Some people know they have menopause anxiety. Others describe different problems, like brain fog or insomnia, self doubt, loss of self, inadequacy. (I’ve had them ALL!).
However, when it boils down to it, anything problematic in your thinking and behaviour that’s not related to a physical symptom will have its roots in menopausal anxiety. (In fact, even some of those physical symptoms, including hot flushes and loss of libido can be exacerbated by menopausal anxiety).
So, hang tight, here’s my top seven red flags:
- Poor concentration
You used to be so good at focus. Even under pressure, you could be relied on to stay calm, and come up with a plan of action (usually a pretty good one). You were the every-day equivalent of the fire officer evacuating a smoke-filled building. People trusted your judgement and your ability to come up with a quick solution or a concise and relevant contribution in any situation.Whether you were in a meeting, part of a project or just organising the family, you never doubted your ability. You were never someone who couldn’t cope, no matter what the crisis.Till now.Now, moments of clarity are coming fewer and further between. The words and ideas that used to come so readily are in some distant part of your brain that you don’t seem to have access to anymore. It’s as if you’ve lost the keys and forgotten the password, with no idea how to find them. Plus, there is no ‘forgot your password’ reset tool.At best, you find your mind wandering to something totally unrelated to the situation or circumstance, or re-reading the same paragraph 10 times over, with no greater recollection or understanding than the first time.At worst, you lose your train of thought completely in a critical situation. Everyone’s looking to you for direction and self doubt starts to creep in. “Can I do this anymore?” “Am I losing it?” Worse still, you think other people are thinking those same things too.
- Going over (and over!) things that you can’t change
This can follow on easily from the first red flag.Maybe you simply can’t stop going over a situation where you lost concentration and couldn’t come up with the required answer or solution on the spot. Maybe something went wrong as a result of it, or an opportunity was missed. Or maybe you just relive the embarrassment of not being your usual sharp self. Maybe, there’s an image stuck in your mind of someone’s expression or eye roll as you flounder and fluster. Maybe it’s a response to some event outside of your control completely, whether at home or at work.Yet you keep replaying your regret or (self-diagnosed) ineptitude, wishing things had been different. Each mental replay leaves you feeling more helpless, ashamed, guilty, embarrassed or hopeless than the last.If only you could go back and change it.You know that thinking like this is unhelpful, but you can’t stop it. It’s like an old recording stuck in the groove and on seemingly endless repeat. What makes it even worse is that the more you worry about one situation, the more likely it is that you’ll repeat the cycle in another.Again. And again.
- Expecting the worst
This builds on the second red flag.Before certain events, projects, conversations or situations, you’ve already anticipated the worst-case outcome.
You wouldn’t normally profess to be clairvoyant. Yet you find yourself arguing the toss vehemently (either inside your own head or with someone else) that it will all go horribly wrong. You are absolutely certain that it (whatever it is) will go badly.
From presentations and talks to conversations, report writing, client or employer feedback, there’s no end to the things you feel you can confidently predict will go wrong. It’s one of the few things you ARE confident about these days.
A key cause of overwhelm is red flags two and three (they come in pairs).Your mind cannot distinguish between an event actually happening or you thinking about it happening. Or should I say, thinking about how it would feel if it happened or did feel when it happened in the past.
Imagine that the first time you have one of those negative thoughts, a little red flag is hoisted in the primitive part of your mind (the amygdala) that manages fight, flight or freeze responses and that negative experience is filed. Then, every time, you re-experience the event just by thinking about it, another red flag experience is filed. Imagine this like a leaky roof filling a bucket placed on the floor.
Each new red flag thought or experience is another drip into the bucket. Pretty soon, the bucket starts to fill.Imagine, also, that the availability of space in the bucket represents the amount of clear space you have for allocating thinking resource. Your pre-frontal cortex, which is the problem solving, logical part of your mind, only has limited capacity. (You may be astonished to know it can only handle five plus or minus two things at any one time, unless you’re autistic, and no matter what you tell yourself about your multi-tasking capability).
The more that bucket fills with negative thoughts, the less space exists for clarity of thought. This is what we experience as overwhelm.
It’s not just red flags one and two that fill your bucket either.
