Menopause: What’s it Good For?

The Possibility of Reinvention

Women have an inherent passage at mid-life that is often the harbinger of reinvention: menopause. It is through this biological, social and neurological stage of development that many women redefine their identity, reorganize their priorities and become
powerful creators in the world. Because women now have many more years to live and to adjust their lives going forward, in menopause, they often first reevaluate and
consider the path they have trod. Then, with new insight and understanding of themselves and fueled by physical changes, including adjustment of hormones that affect mood and behavior, they embark on a new era of generativity.

Christiane Northrup puts it this way in her seminal work, The Wisdom of Menopause, “Throughout most of human history, the vast majority of women died before menopause; for those who survived, menopause was experienced as a signpost of an imminent and inevitable physical decline. But today, with a woman’s life expectancy averaging between seventy-eight and eighty-four years, it is reasonable to expect that she will not only live thirty to forty years beyond menopause, but be vibrant, sharp and influential as well.”

The Brain Re-Wired
Part of what happens in menopause is a powerful rewiring of the brain and nervous system. For many women focus shifts away from child bearing, from care-giving, and begins to bend towards their own, perhaps long buried, longings, dreams and interests. Northrop puts it this way, “Research into the physiological changes taking place in the perimenopausal woman is revealing that, in addition to the hormonal shift that means an end to childbearing, our bodies – and specifically, our nervous system – are being, quite literally, rewired…menopause is an exciting developmental stage – one that, when participated in consciously, holds enormous promise for transforming and healing our bodies, minds and spirits at the deepest levels.”

Regret as Fuel for the Journey
Many women describe menopause as a time of regret. Youth and vitality seem to be slipping away. Choices made have foreclosed many others: The education not pursued, the relationship lost or damaged, the journeys not taken. There are so many things we haven’t done, or said or experienced. But, regret can serve as both a road map for the second half of life as well as the fuel to move us forward.

The trick in using regret as fuel, rather than allowing it to depress us, is to grieve the past, forgive the younger you who did the best she knew how, and then reclaim or discover for the first time what is meaningful, what you are passionate about, what feels like adventure and challenge, and how you can re-jigger your life to include those.

Look for next week’s blog when we will continue to explore reinvention in the second half of life.

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Why a Broken Heart Feels Like a Punch in the Gut and What to Do About It

Everyone has been there. A relationship ends, whether through divorce, death, distance or calculated decision, and we are in pain. It hurts. We feel as if our heart was being ruthlessly squeezed and our guts twisted and flayed. Or, there is a sense of stabbing pain in the chest or stomach. And, if we didn’t know better we’d think we were coming down with something, because our whole body hurts, and all we want to do is lie down. This is heartbreak.

A broken heart, feeling hurt by rejection or lovesick for someone out of reach, have long been considered simply metaphors. But today researchers are beginning to discover that physical and emotional pain look an awful lot alike neurologically. It seems our brain doesn’t know the difference between an actual stab in the back or a symbolic one. The same areas of the brain “light up” when we experience both physical and emotional pain.

There also seem to be specific areas of the body connected to specific kinds of emotional pain. And as you might imagine the heart is where we feel the loss of a loved one most severely. The opposite is also true. When we are in the presence of a safe, nurturing loved one, the heart and chest are more relaxed, and breathing and heart rate are slowed, in what is called vagal-parasympathetic activation.  It is the feeling of well-being and comfort we experience when we are with those we love.

So what do we do when we face the inevitable heartache? Here are some simple guidelines to help you through the pain.

1. Be gentle with yourself. Accept that you may need extra sleep, support and nourishing food during this time

2. Get more social support. We are wired for connection with others. Find safe, nurturing people to help you through. Don’t isolate yourself.

