Some of you may not remember when menstruation was called "the curse." But it wasn't that long ago when it was considered a taboo topic, worthy of shame and embarrassment. Now, women are quite nonchalant about their periods -- teens even call it their "friend " and send their mates to fetch their tampons. We've come a long way.
Isn't it time to shift cultural attitudes about the second major transition in a woman's life?
That's one of the purposes of World Menopause Day, which was celebrated on October 18th. While it's not an attempt to glorify fluctuating hormones -- and all that comes with it -- the World Health Organization (in collaboration with the International Menopause Society) has marked this day to put a spotlight on the health of menopausal women. It's a way to encourage education and awareness of this increasingly relevant, yet still misunderstood and stigmatized issue.
Below are four commonly-held assumptions about menopause and the truth behind them. It's time to start by talking about facts and debunking these long-held myths.
1) Menopause means I'm "old." With the average life expectancy now at 78 -- and many of us living into our 80's and 90's -- hitting menopause no longer signals the end is near. In fact, it means we often have several decades of life still ahead. By definition, menopause formally begins a year after a woman's last menstruation, when her ovaries have pretty much stopped making estrogen and progesterone. But many of the symptoms typically associated with this phase can start well before, during the time we call perimenopause. Hormone and ovarian function actually begin slowing down as early as age 30 for some women, with most noticing changes by the time they reach mid-40's. Full menopause arrives on average somewhere between the ages of 45 and 55, with 80% of women ceasing to menstruate by age 54.
Truth: Keeping in mind how long we live and the vital roles that many women currently play in their mid-50's, it's hard to equate menopause with 'old!' Yes, our menses may 'pause,' but there's still a lot of life to be lived.
2) Menopause is an illness: We have come far enough that most women today recognize that menopause is a natural phase of life, that on some level, hormonal shifts are normal. But as perimenopausal symptoms strike for the first time -- especially the hot flashes, mood swing and insomnia -- some women are surprised by how out of control they feel. Even though they know it's coming, they feel "uh-oh, something is changing and will never be the same." The anticipated change is unsettling. Its arrival brings anxiety -- for some, irrational dread. When deep in the throes of hormonal flux, many women say they don't feel like themselves, as if an alien has taken over their bodies. If they isolate themselves or don't talk about what they experience, some say they feel as if they are going crazy. "She's losing her mind," some mates or children say about their moms, since few truly understand what causes the changes they see. Unlike other more predictable times in our lives, the symptoms of menopause are varied and each woman's experience may be somewhat unique.
Truth: Menopause temporarily makes women hyper-aware that their bodies are undergoing change, which leads to strong reactions, both physically and emotionally. But all women undergo these changes. They are a natural part of every woman's life. Menopause is not an illness.
3) Once you hit menopause, "it's all downhill from there." There are some things that clearly decline during menopause -- estrogen, menstrual flow, egg production and vaginal lubrication. But it's misleading to believe it all goes downhill. For many women, the lack of menstruation or the need for birth control is experienced as a relief, even liberation. While the transition through menopause can lead to ups and downs for an average of 3-7 years (which may seem like an eternity, especially during the down times), when it's over we are in for a smoother ride. Many of the annoying menopausal symptoms disappear and we gradually find a new equilibrium.
Truth: You may be in for a bumpy ride as you head through menopause, but it's not all downhill from there. As we come out the other side, we have years ahead that some say are the best ones yet.
4) Complaining about menopause doesn't help: While complaining about our discomforts may not stop our menopausal symptoms, sharing what we feel goes a long way in making women feel less alone. Your doctor, female friends and family members -- especially those who have gone through menopause themselves -- can help demystify this phase of life. They may offer suggestions about how to manage. Remember, as adolescents, most of us had a 'talk' about the onset of menstruation and entrance into puberty, a discussion that helped us understand that transition. Some of us had that 'first talk' with our moms, while others had it with our peers. We grow up learning we can speak openly about our periods, their flow and discomfort. We buy feminine products that help us get through it with no shame or secrecy about it all. It's time we had the second talk and change the way we view menopause.
Truth: Talking about your menopausal experiences and hearing what other women say about theirs is not complaining. It's sharing. Read, talk and blog about it and you'll feel less alone. You'll feel better.
World Menopause Day is a good time to start to learn the truth about this natural phase of life and find out that it isn't all that we feared it would be. Share a story about your menopause experience in the comments section and join me in undoing the myths.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.