Menopause or no menopause, you see what you believe. And here’s the neuroscience that underpins that bold statement.
- Imagine you have ordered a brand new red car. Almost the moment you order it, you suddenly see them everywhere. They pop up in every car park, on every street and every motorway. It is as if a graffiti artist has been busy with a spray can, turning the world of cars red. You had no idea they were so common.
- Nothing, of course, has changed, except that the part of your brain, called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). It has now been primed by your conscious decision to focus on that particular piece of information.
Your Reticular Activating System (RAS) ensures that you see what you want to see. It filters ‘irrelevant’ sensory information.
- In every moment, your mind and body are scanning and aware of every sensory input. For example, the light coming in to your right eye, the blood flow in your left foot, the saliva in your mouth.
- Your conscious mind (the part responsible for making all those key decisions, like which shoes to wear today or what time to set the alarm) can only manage around three pieces of information at any one time. It queues the rest.
- The effective RAS means your conscious mind can remain blissfully unaware of subtler sensory inputs and bottlenecks that prevent normal day to day functioning and higher-level decision making. It simply filters them out of your awareness.
- This means you only become aware of light coming into your right eye when someone suddenly comes towards you with full beam headlamps on.
- You only become aware of the blood flow in your foot when you experience numbness or tingling.
- Or you only become aware of the saliva in your mouth when the dentist has your mouth filled with dental paraphernalia.
The RAS’s second priority is to filter the information you tell it is important to you. You do this through your thoughts, habits, actions, and a continual process of what I describe as ‘pattern matching’.
- Think of something once and it’s likely to be filed away without much reference.
- However, once you start actively engaging with a situation or a thought, you tell yourself a story about it that can trigger chemical reactions and emotions in your mind-body.
- Those emotions and chemical reactions elevate the importance of the thought or situation.
- The more you revisit similar situations, thoughts, or circumstances (as perceived by the RSA), the more embedded the emotional and chemical response becomes, influencing the pattern of your thinking (and your certainty around it).
The evidence for the existence of your personal ‘truth’ is based on neural pathways that have been laid down by the frequency of those patterns occurring.
- If you don’t travel those pathways often (in other words, think that similar thought, or have that similar experience) then they remain temporary – like walking once in a cornfield.
- The beginning of a path opens up as we walk through it but quickly grows back if it’s a one time or infrequent event.
- However, travel that path often and the brain starts making synaptic connections, strengthening well-trodden pathways, and increasing their significance (and your version of truth!). If strong emotions are part of the story that connects the pathway, it changes your neurology (through neuroplasticity) and becomes an autopilot response for you.
Here’s the kicker: Any safety information gets through your RSA unfiltered…a person stepping off the pavement ahead of you, for example.
This means that if you spend a lot of time engaged in emotionally charged experiences (for example, online groups, heated conversations at home, with colleagues, on Twitter, in boardrooms, or elsewhere), you are hardwiring a ‘reality’ based on a worldview that may be narrow.
If those conversations increase your stress levels, the pathways become even more hardwired. They enter the ‘safety’ realm managed by the RAS to prioritise emotional responses and bypassing your usual critical thinking.
Here’s where menopausal anxiety amplifies trouble.
- Once your RAS sounds the alarm by triggering your primitive mind (your amygdala), all cognitive functions, such as learning, problem-solving, and creative thinking, cease. This has been described as the amygdala hijack or the better known, Fight, Flight or Freeze response.
- You experience this as either anxiety, panic, anger or brain fog.
- Do not make the mistake of assuming any higher level of logical reasoning trumps this primitive response mechanism. It doesn’t.
- The more stressful your own mind-body responses and emotions, the more likely you are to make poor decisions, have clouded judgement, and be unable to see clear solutions.
- It’s like being stuck in a cul de sac with a sabre-toothed tiger, engaged in constant combat or avoidance strategies, and no way out. The longer you remain there, the more hopeless and helpless you become.
- Your amygdala (the powerful guard-dog of the brain) reacts in a split second to the first sniff of any kind of social, emotional or physical threat.
Once ‘threat’ is perceived, it bypasses all other systems in the brain to send distress signals in the form of the stress hormone, cortisol.
On the positive side, the neocortex region of the brain, though comparatively slow in processing information, has an effectively endless ability to learn and rewire itself through neuroplasticity.
If you can do these two things, in this order:
- Alter the mind-body response to everyday stress and increase your reserves of calm;
- Imagine your preferred futures (starting with the ordinary every day stuff;
you will come out of menopause faster, with greater resilience, and can even change your very nature and capacity for success on whichever terms you choose.
Now that’s exciting.