3. Let yourself feel it. Some experts believe that if we do not express our painful emotions they may permanently affect our physiology and lead to chronic pain or other physical dysfunction. Journaling, talking to a safe person, counseling, support groups, art, music or physical endeavors may be ways to express and process your feelings. Remember that the only way out of grief is through it. Imagine a tunnel, in the middle it is dark, scary and lonely, but there is light ahead, and if you just keep moving you will reach it.

Winterspring Center for Loss and Grief

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Top Ten Reasons Why Trying to Solve Other People’s Problems is a Bad Idea

1. We don’t really know what is best for someone else. Often a person’s greatest growth comes from struggle and pain. If we fix things for those we love, we rob them of the opportunity to meet life’s difficulties and learn from them.

2. We don’t have control. Trying to fix other’s problems means we focus our energies on people and situations that we have little, if any, control over. We really only have control over our own choices and reactions.

3. They will become dependent. If we are successful in solving our loved one’s problems, we teach them to count on us, instead of themselves. We cripple them with the belief that they can’t do it on their own. They may come back again and again asking for, and then even demanding help.

4. They will resent us. Most adults resent being told how to live their lives. They may rebel, or become passive aggressive to avoid our suggestions, prodding, hints or overt demands.

5. It’s exhausting. Trying to run someone else’s life drains the energy we need to live our own life to the fullest. If we are always scheming and planning and manipulating to get people to do things the way we see fit, there is very little juice left for our own hopes, dreams and ambitions.

6. It makes us mean. The strain of trying to keep everything together for everyone eventually leaks out of us as anger and resentment. We may become reactive and say and do unreasonable things.

7. It takes a toll on our health. Trying to control others is extremely stressful and too much stress negatively affects many aspects of health and well-being.

8. Insomnia. Poor sleep is a common symptom of over-involvement in the lives of others.

9. We attract “users”. Those of us who come to care-taking and controlling naturally often attract people who can spot our soft hearts and ability to solve problems. These folks take advantage of us through manipulation, malingering and feigned helplessness.

10. It undermines equality in relationships. The person in control and the person they are trying to help are not on equal footing in the relationship. This is often a barrier to true intimacy.

Here is an anonymous poem that reminds us to let go…

Let Go

To let go does not mean to stop
caring. It means I can’t do it for
someone else.

To let go is not to cut myself
off, it’s the realization I can’t
control another.

To let go is not to enable, but
to allow learning from natural
consequences.

To let go is to admit
powerlessness,
which means the outcome
is not in my hands.

To let go is not to try to
change or blame another, it’s to
make the most of myself.

To let go is not to care for,
but to care about.

To let go is not to fix, but to
be supportive.

To let go is not to judge, but
to allow another to be a human being.

To let go is not to be in the
middle arranging all the outcomes,
but to allow others to affect their own destinies.

To let go is not to be
protective, it’s to permit another to
face reality.

To let go is not to criticize or
regulate anyone, but to try to become
what I dream I can be.

To let go is to fear less and to
LOVE MORE.

For help with codependency check out Al-Anon Family Groups or read Melody Beattie’s book, Codependent No More.

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Women and Conflict: How the Female Brain is Wired to Respond

There was a time when the struggle for equality between the sexes meant minimizing or even denying differences between men and women. We gave our boys baby dolls and our girls fire trucks, and believed that male and female traits were primarily learned, and we could change behavior and thought by changing the environment.

Current brain research, however, tells a different story. Yes, men and women are alike in many ways, but we also have many significant differences. How we navigate conflict is one area where we diverge.

For men, the reaction to conflict is likely to be fight or flight, and for many years this was the response expected for all human beings. But, it turns out, only men’s responses were being studied, and when scientists looked at the responses of women to stress and conflict, they found another pattern.

Women often respond with what is known as tend and befriend behaviors. They work hard to maintain social connections and keep the peace. This might involve staying silent about a problem or concern or serving as mediator. The payoff, if she is successful, is a flood of feel-good neurochemicals that create a sense of well-being as well as stronger bonds of friendship and family. Connecting with others and smoothing over conflict makes most women feel great.

