Sleepless nights. Sudden temperature spikes and night sweats. Fluctuating moods. Brain fog. Sudden hair loss (head). Sudden hair growth (face). Dry skin, leaky bladder, pain during intercourse.
This litany of symptoms may sound like the signs of a mysterious and slightly terrifying disease, but they’re actually all possible side effects of a normal, natural life transition: menopause.
Menopause is an inevitable part of life for women — or, more precisely, people with ovaries — but chances are, many clients who show up to counseling know little about it. “The Change,” as it is sometimes called, isn’t taught in sex education classes and is rarely brought up by doctors. Even friends don’t always tell other friends about it. Unprepared for this disruption that usually coincides with a life stage already known as a major time of transition, clients may turn to counselors for help navigating this natural biological process.
Understanding the process
Therein lies the first lesson: Menopause is part of a process. Menopause refers to a specific point 12 months after a person’s last menstrual cycle. Perimenopause, which can begin up to 10 years before menopause, is the transitional time during which most menopausal symptoms occur. Perimenopause usually begins in a person’s 40s but can start as early as a person’s mid- to late 30s.
“During these years, most women will notice early menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disturbance, heart palpitations, poor memory and concentration, vaginal dryness and … depression,” says American Counseling Association member Laura Choate, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who has written extensively about issues that affect women and girls.
According to the National Institutes of Health, other perimenopausal symptoms include irregular menstrual periods, incontinence, general moodiness and loss of sex drive. Some people also experience aches and pains and weight gain, particularly in the abdominal area, although experts are unsure whether these effects are tied directly to perimenopause or are instead caused by aging.
LPC Stacey Greer, whose practice specialties include assisting clients with issues related to perimenopause/menopause, says that many clients show up to her office because they’ve been feeling “off” or “not like themselves.” Some of these clients may even have received a perimenopause diagnosis, but most still are unaware of the symptoms and don’t understand the process, she says.
Both Greer and Choate believe that knowing what to expect in perimenopause can in itself ease some of the discomfort of the transition. Choate notes that for those who are unaware of the signs of perimenopause, many of the symptoms can be alarming. Some clients’ symptoms may be mild, but for others, they are severe and can significantly interfere with clients’ functioning and quality of life, Choate says. She adds that symptoms usually peak about a year before the last menstrual period and begin to ease significantly in the second year of postmenopause.
Is it hot in here?
Knowing what to expect from perimenopause is all well and good, but in this case, forewarned doesn’t mean forearmed. Clients still have to live through the symptoms.
Counselors can help with that. Greer says that charting is an excellent tool. She gives clients a chart listing perimenopausal symptoms and asks them to note all the ones that they experience over the course of a month. This allows her to identify and focus on a client’s specific problems.
Hot flashes, night sweats and trouble sleeping are some of the most common complaints. Choate says research has shown that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help with hot flashes and night sweats. She recommends the techniques contained in Managing Hot Flushes With Group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: An Evidence-Based Treatment Manual for Health Professionals by Myra Hunter and Melanie Smith. The book highlights the importance of identifying and reframing thoughts that occur during a hot flash.
When hit with a hot flash, instead of thinking, “Not other one!” or “I am going to pass out” or “This will never end,” clients can tell themselves, “It will pass” or “Menopause is a normal part of life” or “The flashes will gradually go away over time,” Choate explains.
“In addition to changing self-talk, it is helpful to have an attitude of calm acceptance, mindfully accepting the hot flash instead of trying to push it away or become upset by it,” she says. “There is evidence that mindful acceptance and allowing the flash to ‘fall over you’ helps women cope more effectively. Also, using paced breathing to elicit the relaxation response helps women cope as they focus on their slowed breathing instead of the discomfort that accompanies a hot flash.”
Many people also experience problems sleeping during perimenopause. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), this is not only because of nighttime hot flashes but because of decreasing levels of progesterone, which promotes sleep. The NSF recommends the following for menopause-related sleep problems:
- Stay cool. Keep a bowl of ice water and a washcloth near the bed for quick cool-offs when awakened by a hot flash. Also maintain a cool, comfortable bedroom temperature (ideally between 60 and 67 degrees), and keep the room well ventilated.
- Choose the right bedding. Skip thick, heavy comforters and fleece sheets and go for bedding made from lighter materials, such as breathable and fast-drying cotton. This prevents overheating.
- Eat soy. Eating soy products such as tofu, soy milk and soybeans may help combat dropping estrogen levels. Soy products contain phytoestrogens, which have weak, estrogen-like effects that may ease hot flashes.
