to a direct current that remains on all the time after menopause is complete. During perimenopause, our brains make the change from one way of being to the other.

Biologically, at this stage of life you are programmed to withdraw from the outside world for a period of time and revisit your past. You need to be free of the distractions that come when you are focusing your mothering efforts solely on others. Perimenopause is a time when you are meant to mother yourself.

Perimenopause is a time when you are meant to mother yourself.

It may be no accident that the word "menopause" invites the association "pause from men." In truth, you are being urged, biologically, to pause from everyone in order to do important work on yourself. Perhaps as a result of this, one of the most common threads running through women's descriptions of how they feel during the menopausal transition is the longing for time alone, for a refuge that provides peace, quiet, and freedom from distractions and demands.

It's a wistful dream, seemingly out of reach in this busy age if multidirectional tugs-of-war. But those who have the yearning often believe that their uncomfortable menopausal symptoms would simply dissolve if only they had the luxury of shutting out the world so they could tune into the growth process occurring within themselves. This wistful dream is real. It comes from your soul. I've come to realize that you can trust it and believe in it--and that you must do its bidding.

Even if this dream seems out of reach, the simple truth is that every woman can find refuge within her existing environment. Even if you can't charter a plane to a deserted island, odds are that if you acknowledge and validate your need for solitude, you can clear some time and find a private corner to which to retreat daily. You can insulate yourself from noise, telephones, and interaction with others. I encourage every woman to find a way to do this on whatever level is possible. When we commit to taking this first step, we have the chance to develop a newfound sense of ourselves and our life's purpose, which gives us an exhilarating sense of what is possible for us during the second half of our lives.

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Christiane Northrup, M.D.
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