On the other hand, when a woman is unable to keep the peace and stay connected, she may experience the equivalent of withdrawal from the feel-good neurochemicals, as well as an influx of cortisol, the stress hormone. Louann Brizendine, MD in her book The Female Brain describes the phenomenon this way, “When a relationship is threatened or lost, the bottom drops out of the level of some of the female brain neurochemicals – such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin (the bonding hormone) – and the stress hormone cortisol takes over. A woman starts feeling anxious, bereft, and fearful of being rejected and left alone. Soon she begins to jones for that good intimacy drug, oxytocin.”

So, what does this mean for women’s relationships and well-being?

1. Awareness is power. If we understand what is happening in the brain when conflict takes place we can make better decisions. Even though smoothing things over may be our inclination, it may not always be the best choice. We can learn to set boundaries and stand up for ourselves when appropriate.

2. Stop blaming yourself for avoiding conflict. If you are female, this trait is your evolutionary heritage. Our ancestors passed on these tendencies because they worked to keep us and our children safer and happier and that is still often true today.

3. Spend time with other women. Time spent with supportive women with whom we can share our lives, our worries and fears, as well as joys and successes, releases oxytocin and helps alleviate depression and anxiety. It’s chemistry!

4. Accept that the men in your life will respond differently to conflict. Men who choose non-violence often need to retreat from conflict before they can talk about the problem or work towards a solution. This is the chemistry of their brain in action. Pushing a man to connect and communicate when his brain is screaming at him to fight or run will usually backfire.

5. Learn more by reading Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain. Learn about men and women in conflict and how differences play out by reading work by Sue Johnson, MD. Her book Hold Me Tight describes the dysfunctional dynamics that can take place between men and women in conflict as well as solutions to these difficulties.

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Saved by a Poem?

It is one of the moments I cherish most. Somehow, through the magic of our interaction, my client has come upon an insight, a truth, a new perspective or even perhaps, a grief, long buried. As I watch this unfold, tears often come, we breathe together and the weight of new understanding begins to settle.

In the ebbing of those moments, I am often compelled to pull out a file I keep near my chair, marked simply, “Poetry”. I open the file, choose a short poem that suits the client’s circumstances and depth of experience and ask permission to read it aloud. I read. We breathe together again. Tears may come again. And, whatever understanding the client just gained sinks down deeper.

So yes, I do think poems can help save us.

I know a poem is special when it gives me a certain feeling of both of anticipation and satisfaction in my gut when I read it out loud. Out loud is definitely best. The rhythm of the words and the feel of them on your tongue add to the experience.

Many people think they don’t like poetry because when they hear the word they think of dusty old rhyming couplets. But even those folks can be touched by words that reflect their own lived experience.

Writing poetry is also a way to be saved. During years of trauma and struggle and in the aftermath of these times, I have used the writing of poetry to heal. Finding the words to create something of beauty and meaning out of a painful situation, out of loss, has been transformative. Sharing those words with a few beloved ones gives witness to both my suffering and my ability to transcend it.

Here is an example of a favorite poems I often share:

The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

To find poems you like try Poemhunter or Poetry for Grateful Living.

For help getting started writing poetry consider these books:

Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making (available used)
By: John Fox

Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words
By: Kim Rosen

The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
By: Julia Cameron

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Letters You Will Never Send: The Art of Journaling for Self-Awareness and Healing

When many people think of writing, they unfortunately often think of their dreaded high school English class or the research paper they suffered through in college.

But, what if writing can be used to transform your life? What if writing can heal?

Journaling is effective, low cost and efficient. It is a way to understand yourself, a way to hold a conversation with yourself, a way to gain clarity and a way to work through grief, set goals and access your creative nature. Here are four journaling strategies to change your life:

1. Write a letter you will never send. Letter writing has long been used in counseling as a way to say the things you have never said to those who have hurt you. Use your journal to write a letter to a parent, a lover, a sibling, an abuser, and say everything you have ever wanted to say. Don’t edit yourself. This letter is not meant to be sent, instead it is meant to help you release long-held anger, grief, fear and sadness.