It’s all those lists of things you tell yourself you should do or must do (especially the one’s you don’t get round to); it’s all the small decisions you defer (like opening or responding to that email or letter); it’s all the things you procrastinate over (like investing in that coaching course, applying for that job, joining that gym, starting that diet); it’s all those small things that bother you (like being late for an appointment, getting stuck in a traffic jam or forgetting to put the bins out); and so on.
This build-up of seemingly insignificant ‘stresses’ can contribute to your overwhelm as easily as any sequence of big and obviously stressful events, like bereavement, divorce or illness. The good news is, you can change the way you think and feel about them.
Overthinking is a close friend of procrastination and can quickly lead to overwhelm too(Flag 4).The more you procrastinate and push decisions into the future, the more frequently you challenge your mind to consider the exact same set of circumstances. Like an endless Groundhog day.In short, if you don’t deal with a decision-making thought immediately, it hangs around like a delinquent teenager on a street corner. It’s waiting for a decision from you before it moves on. Until then, it’s taking up valuable space in your bucket.
You may be waiting for some perfect moment or some missing piece of a jigsaw to arrive. If you just defer long enough, you figure it might just show up. At least that’s how you might try to rationalise it on the occasions when you actively challenge your own procrastination.
What’s really happening is that you’re challenging your conscious mind to come up with a fresh solution, based on the same information and following the same thought process. You’re adding to overwhelm and keeping the bucket topped up every time you re-consider the same old piece of information in the same old way.It’s a bit like being indecisive about which chocolate to choose from the box. No amount of re-reading the ‘menu’ will make you any better informed. You simply have to dive in and choose one, or give it away – if the box is going to be emptied.
(You might think you can’t give away thoughts, but, strangely, you can. It might be that you procrastinate over something because you’re not really the best person for the job. You’ve just decided you are the only person for the job, and you could be wrong).
This is the one where you start to think you have early-onset dementia.I know I did.You forget appointments even if they’re in your diary, your Google calendar and you have reminders emailed. It’s not just the trivial stuff or things you’d rather forget either. It’s important stuff too. You miss get-togethers with friends, hair appointments and vital client meetings.You used to think you were articulate. Now you can’t remember seemingly simple vocabulary. Mid-sentence you grasp for the word and can’t find it.Things that used to be funny aren’t anymore. Now it’s just scary. Like those random occasions when you put the milk in the cupboard instead of the fridge. Or you go to a room and have absolutely no idea why. Or you find yourself in the car and, for a moment, you can’t remember where you’re going. Things like that start to happen a lot. You Google signs of dementia and don’t find a definitive answer.You might question what I’m about to say, but if you’ve had the early onset dementia checked out, then that forgetfulness comes from the same place as the overwhelm and the loss of concentration.
It’s just another red flag feature of menopause anxiety.
You used to be good fun to be around.Now you sometimes feel – and look – like you want to rip someone’s head off. Maybe they said the wrong thing at the wrong time, maybe they don’t get the job done to your standard (you might as well do it yourself). Maybe they just say the wrong thing in the wrong tone of voice or look at you in the wrong way. Maybe they say nothing instead of something.Or you get resentful that people don’t read your mind and do what you expect them to do. After all, it’s obviously what any reasonable person would do. Isn’t it?
You can find yourself shouting one moment, in tears the next. No-one knows where they stand or what to do, least of all you. The thing is, it isn’t the real you. You just can’t stop it.
To make matters worse, it’s the kind of behaviour that fills you with recrimination and guilt. Which leads to more stress in that already overloaded bucket.
The good news?
It’s possible to improve menopause anxiety, by using simple strategies for changing the way you think about ordinary stress. This prevents the excess build-up of stress and kick-starts positive neural pathways that will get you out of the mire – and keep you out of it.
You can improve the way you feel and the way you function now, without waiting for menopause to end. And why wouldn’t you? Especially since there’s no guarantee that these symptoms will automatically expire with the end of menopause either!
The doubly good news?
What you achieve on the other side of these new strategies is not just a return to the status quo, but an elevation above it, an improvement in the calm and confident way you think and live. You won’t be heading back any time soon.