How to Tame Midlife Stress with Nervous System Wisdom
Let’s dive into the topic of midlife stress and how to find a sense of calm amidst the chaos.
As women in midlife, we often face self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and overwhelm.
In this episode, I explore why anxiety, stress, and overwhelm tend to increase during midlife, specifically during perimenopause, and menopause.
Did you know that approximately 86% of women experience mental health issues in midlife?
If you’ve been noticing an increase in anxiety and stress, remember that you are not alone. Many other women are going through similar experiences. We look at the physiological changes of menopause, hormonal fluctuations, and their relationship to anxiety.
One interesting insight is that anxiety tends to be worse in the morning due to the stress hormone cortisol. Levels of cortisol are typically highest in the first few hours after waking, and these levels can be even higher for women experiencing perimenopause.
The societal and cultural pressures surrounding midlife can amplify feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. By challenging external expectations and societal beliefs, we can create a shift and empower ourselves during this important stage of life.
Understanding our brain and central nervous system allows us to take a closer look at our stress response and find ways to support ourselves during this time.
If you’re ready to discover practical tools and strategies to navigate midlife stress, grab your headphones and listen in!
Jump on the waitlist for the next cohort of The Midlife Upgrade Course here
Full Episode Transcript
Hey, my friend. How are you doing this week? I’ve got a goodie for you on the podcast today. It is entitled, calm With In Chaos, taming Midlife Stress With Nervous System Wisdom.
We are gonna look at and understand why our tendency to experience anxiety, stress, and overwhelm increases in midlife. Particularly through perimenopause, menopause and post menopause and what we can do about it. And I’ll leave you with a couple of tools and strategies that you can engage in your own life to support calm within your nervous system so that you can find a little bit of calm in that chaotic storm that very.
Often, very commonly shows up for us women in midlife. Here we go.
A large percentage of women are going through perimenopause and menopause. Experience mental health issues, and that does include experiences of anxiety, low mood, mood changes. There are some reports that I’ve looked at that report, 86% of women experience mental health issues in midlife from 45 to 60.
So if you are experiencing an increase in anxiety and stress, if you’re noticing a lowering of resilience within yourself, first and foremost, I want you to know you’re not alone. There are many, many other women experiencing have experienced something similar to what you’re going through. I hope that some of the insights that I offer today around why this happens in midlife and what we can do about it will be helpful for you.
So when I’m talking about anxiety, I’m talking about your experience of anxious thoughts, feelings, and uh, you know, the physical experience of anxiety. I’m not trying to offer solutions for a clinical diagnosis of anxiety, just so we have that clear at the outset. However, what I’m talking about is helpful across the board if you have an experience of anxiety.
It’s just that with the, the, um, clinical presentation of anxiety diagnosed anxiety disorders, you are. Much better served under the care of a professional. Having said that, let’s go in and look at why on earth does it feel like anxiety is rising, overwhelm is increasing, and our tolerance for stress is lessening.
What happens is that, On a physiological level, anxiety, our experience of stress develops during that perimenopause time because hormonal changes occur in our body and our brain is sensitive to those changes. And during menopause, there are fluctuations. Estrogen so you’re not having that smooth even cycle of a rise of estrogen and then a dropping off within your cycle.
You’ve got up and down, up and down. It can be a little bit all over the place throughout, your cycle while you’re in perimenopause and then postmenopausally. It can still take a while to even out and taper off. To being more steady. And so changes in levels of estrogen specifically have been closely linked to experiences of anxiety.
And as the estrogen says, estrogen rises, you’ve got these connections going on in the brain, and then as it lowers, those connections are dissolved and then it rises again. You’ve got new connections and then it’s dissolved. So you can see there’s quite an up and down cycle happening. And furthermore, hot flushes and a lack of good sleep, which is very common in perimenopause, they contribute to anxiety, overwhelm, and a feeling of, massive increase in stress as well for women.
I think this piece is really interesting. Have you noticed that? That anxious feelings that you experience is worse in the morning. I noticed that for myself and researching around this topic, I looked at some research that showed that scientists are thinking that anxiety is worse in the morning because of the stress hormone cortisol.
Levels of cortisol tend to be highest in the first four hours after waking. And if you think about, our cortisol does tend to go up in perimenopause because estrogen is a protector and a soothe and a calmer, you know, it calms the body, calms the system. So if that’s fluctuating, then we can have this tendency to have higher cortisol in our system.
More stress, and then we’ve got our baseline In terms of the cortisol, the stress hormone has gone up and it naturally is higher in the morning anyway. So then for a woman who’s experiencing perimenopause, where her baseline of cortisol is higher than in the morning, that cortisol level is potentially gonna be higher as well.
And so if this is going on for you, so first tip. If this is going on for you and you do notice, um, anxiety showing up in the morning more than what it used to. And I certainly have experienced that through perimenopause and even postmenopausally as well from time to time. And I’ve gotta say one thing that, makes, that anxiety, I kind of call it tension.