After you write the letter, you may choose to read it to a safe person who can witness your experience and feelings. Or, you may decide to burn it, rip it to shreds or plant it in the ground with a new tree or rose bush sending its roots down through your words, allowing the pain in your letter to be transformed into beauty.

2. Ask the kid. Another technique helps us get in touch with the child part of ourselves. It works like this: Using your dominate hand, write a question, you think your child-self might have insight about. Use your non-dominate hand to write a response. For more information about this kind of journaling check out the work of Lucia Capacchione.

3. Get to sleep. When you wake up at two in morning with your mind in a swirl and anxiety clutching your gut, use journaling to do a data dump. Keep a pad and pen by the bed, turn on a soft light and spill out everything you are thinking. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation, or if any of it makes sense. Just dump it on the page. There is something almost magical about externalizing your fears. Try it. It works.

4. Rev up creativity. In Julia Camaron’s book, The Artist’s Way, she recommends a simple strategy to help increase creativity and reduce blocks. The process includes three, long-hand pages of writing every morning. Julia says these pages can or even should be whiny and full of mundane concerns. They are not literature. I used this process for several years myself and found it to be every bit as helpful as Camaron claims. Hear her talk about this process.

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Can We Give Up Grief?

When I was 26, my mother died. It was a difficult death. She suffered and longed to leave, but lingered, in pain and semi-consciousness.

My last act as a daughter was to give her sips of water and promise to miss her…and to finish my education. I have accomplished both. The education part came in starts and spurts, with long breaks in between, when my resolve waned. But eventually, I ended up with two master’s degrees. The missing her, however, has been near constant.

We are often taught that the pain of losing someone eventually dissolves, and all we are left with is memories, devoid of sadness or longing. But the truth is we are forever changed by significant loss, and the pain of that loss can revisit us again and again, albeit in more tempered doses.

For me, each phase of life has brought renewed awareness of my mother’s absence and pain in the realization of that void. When I got married, when I graduated from college, when I began a new career, I felt the loss again acutely. When I am struggling, confused or lonely, I long for her. But always, I am aware that I am motherless, and always, I miss her.

Grief is a reflection of how much we have loved. When we love deeply, the loss will stay with us, for the rest of our lives. This is not dysfunction, but a manifestation of our ability to bond with and love another.

Khalil Gibran expresses this idea with grace in his master work, The Prophet:

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

It is true that the intense, all-encompassing pain of grief does diminish with time when we allow ourselves to experience it rather than pushing it away. Eventually, grief’s physical symptoms (lack of energy, nausea, crying, lump in the throat, etc.), the inability to concentrate, the anger, (even rage sometimes), the guilt (often unjustified), the isolation, the hazy feeling of unreality, all these will fade and we will return our energies to life and other relationships.

But, there is no cure for grief. It is only converted from the acute to the chronic. And, it is really chronic love, manifesting as sorrow, which clings throughout the years. We have loved and so we mourn. We are human and so we grieve.

For more information about grief or to find support contact Winterspring Center for Loss and Grief.

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Do You Really Need Drugs to Treat Depression?

 

 

For the past 30 years whenever someone seems depressed, the answer has been an antidepressant.  Most people get this prescription from their doctor after a 15 minute assessment. 

But is that really the best approach?  Antidepressants often have unwanted side effects, are expensive and may even contribute to a life-long cycle of depression.   (See studies from the book, Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker for more information.)  So, what to do instead?  Here are five alternative strategies for easing depression.

1. Exercise. In double blind studies, patients who exercised regularly and took a placebo were compared to those who didn’t exercise and were given an antidepressant. Surprise! Those who exercised improved their mood significantly more than those taking the drug.