- Consider a natural remedy. Natural hot-flash helpers include botanicals such as evening primrose and black cohosh. Make sure that clients consult a physician before taking these or any other supplements because they are not regulated and may interfere with other medications.
- Try acupuncture. This ancient Chinese remedy uses tiny needles to unblock energy points in the body and may help balance hormone levels to ease hot flashes and trigger the release of more endorphins to offset mood swings.
- Balance hormones. Clients should consult a physician for sleep problems that last for more than a few weeks. A physician might recommend hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which helps stabilize decreasing hormone levels and lessen the severity of hot flashes. Other medication options such as low-dose antidepressants and even some blood pressure drugs have also been shown to alleviate menopausal symptoms.
Good sleep hygiene habits are also important. The NSF recommends the following:
- Get earplugs or a sound conditioner to maintain a quiet environment. Extraneous noise in the bedroom can disrupt sleep.
- Keep overhead lights and lamps in the home dim (or turn off as many as possible) in the 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed.
- Position the alarm clock so that it’s difficult to see from bed. Watching the seconds and minutes of a clock tick on and on while trying to fall asleep can increase stress levels, making it harder to get back to sleep when awakened.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day — even on the weekends — reinforces the natural sleep-wake cycle in the body.
- Develop a bedtime routine. Running through the same set of habits at night helps the body recognize that it is time to unwind.
- Stay away from stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine at night. Avoid drinking tea or coffee, eating chocolate or using anything containing tobacco or nicotine for four to six hours before bedtime. Alcohol can also disrupt sleep, so avoid more than a single glass of liquor, beer or wine in the evening.
- Get regular exercise, but not too close to bedtime.
Greer also recommends relaxation techniques. She works with clients to help them focus on the things they can control and let go of the things they cannot control.
Many people find significant relief from hot flashes, sleep problems and mood disturbances by taking HRT or antidepressants, but clients often need help sorting through their options, Greer says. It’s not uncommon for clients to come to counseling with a whole sheaf of information from their OB-GYN, much of which can be difficult to understand. Greer helps clients navigate the material and identify any follow-up questions they have for their physicians. “This can help them feel more empowered and have a voice in their treatment,” she says.
“Speaking to a trusted medical and mental health professional is important at this time,” says Joanna Ford, an LPC whose practice specialties include assisting clients with issues related to menopause and perimenopause. If her clients don’t already have a physician, she suggests that they ask family members and friends or even consult social media for recommendations. In fact, some of Ford’s clients have created circles on social media that offer recommendations on physicians and treating menstrual issues.
Choate, who is currently writing a book on depression in women across the life span, says that depression is a common perimenopausal symptom. “There is an increase in depressive symptoms, first-time episodes of major depressive disorder (MDD) and … risk of recurrence of MDD in women who have a history of MDD,” she says. “Symptoms of depression occur at a 40 percent greater rate [among perimenopausal women] than in the general population, and the prevalence of depression increases 2-14 times in women during perimenopause versus the premenopausal years.”
Interestingly, perimenopausal depression presents slightly differently than depression as defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In perimenopausal depression, clients are more likely to be irritable or hostile, have mood lability or anhedonia, and have a less depressed mood than is commonly seen in MDD, Choate explains. “Therefore, without a predominantly depressed mood, depression during the transition can be overlooked or misdiagnosed,” she says.
“Counselors can help women focus on self-compassion and self-care during this time, as studies show that there is an increase in negative life events for midlife women compared to other times in their lives,” Choate continues. “This could include children leaving home, caring for aging parents, the death of parents, personal illness, divorce or separation, [and] loss of social or financial support. With the increase in stressful life events, paired with the biological changes of perimenopause, women are more likely to experience distress.”
But all hope is not lost, Choate says. “I think it is helpful to be aware of studies that indicate that while women do experience a decrease in their mental health during these years, recent longitudinal studies show that depressive symptoms decrease as women age out of the perimenopausal years and enter their late 50s, 60s and 70s,” she says. “It is helpful to view this time as a window of vulnerability that does dissipate as women age and as they learn to view mid- to later life as a time of renewal and vitality.”
Sense of self and sexuality
It is not uncommon to feel grief about the menopausal transition. Greer says that some of her clients describe feeling “old” and struggle with their identity as women. “I try to help them work through the grieving process and work toward an acceptance of what is happening to their body,” she says. “It [the transition] does not change who they are, just how they see themselves.”
It isn’t difficult to understand why perimenopausal women feel old. As Choate notes, in Western cultures, youth is viewed as highly desirable, particularly for women, who continually receive the message that signs of aging should be avoided and obscured as much — and as long — as possible.