I suppose it’s like a somatic kind of tension in me, but I could also name it as anxiety. What makes it worse for me is coffee. Caffeine in coffee, uh, the day before or a couple of days before, and, you know, ongoing. And so I notice I can have a little bit of coffee and then if it becomes a habit, I do notice that I have that anxiety worse in the morning.
And then if I cut coffee right out, then that anxiety does tend to go away now. So what I do is just mix it up a bit and, you know, on the occasion I will have coffee and then I won’t have coffee. I don’t have it become something that I’m having every single day, because I definitely notice that it does affect me in terms of very subtle sense of anxiety that shows up in my chest in the morning when I wake up.
And that is gonna be connected to those cortisol levels. Right. So you can look at that for sure. So we understand there’s a hormone fluctuation that’s impacting feelings of stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and I want to lay a foundation here that everything I talk about on this episode or on any of the episodes of the podcast and any sort of tools or strategies that I offer,
As well as the information, use it all with self-compassion. So I don’t want us to be taking these tools and strategies and information and giving ourselves a hard time about how we’re showing up. Oh, I should be more this, I should be more that.
We’ve already got all of those external pressures on ourselves, and it is quite easy to read, you know, intentionally helpful information. These sort of turn it on ourselves and give ourselves a hard time of where we are not and where we want to be, but we are not there yet. Yeah. So we are not gonna do that.
Of course. So we’ve got this physiological lessening of tolerance for stress. A slight lowering of. Resilience within us because of the hormonal fluctuations. But then you add in the societal and cultural amplifiers, and these amplifiers can include ageism expectations around our productivity, through perimenopause, our appearance, and a lot of them are so internalized that we don’t even know they’re there.
They do contribute significantly to feelings and experiences of anxiety and overwhelm in midlife because they shape unrealistic standards and they create pressure to conform to certain norms. Norms that we have. We’ve just internalized them. They’re just a part of us, but they create the pressure and the less.
A tip around this. The way we can shift this is to really start to challenge external pressures and challenge societal beliefs about midlife, about aging, about menopause. Oh my God. Doesn’t menopause need a rebrand? Yeah. I think menopause needs a massive rebrand.
Because it is at its core, an incredible portal for us as women to become more empowered as we step into the second stage of our life.
One way that we can support ourselves while we are experiencing an increase in anxiety, stress, and overwhelm, is to look at what’s going on inside of us through the lens of our nervous system. Yep. So our brain, our central nervous system.
Let’s take a little look at that.
So we have the stress response in the nervous system. Which is our action, our doing. We are coming forward, we’re making things happen. It’s a higher energy, and then we have the calm and relaxed response within the nervous system, and that’s calming, resting, digesting, slowing down.
So the way I think it’s helpful to think about it is if we think about the stress response, that branch of the nervous system as the accelerator, it’s moving us forward We’re we’ve got momentum, there’s some speed happening there, there’s some action being taken, and then you look at the calm relaxed response.
Within the nervous system. If we’re talking about a car that’s more like applying the brakes, we’re slowing down, we are digesting, we are resting. Now, if you want to drive a car safely, we need both the accelerator and the brake.
And if we want to live our life with. Resilience and a tolerance for stress, then we need to be able to apply both the accelerator and the break. However, here’s the problem. Life is set up with way too much accelerator, and that’s not our fault. That’s just the way society is organized, is set up. It’s the expectations on us.
We can tolerate that. However, during midlife, when we’ve got those hormonal fluctuations happening, it becomes much more difficult to tolerate our life that has far too much accelerator going on. And when that happens, we might stay in that stress response within our nervous system. We are not having enough of that calm and relaxed response over time.
Then we might experience dysregulation of the nervous system. That just means that it’s in, uh, potentially in a stress response that is not helpful to our resilient functioning. Right. However, being dysregulated, being stressed, experiencing anxiety, experiencing overwhelm, it’s a really normal part of being a human being.
So again, not using these tools and this information to. To criticize ourselves, but to understand what’s going on inside of our system. Now, when we learned how to apply the brakes, B R A K E S, so the brakes of a car, this supports regulation. This lessens the effects of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. And I’m gonna offer a couple of tools that you can use.
To support regulation very soon, but just to have an understanding of what’s going on there.
And I wanna talk about this particular part of the stress response and the way we can understand our coping mechanisms. When the nervous system, when we become dysregulated, when we are in a stressed state, and what I’m about to talk about, they’re also responses to trauma, but that’s not particularly, or specifically what I’m talking about here.
These responses are a helpful way to understand our own coping mechanisms when we are in a stress response. So you’ve heard of fight and flight. Of course. So first of all, we have fight, which is where we might experience or notice anger, rage. We are wanting to confront or get into confrontations.
