Defining Menopause with Powerful Metaphors
Metaphors are powerful. They often define our experience and the world around us. When it comes to midlife, we often compare it to the autumn season. Just like autumn, midlife is a transitional time.
As much as I love the summer, autumn has a special place in my heart — not only for the glorious and harmonious colors in Nature, but also for the slowing down in the pace of life as growth and expansion gradually gives way to quiet transformation and rest.
The changing colors of the leaves itself is a wonderful metaphor. I recently learned that there are actually four different primary pigments in trees, and as “daylight begins fading in autumn and the air cools, deciduous trees prepare for wintering and stop making food — an energy expenditure too metabolically expensive in the dearth of sunlight. Enzymes begin breaking down the decommissioned chlorophyll, allowing the other pigments that had been there invisibly all along to come aflame,” wrote Maria Popova in her blog post.
If we were to take the metaphor of autumn to the cellular level, I would say that midlife is a time when our “hidden” colors — diverse aspects of our true self, gradually come out, and contribute to the glorious palette in the world around us.
As we transition from youth to midlife and beyond, we slow down our pace to allow our body to rest after years of expansion. It doesn’t mean our life is shrinking or coming to a halt. It’s just changing its nature. Instead of going up and out, like spring buds and summer flowers, we shed what no longer serves us at this stage of life. We gather the fruits of our labor and quietly appreciate what we have achieved and contemplate the next phase:
Like fallen leaves, the wisdom we have gathered will go back to the earth to nourish the next cycle of life. 🍃🍂🍁
The cycle of life and death is vividly illustrated in this short film about mushrooms:
The Second Spring
While I like Autumn and the similarity between the transitions from summer to fall and the transitions we women experience in midlife, I love even more the metaphor used by Traditional Chinese Medicine to describe menopause — The Second Spring.
This metaphor conveys the potential hidden inside us, waiting to be unleashed. When we handle this very uncomfortable “crisis” with the proper care, we can live the second half of our lives with new growth and development. In fact, the two characters that make up the word “crisis” in Chinese literally mean danger+opportunity (危機). If we look closer, there may be opportunities within a stressful situation.
The Traditional Chinese Medicine’s approach to alleviating menopause symptoms is to start with the “kidneys.” The term “kidneys” actually encompass both the kidneys and the adrenal glands sitting on top of the kidneys. They are responsible for pumping out cortisol, an essential hormone that handles many of our bodily functions but is most known for its action in “fight-or-flight” situations. They are the glands that first respond to stress but also the first to suffer as a result of stress.
I think it’s brilliant to look at adrenal function as the starting point, as many women simply feel depleted after having taken care of everyone and everything around us, plus driving hard to build a career or business (or both) in the first half of our lives.
Western medicine currently does not acknowledge the concept of adrenal fatigue and calls it a “theory.” It distinguishes adrenal insufficiency from “adrenal fatigue” and warns that such a theory may prevent people from getting a “real” diagnosis of certain underlying conditions such as depression, sleep apnea, perimenopausal or menopausal “disorders.”
I find that many of the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause dovetail with the symptoms of the so-called adrenal fatigue — fatigue, multiple energy crashes during the day, brain fog, low mood, nervousness, trouble falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning. Other symptoms include salt and sugar cravings, and needing more and more stimulants like caffeine to get through the day.
Behind the Fatigue: Stress Overload
Of course, I’m not suggesting that you should randomly diagnose any of those symptoms by calling it adrenal fatigue. But the concept itself is useful in my view, in that we don’t have to wait until we completely crash and burn, or develop debilitating conditions before we do something about it.
A holistic approach is to look at the contributing factors behind the fatigue and the need to use stimulants in order to get through the day.
For most people, the top choice for stimulants is coffee. It can be a quick-and-dirty fix but it only helps temporarily. For some of us, an increased amount of caffeine stimulation can actually have the opposite effect. This is because an excess amount of caffeine makes the adrenal glands continually pump out more cortisol than normal. We may think that it helps us to get through the multiple stressful moments in a day. But this is making the adrenal glands work overtime and they gradually become less sensitive to stimulants.
So the more you consume caffeine, the less energized you’ll get. This actually happened to me in my early 20s, when I was first exposed to coffee and quickly became addicted to it. I literally fell asleep while I was drinking a mug of coffee during a lecture and was embarrassed when the professor called me out in front of a full lecture hall of students! Not fun. I didn’t learn my lesson and continued my coffee-drinking habit, consuming ever stronger brews over the years.
Of course, it’s important to note that the need for caffeine consumption was fueled by a tremendous amount of stress in my life. But I didn’t bother to examine my life and kept the steamboat rolling, full speed ahead. By my mid-30s, when I visited a TCM practitioner, I was told that my “kidneys” were weak. I had no idea that the Chinese medicine doctor was referring to my weak adrenals. I brushed it off and thought, “Kidneys? I don’t have any problems with my kidneys. What was he talking about?”
Lo and behold, a few years later, my body crashed and my hormonal imbalance led me to have a few gigantic fibroid tumors and ovarian cysts. None of these should be surprising from hind sight. That was a tough lesson to learn.
It should be quite intuitive for us to rest and relax after we have had a run with stressful periods. But — there’s always a but — the extreme demands of our modern life, coupled with the post-COVID collapse of the normalcy as we knew it, has made R&R even more of a luxury. So, more stimulants are needed to keep us going.
The reality is, unless we address the root issues behind our fatigue, our body will catch up on us.
- What can you “delete” from your life to free up more space for your self-care?
- How can you reduce the amount of decisions you have to make every day to reduce decision fatigue?
- Would it be acceptable to leave some tasks undone or done imperfectly?
- Are there tasks you can delegate to someone else?
- How can you support your body in a natural way, without constant consumption of stimulants?
- Lastly, are you willing to get the help and support that you sorely need?
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