You know what would be great? If we were given a birds-and-the-bees type talk on how to deal with menopause—before it actually happens. There’s often zero discussion about any of this. Basically, we’re left to figure out what’s happening in our bodies, why we’re feeling the way we’re feeling, and how to make it all more tolerable.
Plus, menopause coincides with a time of life that can be filled with so many other stressors. Work drama and family responsibilities are just two of the ingredients in this brimming pot. Add uncomfortable menopause symptoms to the mix and life can feel more than a little overwhelming.
Dealing with menopause is something we’re forced to take care of (often on our own) like an item on a to-do list:
Get groceries: check
Take out the trash: check
Deal with menopause: check
Knowing what to expect (and that you’re not alone) can go a long way.
What happens when you go through menopause?
Menopause is defined as the moment 12 months after you have your last period—but it’s far more useful to see it as a phase of life over a stretch of time.
Since puberty, your ovaries have been releasing an egg every month. If that egg gets fertilized, pregnancy happens. If it doesn’t, your body releases it in the form of your period. It’s a pretty remarkable system, really.
When you hit menopause, your ovaries stop producing eggs and the hormones that made the whole process possible (estrogen and progesterone)—but this doesn’t happen overnight.
This is, broadly speaking, how it goes:
What are the stages of menopause?
While it’s less of a straight line and more of a squiggle, menopause can be loosely divided into three stages:
STAGE 1: Perimenopause. Your body is gearing up for the change. This phase can last a year or ten. It usually starts in your 40s but can start way before this. The symptoms can range from non-existent to severe. So, if you’re catching our drift here, there are just so many ways to go through this thing. Even your hormones don’t follow the most obvious route downwards. For example, you may have surges of estrogen before it starts dipping. The best thing to do over this phase? Be kind to yourself. Take it one breath at a time. Seek support when you need it.
STAGE 2: Menopause. This is when you stop ovulating for good. It’s defined as the moment 12 months after your last period because the transition over to this side of the border can take a bit of time. Once you haven’t had a period for 12 months, you can’t get pregnant any more—and yes, you can say goodbye to birth control. (Just double-check with your doctor first.)
STAGE 3: Post-menopause. This is the name we give to the time after menopause has taken place. Symptoms may start to ease at this point. And guess what? No more periods. For many women, that’s really, really nice.
How long does menopause last?
Getting from the start of perimenopause to post-menopause can take anywhere from a few months to many, many years. The average time to experience symptoms? 4.5 years.
But the spectrum is vast.
For some women, it can go on for as long as 10 years. About 15% of women have no symptoms at all.
How does menopause affect your body?
It’s hard to tell beforehand if you’ll have pretty mild or really severe menopausal symptoms—as well as what symptoms you might experience.
Some common ones include:
- Hot flashes
- Irregular periods
- Really heavy periods
- Longer periods
- Pee problems (as in, who knows when you might leak?)
- Night sweats
- Bone loss
- Tingles and dizziness
- Vaginal dryness
- Mood changes
- Dry skin
- Digestive issues
- Sore or tender breasts
- Trouble sleeping
Menopause and depression
Mental health and menopause are a tricky pairing. Your body is going through a whole lot that can contribute to shifts in mood. Changes in hormones can have you screaming at hold music one moment and crying over a cereal ad the next.
But it’s not only hormones.
This phase of life also coincides with all sorts of work and home pressures that can leave you feeling overwhelmed.
And then there’s also the issue of grief—about getting older, about not having children, about not having more than one child… It’s the end of an era, and that can come with a sense of loss.
Listen to us when we say: you are allowed to feel whatever you are feeling. Talking to a counselor can help you make sense of the complexity of all this.
If you need help right away, here’s a link to various helplines throughout the world. There is support available. You are not alone.