Warning: this may be a difficult read…
Is menopause a trauma or a trigger?
We know the Medusa myth: don’t look her straight in the eyes or you’ll turn to stone.
So it is with trauma. Our organism says no to processing trauma all at once, because it’s too overwhelming. Instead it deals with it a little at a time.
But if the mechanism of unwrapping and processing gets stuck, we can store it away in bits of our brain, and in our physical body, then put control mechanisms in place to enable ourselves to get on with life. But those control mechanisms get weakened by the challenge that hormonal changes of peri-menopause place on us physically, mentally and emotionally.
During peri-menopause it may not be the time to choose to face and deal with old trauma. So we need to protect ourselves from these triggers. But, if we do become triggered, it’s essential to seek help to manage the resurgence of trauma. Whether you are on HRT or not, it’s important to get skilled therapeutic help. (This is why I have a section on trauma-sensitive teaching in my Yoga Teacher Training: because a yoga teacher is not trained in dealing with trauma, so she/he must understand how to avoid triggering, and help any student (especially when they are in less robust life-phases) by teaching in specific trauma-sensitive ways.)
What is Trauma?
The Cambridge English Dictionary describes (non-physical) trauma as:
“Severe emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience”
It’s can be something that makes us feel helpless, overwhelmed and unsafe in our body. Post-traumatic stress is when this reaction carries on for a prolonged time after the experience, and the intensity of the initial moment can be triggered at any time. Then we can add a feeling that we are out of control.
How we respond to a traumatic event can influence how we recover from it. For instance if we cry, yell, shake etc, instead of tensing up and “holding it in” trauma is less likely to stay lodged in our muscle memory, and in the areas of our brain more prone to stimulus.
Most of us have experienced some kind of trauma.
It doesn’t have to be direct trauma to you. Even hearing about or witnessing something like the sudden death of a family member or friend, or the serious illness of a loved one is considered to have the potential to be experienced as trauma in your body. Many of us will have experienced physical trauma, an accident, serious illness, or injury. Even if we haven’t experienced a dramatic trauma, many small repeated things may have made us tighten up.
We’re more likely to hold trauma in our body if we resist our natural reaction. For example, if instead of making a stressor stop, or instead of letting our body react in that moment, we give confusing signals to our body, that can linger as tension in our tissues (like perhaps when there is pain during sex (even though it’s in adulthood, and consensual), but we don’t want to “ruin the moment”, or as a child wanting to cry or shake when you’re afraid, but instead being told to “get a grip”).
One of the ways we deal with trauma is denial. Another way is to become very head-oriented. In other words we detach ourselves from the pain and uncomfortable emotions which manifest as sensations in our body.
Here’s where menopause comes in.
In the years when we have the levels of oestrogen and progesterone associated with the menstrual years, we have what you might consider the gift of their buffering us against the effects of physical, mental and emotional stress. They are hormones which are necessary for the procreation of the species. But they don’t just set us up physically to make another human. They also ensure we mind that human, and have help minding it, for the many years until it is independent.
How do these hormones do this?
Oestrogen is partly responsible for the creation of maternal feelings.
Oestrogen gives us energy.
Oestrogen gives us the desire, and ability to bond with a mate.
Progesterone calms us.
I could go on. But you get the picture: The effects of our sex hormones serves to make life much smoother than it might be without.
So, with regard to trauma, the downside of that smoothing, buffering effect can be that when oestrogen and progesterone are around, they also help us to feel less pain (both physically and emotionally), and it’s also a time when the human has more to juggle, “more important things to be getting on with”.
To make sure we get on with those things, we can be adept at hiding, denying, or pushing down feelings that are there, both for biological reasons, and of course, because society does not afford us the time nor the valuing of stopping, and noticing, addressing, and healing (but that’s a whole other discussion).
We all know that emotions have a physical reaction in our body, and our muscles respond to difficult (and delightful) events to create a signature of tension that is unique in each individual. We also know that just… stopping… or looking inward can be incredibly challenging. The picture of someone “keeping busy” to “get through” a period of grief, for instance, is one we all recognise.