This is a higher energy response and we’re wanting to engage. Yeah. And then we might have flight, which is different, which you know, is pointing us in the direction of panic anxiety, but we are wanting to run away rather than coming towards. So that’s fight and flight. And then , when our system has gone through that threshold of fight and flight in terms of a stress response, it can come into a freeze response.
Now a freeze response is deemed as being about shutdown dissociation numbness, so you get the picture of what a freeze response is. Typically, that’s talked about in terms of understanding trauma, but it’s also useful to understand it when we’ve been dealing with chronic stress and overwhelm. That hasn’t abated for a long period of time, and you’ve got the underlying challenges that come along with midlife as well.
We might notice that there’s more of a freeze response happening in our experience once we’ve moved through that threshold of fight and flight.
And in more recent years, the FA response has been talked about as a stress response, which is another coping mechanism, which is super interesting. And within the FA response, we can noticed that we might appease. People please. There might be codependency and a lack of boundaries
where that foreign response is an attempt to. Appease and change and calm our surroundings.
We’ve got fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. And we might notice our behaviors in any one of those areas or one or more. It’s not, they’re not exclusive to one another, but to understand our. Coping mechanisms through this lens, is really helpful because these are automatic responses and it’s important for us to remove the shame and stigma.
That is connected with these. That’s just a normal part of being human, and it is about being an awareness of them. And once we have awareness, then we can comfort ourselves and then we can slow down within our nervous system.
Here are two really useful tools you can use to calm, settle, and soothe your nervous system when you are in a heightened stress response. So the first one is to orient to the external environment. And to do that you have your eyes open and you notice and say out loud five things you can see.
So I can see the tree, the neighbor’s house. I can see the building outside. I can see the plants in my garden. I can see the speaker behind me and then notice and say out loud five things you can hear. So I can hear my voice. I can hear the wind in the trees, I can hear a lawnmower going in the background.
I can hear the fan of the computer and I can hear background traffic. So when we’re in a heightened response, five things you can see and five things you can hear. Eyes are open, it’s calming, it’s settling for the nervous system. And the second tool that you can use is the box breathing exercise.
Focusing on our breath has a relaxing effect on the system. We’re giving the mind the a job to do, and we’re applying the brakes so that our nervous system can come into that more calm and relaxed response. So how you do box breathing is you’re seated or you’re standing and you breathe in through your nose.
So, I mean, a box like a square, right? So on the one side, if you’re imagining the square, you’re breathing in through your nose and counting to four As you breathe in and you notice the ear entering your lungs, and then you gently hold your breath for the count of four, and then you slowly exhale through your mouth through a count of four, and then you pause for a count of four.
So you’ve done four sides of the box there. Breathe in for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of four, and pause for a count of four. Repeat those steps until you feel more settled, more centered, or you can continue on for three to five minutes with box breathing.
So two simple tools there. Orient to the external environment. A really simple box breathing exercise, which you can also look up online. There’s plenty of examples on the web that will guide you through them if you’re more of a visual learner.
So my friends, that is how we can tune up. Reset access the calm and relaxed response in our nervous system. This is something that I suggest to my clients. They choose one of those tools they commit to themselves. You commit to yourself that you’re going to use that tool for an entire week.
You’re gonna engage it in your life regularly for a week and keep practicing with it if you practice regularly with it for a month. Then you will actually start to integrate this tool into your daily life, and you’ll be able to access it much more easily when you need it. So in midlife, we are not gonna look at our experience through the lens of shame and guilt and not good enough anymore.
We are done with that as women. Yeah, we are gonna look at our experience with awareness and compassion, see what’s going on for us, bring some awareness to it, get some support, use some of those tools that are available to us and support ourselves through deep, empowering self-care.
I hope that’s been really helpful for you. Grab one of those tools. Use it in your life. We talk about anxiety and overwhelm in my midlife upgrade course because of course, this is such a common experience for women in midlife, and we engage those tools. We make them a part of our life. So that they really start making a difference to women’s experience of stress and overwhelm and anxiety.
And more than that, you know, when you’re part of a community and, and you’re feeling that when you’re part of a group, navigating these difficult moments and these challenging times is so much more easy. It’s so much easier and so much more fruitful. And once we get a handle on, you know, the accelerator and the brake and the nervous system, and start utilizing it.
Then we can actually start thinking about, and, and what is this next stage of my life gonna be about? Because you’ve come up from drowning in the anxiety and the overwhelm, which is such a common experience. We’re starting to manage that a little more. Then you can start looking and going, actually, what is gonna bring me joy?
What is gonna bring me joy in the second half of my life? What is important for me? Where do I want to step next? And this is what I want for you. If you are interested in joining the next round of the Midlife Upgrade course, the link to the wait list is on my podcast. Go there and check it out. It’s on my website, Meegan care.co nz. Get your name on the wait list. I’d love to have you on the course. We are starting again in mid-October. It’s gonna be a fantastic group of women and I’d love to see you on there.
Okay, my friend. Have an amazing, amazing week, and I’ll talk to you real soon. Bye for now.