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Investing in emotional health at midlife
Discovering the art of letting go and feeling.
We all have defining moments in our lives. For me, it was the loss of my dad at 13.
I became hyper-vigilant of other’s needs while ignoring my own. As I became an adult, I thought I had tackled most of my stuff. But midlife has a way of shaking things up and showing you there’s more work to do.
I didn't realize I did this until my-new-at-the-time therapist asked: “Do you always do this?”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Anxiously focus on everyone else. What’s going on with you? How do you feel?”
I had been doing this so long it felt as natural as sipping water when you’re thirsty. And now that I know about it, I notice that I do it all the time.
The avoidance trap
As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I have learned a lot about how to handle anxiety.
The gold standard of treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is rooted in the relationship between thoughts and behavior. Reading Feeling Good by David Burns changed everything. I had a tremendous breakthrough when I understood that my baffling symptoms were related to my thoughts.
I thought anxious thoughts for years, and eventually it led to a panic attack. You see, the mind doesn’t understand the difference between what’s true or not. I didn't expect those negative events to occur, but my thoughts affected my body.
I also learned about exposure therapy, the key to tackling phobias. I used this to conquer my midlife driving anxiety with the help from the DARE program. This wasn’t so easy with my blood pressure phobia, but my knowledge helped me find a solution.
And then when reading It’s Not Always Depression by Hilary Jacobsen Hendel, I learned that anxiety is also an inhibitory emotion. That means that it blocks core emotions usually in an attempt to keep us connected to others.
And that is exactly what my therapist was trying to tell me. I conquered the panic attacks, high heart rate, and driving anxiety. But that low-level anxiety buzzing around me like an annoying fly was still there.
Emotional and physical health are intertwined
There is more awareness about emotional health these days, yet we still don’t always connect it to our physical health.
A growing area of research explores the link between childhood trauma and increased risk of chronic disease in adulthood. Having stressful events when our nervous system is still developing results in its over-activation, something referred to as a “biological embedding of childhood adversity” model. Also, the allostatic load of stress increases earlier than average, leaving some of us even more vulnerable in midlife.
In a 2020 study with 1670 midlife women (average age 54), 58.5% had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) and 17.2% had 4 more. As symptoms of menopause became more severe with each quartile, so did the number of ACEs in women. When compared to someone with no ACEs, the odds of having >4 ACEs was almost 10 times more likely in the highest quartile of symptoms. The researchers concluded:
The strong associations shown by our study highlight the importance of screening women with bothersome menopausal symptoms for ACEs, and offering appropriate management and counseling for the childhood adversity, when indicated.
For more on ACE scoring and the research go here.
There’s also something referred to as “little t” trauma. This is caused by repeated but smaller scale experiences during childhood that add up overtime. Even though they seem less of a big deal, they can also create stress, leading to avoidance behaviors. As Jonice Webb discusses in her book Running on Empty, “It’s hard to see that what’s NOT THERE can be more important than what IS there.”
Many of us simply never learned how to manage the range of emotions. Yet our emotions are part of who we are. So, when we spend a lot of our time denying them, we aren’t living authentically. And so, the shake-up at midlife forces women to meet these emotions head on for the first time. And the changes in our brain could help to push us in the right direction.
A better brain?
In her book, The Upgrade, Louann Brezendine makes the argument that the decrease in sex hormones in women’s brain at midlife, make it form new connections that have nothing to do with old hormonal drives that push women into the caretaker role.
Without these monthly hormonal fluctuations, she explains, women find it easier to be more direct and ask for what they want without worrying so much about others. They can focus and get more validation from within. A new world can open as midlife women experience calmness and clarity in this new normal brain.
The midlife brain is calmer, less neurotic, and able to handle situations better. There’s a new stability and ability to regulate emotions, which may take time to get to. But when you do, it’s rewarding and perhaps what brings more life satisfaction with age.
For her thesis, psychologist Hillary McBride interviewed midlife women who not only survived menopause but feel they did well with it. This subset of women found freedom in the process of menopause and aging.
“They saw it as an invitation to see the world a new way to see themselves a new way instead of something that needed to be fought,” she said. “That aging and the transition in the body feels like a spiritual pathway into more wisdom, more letting go, more agency, and more freedom”
Freedom is a word that comes up a lot and a good match for how many midlife women eventually feel.
Pain, the price of freedom
One of my favorite books of all time is the Untethered Soul from Michael Singer, and my favorite chapter is “Pain, the Price of Freedom.” He describes the avoidance of pain this way:
In truth, pain is the price of freedom. And the moment you are willing to pay that price, you will no longer be afraid. The moment you are not afraid of the pain, you’ll be able to face all of life’s situations without fear.
Now that I realize my low-level anxiety for others is one way I avoid feelings, I have to be brave enough to face them. First is letting go of trying to solve everyone else’s problems. And second, is to catch myself and ask what it is I’m feeling.
The feeling that I find most often is sadness. I feel sad that I lost my dad, and he never got to meet his grandchildren. I feel sad that no matter how great I parent, I can’t keep my kids from experiencing pain. I already feel sad about future losses. Sometimes I cry or talk to someone about it. But the amazing thing is the next day or two or three, I feel like this hibiscus in my garden.
And I think it’s helping my interactions with my own children. I’ve found that simply listening and hugging is the best medicine. They really don’t need me to fix anything.
And tuning into my own emotional needs is probably one of the best things I can do for my health. Perhaps my close-to-menopause brain is pushing me to do that. Ironic and true at the same time–what I thought was helping others was hurting me.
Don’t hesitate to get help
This is my story, but yours is likely much different. We all deserve to have resilient, emotional health at midlife, but many of us will need help.
Never before in history have we had such access to get help for our emotional needs. Sites like Better Help which allow for flexibility, shorter sessions, and the ability to talk to someone from the comfort of your own home. It also makes it easy to switch therapists to find one you really like.
I also think it’s a good idea to get acquainted with the different types of therapy and find someone who can help with your individual needs. Here’s a list from Psychology Today.
Midlife is a busy time, and adding one more thing can feel daunting. But if you have that nagging feeling that you need more emotional support or help, don’t hesitate. I'm glad I didn't.
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