Not so fast. In fact, what I think you think, may not be what you think at all. In other words, personal attitudes about menopause and its symptoms could be shaping how well or poorly it’s experienced. And this experience may be based in beliefs, moods and perceptions, not reality.
According to research, many women say that menopause makes them feel “stupid, embarrassed, incompetant, unattractive, etc.”
However, more importantly, these women believe that others have the same thoughts about them, which researchers say are likely to influence the types of strategies women use to manage their symptoms, strategies that range from “keeping up appearances” to avoiding social situations altogether.
When I read this, I started to wonder if menopausal women are actually stacking the deck against themselves and contributing to societal attitudes about aging and menopause. What’s more, do women misperceive how younger adults feel when they start flashing around them?
To answer these questions, researchers polled 290 young men and women between the ages of 25 and 45. Almost two thirds were female. The questionnaire was geared towards answer the following:
- How are hot flash symptoms, namely redness and sweating, perceived when they occur?
- What types of beliefs exist around menopause?
- Is there any relationship between age, gender and perception about menopause?
Importantly, over half of those polled attributed a red face to emotions, e.g., embarrassment, anger or stress. However, while younger women tended to attribute redness to an increase in body temperature, younger men tended to believe that redness was related to physical exertion. Similar responses were provided for sweating, with women attributing sweating to a health problem and men, to environmental temperature. Hormonal factors and menopause were reported by less than half (41%) of men and women polled.
Also important was the fact that overwhelmingly, both men and women indicated that they felt empathy or neutral about symptoms and not at all uncomfortable, and almost all (97%) would inquire if a woman was feeling well or ill.
These responses truly suggest that menopausal women tend to overestimate the extent to which others are able to judge their menopausal status. Moreover, young men and women tend to empathize and show concern and compassion, emotions that are inconsistent with expectations that others will react negatively to a public hot flash or associated redness. Even more important, age did not appear to influence general beliefs about menopause, which researchers suggest implies that “the experience of menopause, or seeking information about menopause in mid life, might lead to more neutral or positive beliefs.”
So, what does this all mean? Granted, the sample in this study was primarily female and self selecting, meaning that they chose to participate or not. Therefore, it is possible that these findings do not accurately reflect the views of a broader population, especially men. However, the researchers do point out that they attempted to find participants from a variety of occupations that were more specific to setting where women might report a higher degree of social embarassment.
Nevertheless, what these findings do suggest is that real life might actually contradict how women feel others feel about their menopause, and that reactions might actually be tempered or non-existant in social settings. This should encourage a broader population of menopausal women to overcome their fear of embarrassment or to no longer resign themselves to “coping” but rather, empower them to take charge. On a larger level, they also show that there’s a need to step up and negate stimatizing or negative views of menopause, even amongst ourselves. This can be achieved through sharing of experiences, not only with similarly aged women but also, with younger women and men who can gain a lot of life experience at a considerably younger age.
The next time you start flashing in public and looking around to see who’s staring, just remember that it may be you, not them. And your ‘tude will truly rule the day (and those flashes), if you let it.
What an interesting area of research. You know, I haven't thought about it consciously before, but I do believe that how we approach menopause makes a difference not only for our own experience, but also serves to educate and as an example to our younger sisters and brothers of authentic aging as opposed to the cultural messages they swim in. I actually do experience flashing as a kind of power surge rather than embarrassment, and it's not something I taught myself, it's just my physical experience. I know a flash is coming because I get a fleeting sensation of less air to breath and my immediate feeling is "get out of my way." I don't get rude, but it brings my drive to the surface. Then in the same sense that I peel layers to cool off, the flash is like a thinning of anything that isn't me. My core thought for those moments is self-care, which isn't a bad reminder in the middle of a hectic day. (Of course, in the middle of the night it feels like a plague -- different story there, but that's not the context of your fine post!)
Carol. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. This is not the first piece of research to serve up this hypothesis but it speaks rather loudly. Perhaps as we work to change the atmosphere around us, we also need to work to change the atmosphere within. It's a difficult task, particularly in the midst of a night sweat (!) but it is a goal to work towards.