Mood swings, short-term memory loss, and difficulty thinking straight are common complaints from midlife women. However, while many of these symptoms are attributed to menopause, there are other contributing factors to consider as well.
Hormones: During reproductive years, most women become accustomed to their own hormonal rhythm. When this rhythm is disrupted during perimenopause, mood changes may result.
Timing: The timing of menopause may coincide with a multitude of midlife stresses like relationship issues, divorce or widowhood, care of young children, struggles with adolescents, return of grown children to the home, being childless, concerns about aging parents and caregiving responsibilities, as well as career and education issues.
Aging: Getting older in a society that values youth can be very demoralizing. Midlife women often experience changes in self-esteem and body image. Women may begin to consider their own mortality and dwell on the meaning or purpose of their lives.
Although achieving optimal mental and physical health requires individualized solutions, the following suggestions have been helpful for many women.
Create balance: When dividing time between work obligations and caring for family, women need to remember that taking care of their own needs is equally important. With the onset of new tensions, recognizing a problem can lead to understanding its causes and developing new coping mechanisms. Keeping a balance between self, family, friends, and work allows women to meet new challenges and maintain self-confidence.
Evaluate levels of depression: Women who have previously been diagnosed with depression when they were younger are vulnerable to recurrent depression during perimenopause. Women suffering from depression (which is associated with a chemical imbalance in the brain) report symptoms of prolonged tiredness, loss of interest in normal activities, weight loss, sadness, or irritability. Treatments range from herbal remedies such as St. John's wort for mild to moderate depression to prescription medications or talk therapy for various levels of depression.
Assess anxiety level: Physical and psychological changes as well as other midlife stressors can result in increased anxiety. Feelings of anticipation, dread, or fear are common and usually resolve without treatment. Frequent episodes of anxiety may be a warning sign of panic disorder. "Panic attack" symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, heart palpitations, or feelings of "going crazy" or feeling out of control. Sometimes the unsettling feelings that precede a hot flash can mimic or trigger such an attack. Treatments include relaxation or stress reduction techniques, counseling or psychotherapy, and/or prescription drugs.
Mind your memory: Many perimenopausal women report difficulty concentrating or short-term memory problems. These difficulties often frighten women, who may think they have early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. While this is rarely the case, studies suggest that remaining physically, socially, and mentally active may help prevent memory loss.
Seek support: Don't try to diagnose and treat yourself; you shouldn't feel embarrassed about reaching out for help. By evaluating symptoms as well as personal and family history, the appropriate health professional can provide expert relief recommendations. Remember, medication for depression is most effective when used in combination with counseling or psychotherapy.
Adopting appropriate strategies can help you achieve a happier, healthier future. For more information, visit The North American Menopause Society at menopause.org.