Depression, as we all know, is a serious matter and can be life-threatening at it’s worst. This post is particularly geared towards women who have not experienced prior depression to any serious degree before, but are suddenly confronted with what seems like depression in menopause.
If you have a family history of depression, or have had a diagnosis of depression, and have been or are being treated for it, you need to use this post purely for insight! Some elements may still ring true for you, as you may find that the depression seems worse now in midlife.
Menopause and depression have common symptoms
If you’ve gone through menopause (or are still clutched in its greedy claws), you will be familiar with its many and varied symptoms. The hot flashes, night sweats, menopause belly, mood swings, disturbed sleep or insomnia, dry skin and hair, and dwindling interest in sex (to name but a few), are all too common and leave you feeling like you’ve lost the plot of your life!
On top of all that, you may have increased feelings of anxiety, you feel stressed out more often than not and are more irritable than usual.
Depression in menopause is often not easy to identify as the symptoms of depression and menopause are similar in many ways. These similar symptoms include sleep disturbances, irritability, lapse in concentration, fatigue, loss of confidence and feelings of anxiety. In this way, what you think are merely symptoms of menopause and something you just have to get through during this phase of your life, are actually symptoms of depression.
Research shows that women are in fact, often at increased risk of depression during midlife, and it is important to be able to tell the difference between depression and the “normal” symptoms of menopause.
Are you depressed, or is this “normal” menopause?
So, if the symptoms of menopause and depression are similar in many ways, how do you know if you are in fact depressed, or if you are experiencing symptoms of menopause which is not as serious?
Good question! There are however, some markers which would indicate that you are experiencing depression and not only symptoms of menopause.
Signs of midlife depression (or any depression, for that matter)
- Low mood which is consistent and lasts daily for over two weeks
- Feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness
- Extreme fatigue and loss of energy where you find it difficult some days to get out of bed
- Changes in your normal eating habits – mainly loss of appetite
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Disrupted sleep patterns which may include bad dreams or feelings of dread
- Lack of purpose in life where you feel that there is no direction in your life
- Either extreme irritability with those around you, or withdrawing from them
- Feeling like all the good days of your life are over and there is nothing good left
- Thoughts of suicide – feeling like it does not matter if you live or die
- Others have noticed your personality changes and hopeless state of mind
If you recognize yourself here, get help!
While we may all experience a few of these symptoms from time to time, we’re talking about enduring many or most of these symptoms over a prolonged period of time, with an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing several of the above symptoms, please, take action! No one should suffer like this! Arrange some counselling, either through a church (who often offer counselling services if you are strapped for cash), or through a licensed therapist who can help you navigate this challenge in your life.
At the very least, speak to a good and trusted friend or family member who can offer you support at this time. The worst thing you can do is to curl up into a little ball of hurt and not seek help!
You may need medication, at least for a while, and there is no shame in that. Other things which may help you to cope with depression is undertaking some life changes – start regular exercise, eat healthy, volunteer programs and look after your health.
Why do so many midlife women seem depressed? Does menopause cause depression?
There is no definite answer to this, but some research has indicated that women in midlife are at an increased risk of depression compared to women in other phases of life. A possible reason for this is a family history of depression, or prior personal episodes of depression. This is understandable as life transitions are always challenging to negotiate.
But what if you have never been depressed before, and there is no family history of depression? Where did this depression suddenly come from at this stage of your life?
Research suggests that the midlife phase of a woman’s life is one of the most challenging phases to be faced in her lifetime. The life stressors and role changes you will experience during midlife are significant, and the way that you negotiate this phase of your life willl have a profound impact on the quality of the rest of your life.
Life stressors in midlife women
Although every phase of life produces its own set of life stressors (life stressors are major life events which impact your life), the stressors in midlife women have significant impacts. You may experience these life stressors to varying degrees depending on your particular set of life circumstances during this life phase.
The onset of menopause
- Significant physical changes impact this life event, the most noticeable being the loss of menstrual periods. While this may be a cause of celebration for many women, others may experience a sense of loss of no longer being able to bear children. They may feel in a sense that they have lost their femininity, or even that they have lost their sense of purpose (motherhood).
- The various menopause symptoms also cause physical discomfort, much like younger women experiencing PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) with cramps, moodiness and backache. The menopausal woman has different aches and pains with their declining estrogen levels, even though they no longer experience period pains. They now have hot flashes, night sweats, loss of bone mineral density which can lead to osteoporosis, foot problems, thinning hair and general aches and pains.
- Of course, different women will experience different symptoms at different intensities, much like younger women experience PMS and childbirth at different levels of intensity!
The “Empty Nest”
After nurturing their children for many years, having them live at home and caring for them daily, it is often difficult when children grow up and leave home. you may experience sadness and loneliness, particularly if you have no life partner living with you, or if you are in a bad marriage which often becomes more apparent once the children leave home. You could well end up feeling like your life purpose is over.
