Menopause during lockdown: Why would it be different?
Did women experiencing menopause find the 2020 coronavirus lockdown change how they felt? Was it for better or for worse?
My research project investigates whether the environment in which we live affects how menopause symptoms are experienced. Anthropologists like Margaret Lock and Nancy Scheper-Hughes have suggested that when restrictions and regulations are placed upon us, our bodies will respond. This could result in symptoms already being experienced feeling worse in response to the change in the environment.
Initially menopause social media accounts seemed to indicate that lockdown was making women’s menopausal symptoms worse. But was this actually true? And if it was, why?
What I asked
I sent a questionnaire to peri-menopausal women to ask about their experience of lockdown during menopause, and whether it was any different to before the coronavirus pandemic. As menopause affects family, social and work lives, I included questions about these aspects too.
Who I asked
The questionnaire captured responses from 377 women all over the UK, at every stage during menopause.
Did women experience changes in menopausal symptoms during lockdown, and how did they take action?
Many women reported they did not experience any changes in their menopausal symptoms. Some also reported that they felt worse, but that they didn’t know if this was because of the menopause of just the general situation.
Changes, and how they were managed
For those that felt worst, they reported:
experiencing poorer mental health. Many said they felt much more anxious and depressed during the lockdown period.
more frequent low moods and mood swings
being more irritated and feeling angrier than normal.
poor quality of sleep, tiredness and fatigue.
changes in their body shape, such as putting on weight and losing muscle mass.
experiencing more intense and frequent hot flushes and night sweats during lockdown compared to before.
“Emotional: I feel tearful, angry - very angry - and overwhelmed often. I am the jam in a work stress/ hormone sandwich at the moment and feel like my normal chirpy self has checked out”
Some women reported their symptoms felt better. These respondents said their anxiety and tiredness weren’t as bad, especially since they found they had more time to themselves.
Many took the opportunity to increase their exercise and use self-care strategies, such as mindfulness and meditation.
"I try and walk 10000 steps most days. I sort my head when I walk and it’s my wonder drug. I walk to work 3 days a week about 5 miles.”
"The best way that I cope is exercise. I need to get outside every day and raise my heart rate.”
HRT and lockdown
Along with the reduced access to healthcare, there was the continued shortage of HRT, which has been ongoing since 2019. Many women reported that HRT was helping them cope during the lockdown. However they also often reported difficulties in accessing their usual type of HRT. Another problem was the some found the alternatives did not suit them as well. They were also anxious about the continued availability of the drugs.
“I stopped using my HRT patches in January when they became unavailable and was fine until mid-May when all my symptoms returned!”
“[I] felt guilty about having to contact GP to discuss continuing treatment and subsequently change to alternative as patches unavailable. Did not wish to take up valuable GP time during the madness, but the HRT was keeping me sane!”
Lockdown and hot flushes
The UK lockdown covered several spells of hot weather and heatwaves. This presented its own issue for menopausal women – especially those experiencing hot flushes and night sweats.
The hear was mentioned by several women as causing more pronounced hot flushes. However they also reported that being at home allowed them to be more comfortable by:
wearing lighter clothes
cooling off outside or in the bathroom
being less self-conscious about flushing in front of other people
Direct Covid-19 related issues impacted women who had flushes outside of the house. Some worried that having a flush would be seen as a symptom of coronavirus by producing a higher temperature at temperature checks. Mask wearing was also mentioned as being a factor in overheating.
“Hot flushes even worse in the hot weather. Worries me that some place might do temperature checks in case I’m having a hot flush. I feel the heat much more than other people.”
How did menopause interact with life during lockdown?
One of the most important things to remember about menopause experience is that it does not exist in a vacuum, and that even with no changes in symptoms, women were still living through menopause during lockdown life. With restrictions such as only being able to leave the house for exercise once a day, mandatory working from home, and closure of schools, for many lockdown life provided a very different environment for living through menopause than before.
Home life and the lockdown
In the survey I asked women how they felt during day-to-day lockdown life. Most replied that they:
felt lonely or isolated
were more aware of menopause symptoms because of fewer distractions
felt a lack of motivation
Many responded that they felt they had no choice but to cope during lockdown.
“I feel I have coped as I have to. I’m a busy working mum”
However some found themselves enjoying the more relaxed pace of life and reduced social contact that lockdown brought. They had more opportunities to rest or to catch up on lost sleep during the day. This allowed them to feel better than before lockdown.
Work life, lockdown and the menopause
Outside of home life, the impact of menopause on work was also talked about. As most workplaces were closed during the lockdown, many women were either not working or furloughed, working from home, or were key workers.
Key workers, in particular in the healthcare sector, reported that the main different to working during lockdown was feeling too hot in PPE they had to wear during the whole day.
Otherwise, they mostly reported that their work was impacted by menopause in the same way as before lockdown. These included symptoms of tiredness, brain fog, loss of confidence and pain in joints.
Anxiety and tiredness were also increased, usually in response to rapidly changing working guidelines, and the stress of working on the front line of care and service provision.
“Wearing PPE is hot and uncomfortable.”
“Working in the NHS is very challenging in the current climate. Menopause has certainly added to the challenges.”
Working from home and the menopause
Those working from home reported being able to adjust the workday better through starting at more convenient times and taking more breaks. Some women reported starting work later to catch up on lost sleep. They could also break up their work day to help deal with symptom impact.
Other ways respondents reported dealing with symptoms included:
wearing comfier clothes
taking more breaks
using fans for hot flushes
working through fatigue and mood changes easier than in the regular workplace
Women also reported feeling more comfortable using the bathroom at home. This helped reduce anxiety around bladder issues and heavy bleeding.
“I'm able to work from home and manage my hours. I usually take a long lunch and have a nap. I've got a fan on my desk for the hot flushes”
“In some ways it's been helpful, being at home more makes bladder issues more manageable. Also if sleep deprived, working from home is easier. I've also started work earlier and finished earlier as concentration levels so much better earlier in the day.”
Caring during lockdown
Some women reported caring for their children, grandchildren and parents during lockdown. For those who were impacted by menopause, the main difficulties they reported were:
tiredness and fatigue
Caring, especially for shielding and vulnerable family and friends, was reported as being stressful. It caused some added anxiety, plus lower tolerance and patience. This sometimes led to women feeling guilty about how the menopause, and the general stress of lockdown, diminished their ability to care for their children or parents.
“My dad was shielded so I am having to shop for him and support him emotionally. Lack of energy, mood swings and poor patience makes me feel guilty I'm not supporting him enough.”
“I have four children, 2 dogs and a husband who works away from home Monday - Friday so a lot of balls to juggle. Joint pain and lack of sleep significantly impact my ability to fulfil all my responsibilities.”
What can we learn from women’s experience of menopause?
Menopause often occurs concurrently with children growing up, parents growing old, and job responsibilities changing. As such, women report that it is difficult to pinpoint which symptoms of tiredness, mood changes and mental health are caused by menopause compared to other life stresses and circumstances.
However the seismic shift of staying at home highlights the shortfalls of pre-pandemic life for women during menopause. Being able to take more breaks and more time to relax which some women noted could indicate that the fast-paced demands of life before lockdown had a negative impact on women during menopause.
Alleviating symptoms through flexible working practices indicate that it would be beneficial to include these in the normal workplace. This survey also shows how more care and attention must be paid to understanding the realities of life during menopause, and how to improve it.