The Myths and Realities of Menopause

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It is a matter of good fortune that so many women reach the age of menopause today. History speaks so little of the phenomenon because so few females lived long enough to reach that stage of human development.

An expanded life expectancy, and the natural changes that accompany a woman's passage through adulthood, have not been greeted with the wisdom and understanding necessary to enjoy the fruits of longevity. Unfortunately, many myths surround the subject of menopause. They are often the source of dreadful anguish and unjustified fear.

Menopause is not the beginning of the end. Too many women believe it is an affliction, and too many physicians treat it as a disease. In reality, it is neither.

Because menopause comes at a time when many other negative factors converge in a woman's life, the change is often misidentified as the cause of physical and mental debilitation rather than as a coincidental occurrence.

Menopause usually begins at a time when the average woman's children are leaving home. Also, her parents are likely to be afflicted with illnesses. Her husband may near the end of his productive work life and may be facing retirement. Many other personal and social crises may also be erupting in her life.

The widowed female is beset by similar feelings: despondent because of limited choices and hounded by anxious visions of aging and physical debilitation.

For the single woman who has never married, there are the self-torturing thoughts of an unfulfilled existence. She has not borne children; she is suddenly confronted with the specter of aloneness and fear of the future.

Middle age is also the period during which a lifetime of poor health habits begins to manifest itself in various degenerative diseases.

These are the cumulative events that lead to severely stressful bouts of depression and apprehension, not from menopause but from ordinary self-neglect.

The myth that menopause drives women crazy, that it is a period of mental degeneration, can usually be disproven by a review of the individual's prior history. The depression of menopause is usually an extension of depression from earlier days.

Restructuring one's lifestyle is often necessary and laborious at this stage of life. A wife may have to reconcile herself to a husband's loss of virility in addition to the extra duties thrust upon her by his retirement.

The inevitable change in appearance for some women is a reality difficult to accept gracefully. Because of our society's overemphasis on youth, and advertisers' constant din portraying the ceaseless energy of the young, the menopausal woman becomes ultrasensitive about her changing womanhood.

For women in the lower economic classes, dealing with the natural changes of menopause is especially severe. The female from the more privileged classes has a larger variety of options. She can develop a second career; may choose to participate in volunteer work, social organizations, or hobbies; or may wish to expand her cultural interests.

The poorly educated low-income woman, however, may not have this flexibility. Often she finds herself overwhelmed by dwindling financial resources and must continue to seek employment opportunities that dwindle because she cannot provide the high level of energy required for physical labor, or she must capitalize upon her femininity, which might have served her well in the past.

For many women, the feeling of becoming defeminized is another source of distress. Some women experience a lessening of sexual interest. Well-entrenched myths only serve to agitate her: that menopause is a liberation and that feminine sexual desires may soar without concerns about conception. The reality is that with Nature withdrawing from the reproductive game, some women do lose their drive and others retain the sensitivity and find surcease from menstruation a great relief.

Because of the hormonal changes that take place during a woman's menopausal years, some women experience physical distress such as hot flashes and varying degrees of trepidation because of sudden temperature escalation. Estrogen levels diminish, other hormonal increments are flowing through the body, the equilibrium maintained through so many years is suddenly jolted. All of these revolutionary processes are expected and do not constitute illness. To view them otherwise is to add fuel to anxiety.

The pangs of menopause that some women suffer may be experiences limited to civilized societies. In many cultures, where older women are highly respected when the reproductive cycle terminates, fears and frights that haunt women of our culture are conspicuously absent.

Katrina Dalton writes in her book The Menstrual Cycle:

"It is only the faculty of childbearing which is lost at the change of life. The femininity, sexuality, and attractiveness remain. To a woman in good health, physically and mentally, there is no reason any longer to fear what out grandmother's called 'the difficult age.' It is a time when there may be renewed vigor and when sex can be enjoyed without the ever-present fear of conception."

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