“The anti-aging industry is designed to perpetuate the myth of eternal beauty — that women can and should maintain a youthful, thin appearance regardless of their age,” Choate says. “The myth implies that women should exert the energy needed to conceal signs of aging, and if they don’t, then they are to blame.”
Women are socialized to prevent or repair skin changes such as wrinkling, sagging and age spots, all of which are natural signs of the aging process. Thinning and graying hair and weight gain are other results of aging that are considered undesirable, Choate notes.
Women “are taught that as they lose their youth, they will also lose their physical beauty, their sexual appeal, their fertility and their overall use to society,” she says. “In contrast, in cultures in which older age is revered, women report fewer symptoms during the menopausal transition. Cross-cultural studies show us that when older women are valued for their wisdom and contributions, they have more positive expectations about aging and menopause, and they also experience few menopausal symptoms. The message from these cross-cultural studies is that when women welcome aging as a natural process, not a disease, and accept naturally occurring changes to their weight, shape and appearance, they are less likely to experience negative symptoms associated with menopause.”
Women may know all of this intellectually, but the societal message is hard to ignore: Youth = beauty = power. Even women who habitually kept these weapons sheathed may feel the shift as they enter the perimenopausal transition.
“Body issues are important to address during this transition time,” emphasizes Ford, a member of ACA. “Aging is part of every life. The culture that we are surrounded by may impact our image of ourselves and our self-value. If we can increase our awareness about how we speak to ourselves about our bodies, it is possible we can accept the changes instead of fighting them.
“People may feel invisible before entering perimenopause, and it can increase feelings of depression and isolation. It is imperative to find a support system that encourages an individual’s values based on a variety of things, such as personal interests, skills, spiritual or religious beliefs, occupation, artistic or creative pursuits or any topic people can connect through.”
Body image issues can become part and parcel of the sexual changes that accompany perimenopause. “Menopause is reached upon the cessation of a woman’s menstrual cycles for 12 consecutive months. This means that menopause culminates in the loss of fertility,” Choate says. “For many women, this is a difficult role transition, particularly if they have based their identity upon a youthful appearance, which is often associated with fertility. For other women, the end of the childbearing years is a welcome change, as they become free from monthly menstrual cycles and also gain freedom from the need for birth control and other pregnancy concerns. They may experience negative biological sexual changes but may be more motivated to seek treatment for these changes as they begin to explore their sexuality apart from its association with childbearing.”
“Women often report a decrease in libido during this time,” Choate continues. “Some of this is due to physical factors — pain during intercourse, vaginal dryness — and some is due to psychological factors, including poor body image, beliefs and expectations about aging and sexuality, stress, fatigue from night sweats, and sleep disruption.”
Estrogen replacement therapies can help with many of the physical factors, but addressing the psychological factors is equally important.
“CBT is also helpful in examining a woman’s expectations for menopause, aging and her sexuality now that her sexuality is no longer linked to fertility and youth,” Choate says. “She might need to change her beliefs about women and aging, viewing menopause as a natural process that occurs to all women but does not indicate a disease, nor does it necessitate a view of herself as an aging, asexual woman. She might benefit from discussing her concerns with her partner to clear up any miscommunication about her partner’s expectations or attitudes toward the changes that are occurring in her body.”
It is essential — but sometimes difficult — to talk about those negative biological sexual changes, Ford notes. “Testosterone and estrogen levels are decreasing at this time and can lead to a change in libido or discomfort during intercourse,” she explains. “I do think people have to ‘re-envision’ their sexuality because hormonal changes are always happening.”
Of course, sex does not mean just intercourse, Ford continues. Embracing different ways of sexual expression can be helpful if intercourse becomes painful. People for whom intercourse is painful may also want to consult their physicians about lubrication or hormonal therapies, she says, adding that she recommends clients read The V Book: A Doctor’s Guide to Complete Vulvovaginal Health by Elizabeth G. Stewart and Paula Spencer.
Ultimately, counselors can help clients see not just the losses associated with menopause but also the opportunities.
“Now that you are entering a new life stage, what new opportunities do you want to seek out for yourself?” Choate asks. “What can you explore and enjoy during this next life phase? Research shows that while women do experience increased unhappiness during their early 50s, longitudinal studies show that they are happier than ever in their mid-50s and into their 70s and benefit from decreased caregiving and work responsibilities in their later years.”
Greer reassures clients that even though the menopausal process may sometimes seem as if it will go on forever, the stage is temporary. “There is life after menopause,” she emphasizes.
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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