October is World Menopause Month, with the theme this year being cognition and mood. Menopause is a natural stage in a woman’s life, which brings with it a whole host of physical and emotional side effects; but is rarely openly discussed. Here we look at the relationship between this change of life and mental health, and how it can have an impact on substance abuse and addiction.
Whilst there is no direct link between the biological factors involved in the menopause and addiction, it is a difficult time and many will use, or increase their use of, drugs and alcohol as a method to cope.
Not only are the symptoms often uncomfortable, but they can interfere with day-to-day living and have a serious impact on mental health. Early signs of perimenopause can include depression, anxiety, low energy, and mood swings, all due to a decline in hormones.
Constant tiredness, irritability, and lack of energy make it difficult to want to meet up with friends, go to the gym, or socialise at all. After surviving a day at work or having spent it dealing with household responsibilities; sometimes it seems the only option available is to crawl into bed to try and relieve the unexplainable aches in the muscles and joints, the never-ending fatigue, and not have to worry about coming across to anyone as being prickly or oversensitive.
Feelings and emotions surrounding negative changes in appearance, losing hair, gaining weight and adult acne are all in themselves depressing. Add on low self-esteem, diminishing confidence and the thought that the best years are past, it’s hardly surprising that some will want to shut themselves away.
Without a proper diagnosis, some women will find it tricky (if not impossible) to get the correct treatment. Stigma and silence surrounding menopause mean many women aren’t even aware of what is happening and the myriad of different ways it could be affecting their bodies.
The use of drugs and alcohol to self-medicate is common. Maybe it’s alcohol and sleeping tablets to overcome insomnia, slimming pills to reverse weight gain, opioid painkillers to numb the aches and pains, or benzodiazepine to relieve anxiety. Whatever it may be, the repeated or excessive use of a substance, using a drug that has not been prescribed for you; or not in the way it has been advised, is misuse and can lead to dependency and addiction.
Menopause is universally experienced by women. Generally associated with the ageing process, most will go through it between 45 – 55 years old, however, for some, it will be younger – in their 30’s and, in some cases, even their 20’s.
It occurs when the female body stops ovulating, periods cease, and there is a decline in hormones. This can cause a whole range of symptoms, with the most notable being hot flashes and mood swings.
Hormones; the increase (at puberty); and decline (during perimenopause and menopause) play a role in a person’s emotions, how we view ourselves and the world around us. This impacts every aspect of our life and our interactions – with family, friends, co-workers and even the people we meet on the street. Which can have a serious bearing on emotional health – causing or increasing anxiety and depressive disorders.
Starting anywhere up to 10 years before the menopause is a stage called the perimenopause which can last from a few months to a few years, during this time a woman will experience some (or all) of the symptoms and continue to get her periods, though these may change slightly – becoming irregular, heavier, or lighter.
There are thought to be over 30 different symptoms associated with perimenopause and the menopause, and every woman will feel different.
Some of the physical ones include –
• Hot flushes
• Weight gain
• Difficulty sleeping
• Headaches and migraines
• Aching in the muscles and joints
• Reduced sex drive
• Dry and itchy skin
• Hair loss
Psychological effects such as –
• Mood swings
• Low self-esteem
• Memory problems
• Trouble concentrating
• Brain fog
These symptoms can last for years as the body adjusts to the hormonal changes that are occurring. They can be physically and emotionally distressing and uncomfortable. If an individual isn’t aware of what is happening to them, they don’t always receive the treatment and care they need and at times will turn to substances to self-medicate.
Alcohol is the most misused drug worldwide, and the non-medical use of both – prescription medication and illegal drugs is on the rise in the over 50s.
In some cases, health care professionals are prescribing potentially addictive prescription medication such as sedatives, tranquillizers, and opioid painkillers, when hormone treatment would be a better option – or certainly one to be used in conjunction with lower doses of antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.
In many cases, the drugs are obtained illicitly. Alcohol is freely available at any supermarket, corner store or off-licence. However, access is gained, using a substance to change the way you feel can have life-altering and even deadly consequences.
Long-term and repeated use of a drug or alcohol is habit-forming, and individuals can become both physically and psychologically dependent. Once addiction has taken hold, an addict will go to any length to be able to obtain and use their drug of choice.
Whilst addiction chooses its victims indiscriminately, there are some commonalities noted in female users, both in their experiences and motivations for use.
• Women are quicker to develop from misuse to addiction.
• Women are more likely to be using to manage stress or trauma.
• Women are quicker to suffer serious health complications.
• Women are more likely to abuse drugs to lose weight.
These observations are all generalisations, and any addict seeking treatment needs to be evaluated as an individual.
It is always good to remember that no two addicts are the same, whatever their gender. Different people have unique experiences, and individuals may not conform to a specific using model or group. As a result, no two people will require the same treatment and care program.
When looking at addiction treatment options for yourself or a partner, child, sibling, or friend – whichever gender, it is worth noting what facilities are available to treat co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and PTSD. A good rehab center will have qualified staff on hand to address underlying conditions and look at the reasons behind why someone started or continues to use substances or a behaviour as a way of making themselves feel better.
Has your mental health been affected by menopause? Do you find yourself reaching for a drink or drug to try and relieve symptoms? Could you be self-medicating?
Our highly qualified team of doctors, therapists and counsellors use a carefully designed program, which includes individual and group therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, EMDR and equine-assisted therapy.
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