Written by Bonny Osterhage
After more than a year of social distancing and isolation due to the pandemic, our world has slowly and cautiously been reopening. People are traveling more, working in offices again, gathering in larger numbers, and enjoying long overdue visits with family and friends. So, if the world can start to resemble its pre-pandemic self, then why can’t we? Maybe because months of isolation have had some serious mental and physical effects on all of us, resulting in an uptick of depressed moods, anxiety, stress, insomnia, and weight gain, to name a few.
Although these symptoms may be new to some people, they are all too familiar to perimenopausal and menopausal women already struggling to stay afloat in the mental and physical sea of changes that occur with hormone fluctuations and aging. COVID isolation only exacerbated these issues for many women, forcing them to adapt to their preexisting menopausal conditions while simultaneously trying to adjust to life changes during and after quarantine.
That can feel like a lot to handle, but there are ways to navigate these “new normals,” and return to feeling more like your pre-COVID self. It starts with understanding that, although menopause itself may feel isolating, you are not alone as you maneuver life after lockdown.
“COVID and all that has surrounded us this year has magnified everything about our lives and put us face to face with our fears and losses,” says Theresa Moore, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Professional Counselor, adding that we are all in this together. “No, we are not all going through menopause, yet we are all struggling with the changes triggered by the surprises of the past couple of years.”
Managing Your Mental Health
In a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association1, it was determined that “depression symptom prevalence was more than three-fold higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before.” Dr. Ken Duckworth, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School in Boston and chief medical officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAIMI) identifies isolation as a major contributing cause to the rise in mental health issues, saying that humans are designed to be social. In a report from NBC News 2 he states, “Human connections are anti-depressants; they are anti-anxiety interventions.”
Moore agrees, adding that the pandemic has made people more sensitive emotionally, as well as more irritable, fatigued, anxious, tentative, and lonely.
“Many have a sense of helplessness and hopelessness because there are so many situations out of our control,” she offers. “Depression is a result when we don’t feel like we have solutions.”
Women in stages of menopause have gotten a double whammy during the pandemic, because they may have already been experiencing those feelings as they watched their bodies change. Without permission or control, their bodies were beginning to change in ways that could make them feel anxious, less desirable, less relevant, and, in a word, isolated. The way our society views menopause and female aging doesn’t help.
“Puberty is a right-of-passage into adulthood,” describes Moore, adding that it is something society honors. “Menopause is an equally important and honorable developmental phase, but culturally we do not treat it as such. [Women] reach 45-50-years-old and believe that we are ‘over the hill,’ or moving into obsolescence.”
Understanding that these feelings of anxiety and depressed mood are not unusual, especially in menopause, is the first step to returning to post-COVID society.
"Acceptance and self-care are the keys to navigating both the hormonal and emotional changes taking place in your body [during menopause]," says Moore. "You have to accept your body and the changes as part of the natural order of things. Are they inconvenient? Hell, yes! Are they a tragedy? No.”
That mindset is not always as easy as to put into practice as it sounds, especially with the extenuating circumstances surrounding the past couple of years. If “snapping out of it,” seems impossible, that’s where a professional can help.
“When your feelings become your single focus, disrupt your daily routines, or keep you from engaging in your relationships, then it becomes time to seek help,” cautions Moore. “Professionals are trained in their areas of expertise to help you process and address what you are not trained to do alone.”
Moore recommends talking to a professional who specializes in whole health.
"Physical therapists, massage therapists, physicians, and many alternative practices for health are highly recommended both during menopause and high-stress times," she says. "We have more choices available to us and our overall health than any past generation."
Taking Back Your Body
Why is the whole-body health approach so important? Because the symptoms brought about by menopause and compounded by COVID isolation go hand in hand. The better you feel mentally and physically, the more you will want to take care of your body. The more you take care of your body, the better you will feel mentally and physically. Case and point? Diet and exercise.
Blame the “menopause middle,” the “COVID 15,” or a combination of both, but weight gain during isolation was real for many women thanks to things like stress-eating (or drinking) and a more sedentary lifestyle. That extra weight can add to feelings of sluggishness and depressed mood and, even with gyms and fitness centers re-opening, it may be harder to find the motivation to move.
“With fatigue and depression, it can make it hard to get started, but one of the best things women can do for their mood and their weight is to get some exercise,” advises Dr. Alex Runnels, OBGYN. “Walking is a great and easy way to get started.”
Another option is to hire a personal trainer to help you ease back in and make sure that you are working out safely and effectively. A trainer also adds a level of accountability and support that can keep you going on the days you aren’t feeling motivated.
As important as it is, exercising is only half the battle. The other half happens in the kitchen. Not only is proper nutrition important for your physical health but making sure you are getting the right amount of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need can also help your moods.
“The majority of serotonin is made in our gut,3 so gut health is essential to our mental health,” says Gabrielle Brick, a holistic nutrition specialist.
Eating a clean, whole food, or plant-based diet is a good place to start. Avoiding things like processed foods, sugar, caffeine and alcohol is another.
“Caffeine and alcohol keep you in a high cortisol output,” explains Brick. “Cortisol is one of the biggest factors in hormone imbalances, low libido, and lack of real energy.” Larger amounts of caffeine and alcohol have also been known to exacerbate some menopausal symptoms, like hot flashes, and sleep disruption, so moderating your intake may be beneficial for easing these as well.
Consider supplements to help fill in the gaps in your diet. Vitamin B, Magnesium, and probiotics can help manage disruptive menopause symptoms like low energy levels, moodiness, and digestive issues. If you aren’t sure where to start, a nutritionist can help.
“Look for someone who truly understands your nutritional needs,” advises Brick. “That means understanding bio-individuality, bio-chemistry, and how food actually responds within the body.”
Handling Your Hormones
Along with diet and exercise, handling your hormones during menopause is an important part of feeling more like your old self. Night sweats that disrupt sleep, hot flashes that make you avoid socializing, low libido or vaginal dryness that make you avoid intimacy—these can all take a toll on your well-being. These symptoms can also be exacerbated by the stress experienced during a pandemic situation. There is no need to suffer in silence or resign yourself to a one-size-fits-all treatment. Options such as prescription creams, vaginal moisturizers or dietary supplements are all viable options that can help manage hormone imbalances and the symptoms that come along with them.
“Hormone replacement can be what helps [menopausal] women get over the hump of depression or recharges their libidos to get them moving and feeling sexy again,” says Runnels. She cautions that women should always consult a healthcare provider and discuss symptoms to determine the appropriate course of action.
For women who prefer a natural approach, there are hormone-free supplements on the market today that can address menopause related issues, helping to balancing mood, enhance sexual satisfaction, and restore confidence.
Saying Yes to Self-Care
Returning to the post-COVID world is challenging under the best of circumstances, so if you have the added issues and symptoms associated with menopause, be patient with yourself. Practice self-care, whether that’s a long, hot bath, a massage, meditation, or curling up with a good book. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it and remember that this won’t last forever.
“Be thoughtful and understanding of what is changing and the havoc it is creating [in your life], and ask others for patience and grace,” advises Moore. “This too shall pass.”