So, in perimenopause our body is changing. One change is that it doesn’t recover so readily after effort. It’s demanding rest, and pause, and space. We can choose to listen to that demand, and rest, or we can choose to try to “keep busy” and “push through”.
If we don’t rest in perimenopause we run a higher risk of burnout and fatigue. If we choose to respond to our body’s changing needs, in that rest and slowing down, the body can start to relax. But, when we relax from the muscular tension our emotional life has created, and when we stop for perhaps the first time in our lives… uncomfortable feelings we have pushed down can begin to bubble up.
So, this is one way in which perimenopause can be a trigger for old traumas which we have side-lined to come to the fore.
But is menopause a trauma in itself?
We all know that when our body starts to experience perimenopause, we can be profoundly shocked at the realisation that we are not as invincible as we thought. I believe most of us, in our childhood and in our menstrual years, have a sense that women who are in menopause or old age, are simply, other. They are not us. Somehow we cannot see that they are us, 20, 40 years down the line. (I think this may be why it’s really difficult to get women in their 30s to listen to what they might be wise to put in place in preparation for menopause, but that’s yet another discussion!)
I think it’s fair to say that when we begin to experience fatigue, pain, anxiety, desolation, forgetfulness, and a sense that we are “going mad”, often for the first time in our life, that is potentially a trauma. Though menopause is not an illness, it’s an accepted fact that having a chronic illness with symptoms much like peri/menopause, can be a trauma. Add to this some of the varied griefs that may be present in a woman, for instance if she still has a deep desire to conceive and give birth, we can be forgiven for feeling deeply challenged.
Remember what I wrote about at the start of this article about the effects of trauma? It can make us feel helpless, overwhelmed and unsafe in our body, and when it lingers after the event, we feel out of control. Do those feelings remind you of anything? These are common feelings experienced by women in peri/menopause.
This is a time when the buffers of oestrogen and progesterone become thin, and we can feel like we are raw. And we are raw: exposed to the truth of all species. Because what we are facing now, is that we are not in control of the outcome for our bodies. Probably for the first time we are aware of (not just intellectually, but we feel it) the truth that we are mortal. We are awakening to the fact that death is there in all our futures. That sudden, more embodied awareness could indeed be experienced as a trauma.
So, I believe perimenopause and menopause can be both: a trigger of old trauma, and a trauma in itself.
What makes dealing with trauma different for a perimenopausal woman than a younger woman?
In perimenopause it can sometimes feel like we don’t get the choice whether or not to dive in and investigate, feel, and move through the trauma. Our struggles seem to rise up in our face and demand we look at them! Sometimes we simply don’t have the resources we used to, or the choice to say “not now, I will process you when I feel strong enough.”
Like with Medusa, when we decide we want to heal from trauma, we need to enter her cave with a shield, and carefully look around the edges at first. Perimenopause can leave us feeling out of control and without a shield. Because there can be so much change and struggle in menopause, we often focus on what’s wrong. We focus on Medusa.
But what’s the good news?
The good news is: you can choose your path.
You can choose to aim to focus on what’s right, or at least, on what’s ok, or on what’s possible…
You can choose many ways to re-build your shield.
Ways such as:
- seeking help from a trauma-informed therapist
- seeking relief via a trauma informed meditation teacher
- working on the physical manifestations and tensions with a menopause informed teacher of embodiment (yoga, dance meditation etc)
- supporting your body through nutrition, supplementation, medication, herbs etc.
- meeting yourself, with compassion, free of all misconceptions, as you are.
And the most important discussion is the one you have with yourself, where you let your body/heart/mind tell you what she truly needs, right now, and you respond.
- I hope that you choose to respond with patience.
- I hope you understand the delicate need of the human body to be trusted to express what it needs to express, when it feels able, and hold close the things it needs to protect.
- I hope you make yourself aware of all options, options for treatment, and options of mind-set, and that you can empower yourself by chosing help at this time in your life.
If you would like more help to identify some of the many, many ways that yoga for menopause can help, you can reach out to me with any questions, and for my professional help.
If you would like to join my Certificate in Teaching Yoga for the Stages of Menopause to learn how to support women in perimenopause and menopause, you will be welcome. (Also open to others who work in women’s health/wellness.)