2. Take supplements. Many people are Vitamin D deficient. This can cause or worsen depression. Get a little (15 minutes is enough) sunlight on your skin a day, or take a supplement. Omega 3 fatty acids (the kind found in fish oil) have been shown to effectively treat depression. Read about it in this study, or in the book, The Omega 3 Connection, by Andrew Stoll, MD

3. Write. One study found that people who wrote about their troubles every day for three days felt better and shifted to a more positive perspective.

4. Change your thinking. We are taught that circumstances dictate mood. But the truth is, how we think about our situation is the more important than the situation itself. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes how even in a concentration camp, the way we think about our circumstances matters. He said, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”

5. Service. When we help others, our own problems fade into the background. Service offers meaning and purpose, as well as validation and connection.

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Finding a Meaningful Life

“The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Mahatma Gandi

I am always looking, along with my clients, for the choices that bring greater meaning and peace to life. Together we wrestle with the questions, “How can my life be meaningful?” And, “How can I balance freedom and responsibility?” Together we examine what adds meaning and what fuels despair, what brings a sense of peace and what tears at the soul with anxiety and angst.

From these explorations, here are a few ideas about what helps many of us create a more meaningful life:

• Staying present. When we habitually ruminate about the past, or worry about the future, we are unable to really experience our lives or our relationships. We are absent. Bringing ourselves back to the moment can be as simple as taking a breath and feeling our feet on the floor. Then, we can appreciate the beauty around us and our connection to other people.

• Shifting focus from self to others. When I sit down with a client and listen to their story, hear their pain and celebrate the positive changes in their lives, my own struggles and grief dissolves. In those moments, I am free. You do not have to be a therapist to claim the beauty of service to others. For example, clients have told me of their joy in caring for a grandchild, sponsoring a newcomer to AA, working at a food pantry or driving a neighbor to the grocery store. When we focus on the needs of another our own tribulations melt into the background. Careful though…this does not mean forcing our ideas or solutions on others or taking over their lives. True service happens with permission and gentleness.

• Remembering our connection to something greater. You do not need a religious faith, or even a belief in God to create a sense of connection with something beyond yourself. For many people this is found in a community where they are known and loved just as they are. For others it is experienced in the natural world. When these folks stand in the midst of a forest it brings an awareness of themselves as a part of nature, as part of life. Others find that groups such as AA or Al-Anon provide a “Higher Power”.

• Create beauty. The act of creating can bring great meaning. For many of us making a garden grow, painting a picture or writing a poem can provide a sense of transcendence. When I am writing, there are times when I feel a mysterious flow of energy moving through me that seems to aid the process. Words come, ideas bloom and I am outside time. It is beauty. It is meaning.

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Why See a Counselor?

Many people think that you have to be “crazy” or extremely dysfunctional to seek out the services of a mental health counselor.  The truth is that most people can benefit.  Here are some of the best reasons to see a counselor:

• Manage anxiety. Everyone experiences stress and anxiety. In therapy you can learn ways to reduce the potency of stressful experiences. This improves both your emotional well-being and physical health.

• Understand yourself. Sometimes our motivations and feelings can be mysterious. A skilled counselor can help you unearth the origins of your behaviors and emotions. Insight can lead to positive change.

• Gain clarity about your purpose. What do you want out of life? What is meaningful to you? How do you balance freedom and responsibility? Counseling can help you discover what is truly important and help you focus your energies towards those goals.

• Learn to grieve. Sadness is a normal part of the human experience. Counseling can help normalize your reactions to difficult events and losses and help you express and move through the darkness.

• Develop new skills. Counseling can help you learn more effective ways to communicate, to ask for what you need, express feelings and understand the feelings and needs of your family and friends. You can create self-care strategies that include self-compassion and self-forgiveness. In counseling you can learn what healthy boundaries look like and how to stand-up for yourself.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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