The death of your parents
If your parents live to a ripe old age, you may well be going through your midlife phase when they pass on. Even though you are independent and have raised your own family and may not have even lived close to them, most people feel a significant loss when their parents pass on.
The death of your spouse
- You may face the loss of your spouse when you are going through midlife, especially if there have been health issues present. This is a devastating life change for anyone, even more so if you have spent most of your life with that person.
- Depending on your financial situation, and if there were any life insurance policies, you may then also face some financial difficulties. It may even be necessary for you to get a job even if you have not worked in years. This could prove difficult, depending on your skills and age, and this adds to your stress.
Divorce in midlife
- Many people may stay in an unhealthy marriage and never resolve their issues as they feel that they are “staying together for the children”. Some couples remain married for years, only to divorce in midlife after the children leave home.
- Often, midlife divorce turns out to be a great source of regret in later life. The “midlife crisis” period may lead you to feel that you will be happier without your spouse, or there may be a midlife fling with another individual on either side. You may just feel that you’re not happy right now, and that you deserve to live out your remaining years in happiness, feeling like the grass will be greener on the other side, away from your spouse.
- Regardless of whether you initiate the divorce or are opposed to it, the lifestyle changes you will experience are enormous and may lead to regret later. This will be the subject of a future post.
Change in your work life/retirement
You will retire during this phase of your life, depending on where you live and your country’s laws and expectations. If you have been employed all your life, perhaps have a high-level job, or you have put your whole life into your work, having to retire may leave you feeling unfulfilled, useless and depressed. You may be at loose ends with yourself, wondering how to fill up your days, especially if you are not involved with other hobbies, interests, clubs or charity/church work.
Role changes for midlife women
From young, childbearing womanhood to mature (non-childbearing) womanhood
- Your time to be a young, childbearing mommy has passed. You’ve been there, done that, and worn out the t-shirt! You may miss those days, or you may be glad they’re over. No more pregnancy, childbirth, sleepless nights (from babies and small children anyway), teething, nappies, school lunch making, mom’s taxi or childcare responsibilities.
- Depending on your state of mind, you may enjoy your new role free of childcare responsibilities, although, once a mother, always a mother! You are still there, ready to support and guide, but you no longer have the day-to-day “heavy lifting” duties of motherhood.
- Some women grieve the loss of their childbearing (fertile) years, fearing that they are no longer attractive, they’ve lost their femininity, and that the world is geared up to young, attractive women, and that there is no place for them. Feeling too much like this is more likely to lead you to depression.
Mother to grandmother
- You may become a grandmother in midlife, although many women become grandmothers much earlier than that. Although you will always be a mother, you are now a grandmother to your baby’s babies which is a different role for you.
- You can support your children through their parenting years (to the extent that they will allow), but the final responsibility for their children rests with them! They should be experiencing the sleepless nights, teething and anxieties related to parenting children just as you did with them.
Carer for your aging and ailing parents
- You may now find yourself taking decisions on behalf of your elderly parents and caring for them as they once did for you. The roles are now reversed, and you may need to assist them with their physical needs just as they did for you all those years ago.
- It is hard to watch your strong caregiver parent sometimes reduced to frailty and dependency due to illness or old age. They may need you to do embarrassing tasks for them like they did for you as a young child. such as taking them to the toilet, changing diapers and feeding them. This can be a very stressful time for both of you.
Caring for an entire family to caring only for you and your husband, or even living alone
- As your children grow up, they tend to spend less time at home with you, even if they are still officially living at home. They make plans with friends, come home late or even sleep out, and generally do their own thing. And then they move out.
- And you are no longer doing the things that you were doing for years. As their independence has grown and their lives have changed, so has yours whether you felt ready for it or not…
- No more large and noisy family dinners around the table, everyone talking and laughing, where you could not get a word in edge-ways. Now it’s quiet, only the two of you (or you may be alone), and this can feel quite lonely.
You can see that the life stressors and role changes that women face in midlife are significant, and can easily lead to feeling depressed and overwhelmed! You may also have the sense that “life has passed you by” and that all the good stuff is over.
Women in midlife clearly have more than enough to be depressed about, but you don’t have to stay in that space now that you realize that you are not crazy, and you are not alone! The things of old have passed away, you need to look forward and if you are unhappy with your life at the moment, do something about it if you can.
Let this be the “shake-up” you need to transform your life. Assess your life, do some things for yourself that you could not do whilst raising a family. Be careful of making decisions in haste though, as you don’t want to live with regret.
Look at the next blog post for some practical ways to shake up your life!
Have you experienced (increased) depression in menopause? Has it led to growth for you, or is it an ongoing struggle?