Are You Ready To Unleash Your Inner Helen?

Cathriona Edwards.

Good news! Hormone changes at midlife mean that we become less chemically programmed to look after other people's needs. Once our hormones settle post-menopause we may become calmer, steadier and more free to pursue our own goals. So says Cathriona Edwards, psychologist and psychotherapist, in this very inspiring and encouraging article. Moreover she argues that neurologically we get what we expect...

'Post-menopausal zeal could consist of: Work, friends, big projects, spiritual growth, artistic pursuits, travel, the love of your life?

'Post-menopausal zeal could consist of: Work, friends, big projects, spiritual growth, artistic pursuits, travel, the love of your life?

Anyone for some 'Post Menopausal Zeal'?

Margaret Mead, renowned American cultural anthropologist, coined the phrase ‘post-menopausal zeal’. Now there’s a concept. It makes me think immediately of the vivacious, gorgeous and surely zealously energetic Helen Mirren. If you’re in the middle of perimenopause, or menopause, and feeling depleted and harried you may find this somewhat of an oxymoron – perhaps even laughably so. But bear with me, for Margaret – and Helen – may just be on to something….

Throughout our lives as women we spend a great deal of our time, and expend oodles of mental energy, looking after everybody else’s needs, often to the detriment of our own. I see it constantly in my own psychotherapy practice: The consequences for us when we leave ourselves last in the tending-to stakes. But this focus on others is hard-wired into us. From inception, the neurological odds are stacked in favour of need displacement by the female.

We not only understand others' pain, we feel it!

Nature’s default gender is female. At about eight weeks in the womb, the foetus’s brain is marinated in either huge bursts of oestrogen or testosterone. The oestrogen in the female grows and moulds the communication and emotional fluency centres in the brain, fostering a nuanced capacity for empathy and emotional interpretative skills. (The corresponding bursts of testosterone in the male brain help to destroy these very centres, building the aggression and sex centres instead, fostering a keen capacity to focus on singular tasks and maintain detachment.)

And so it goes on. The work of oestrogen and progesterone continues to shape and develop the female brain’s capacity to empathise and connect, a capacity that is further moulded and reinforced by the environment once born. Gender differences are noted in the degree to which babies attach and exchange attention with their mothers. All babies do it, Mr Bowlby was indeed correct, but girls do it more.

By adulthood, the effects of environmental reinforcement for this empathetic connectivity, on top of its neurological and neurochemical underpinning, means that we not only understand others’ pain, we feel it.  

Many fascinating experiments have been conducted demonstrating the extent to which women are capable of empathy. In one, women whose brains were being scanned whilst being given electric shocks of varying intensities showed the exact same pattern of reaction when their (male) lovers were being shocked – without seeing them. The exact same brain centres lit up. Not only did they empathise with their lovers’ plight, they felt it. No such pattern of reaction could be found in the male subjects.

We can look forward to steady hormone levels, calmness and steadiness

The release of the hormone, oxytocin, fuels the empathetic response. When we do connect – with our mothers, our fathers, our babies, our friends, our lovers – the level of oxytocin raises giving us a chemical high, flooding our brains with the feel-good chemical.

Oxytocin induces trust and is fuelled by trusting. It makes us feel cosy and loved and safe and fuzzily happy. It engenders generosity, reduces stress, and sharpens our memory for faces. It increases when we feel sexual desire, when we make love, when we hold our babies, when we breastfeed, when we connect with female friends, when we are held, when we are touched, when we feel understood. It’s nature’s way to keep us welded together because it helps perpetuate the species. It ensures our dependent offspring survive. And it’s good for us, because we cannot survive, never mind thrive, on our own.

And so what of the menopause, you say? When all of these neurochemicals diminish and the dance between oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and oxytocin fades, do we fade with it? Not necessarily.

The constant hormonal fluctuations of our post-pubescent lives are over. We can look forward to low steady oestrogen and testosterone levels. This facilitates calmness and steadiness, with neural circuits less reactive to stress and less emotionally reactive in general.

Oxytocin levels are lower too. We don’t have the same level of oxytocin to play with – or rather for it to play with us. We’re no longer so chemically reinforced for looking after other people. For while all of these hormones underlie our fertility, they also underpin our dogged focus upon others’ needs. We’re no longer prey to the vagaries of vicarious pleasure through oxytocin-fuelled satisfaction of others’ needs. We are free to pursue our own. Directly.

Freedom to be selfish  - in the best way

Thus the findings of 21st Century neuroscience in which fMRI and PET scans allow us to see inside our brains, and technology facilitates the identification and measurement of hormonal fluctuations, could be said to support Margaret Mead’s 20th century contentions. ‘post menopausal zeal’ is apparently possible: Freedom from the tyranny of hormonal-induced reactivity; freedom to be selfish – in the best way; freedom to be.

So, are you noticing a shift in priorities in your own life? Are you feeling increasingly free to follow your own star? If you’re not there yet, how can you get there? 

For the other side of this equation is of course the neurological reality of neuroplasticity: Our brains are plastic, malleable, capable of learning, responsive to our environments. The elicitation of hormonal reactions doesn’t happen in a vacuum, just as we don’t function in one. It’s a delicate interweaving and interdependent dance.

Our brains work to fulfil our emotional expectations

In terms of adapting to our situation – hormonally-fuelled or otherwise – the key truism to remember is that our brain works on expectancy: What we expect is, neurologically, what we get. Our brain seeks to fulfil our emotional expectations. If we have been assiduously practicing high anxiety, that’s what we will continue to experience. Those neural pathways will be well worn into grooves of habitual behaviour. Anxiety will be the lens through which we view the world. But, change is possible. It’s about setting down new neural pathways that are constructive and not destructive. It’s about harnessing the power of our imagination and using it to feed, rather than undermine. The more readily we envisage and rehearse positive outcomes, rather than terrifying ourselves with catastrophic ones, the greater is the likelihood that these will come about. The more we use tools like mindfulness and relaxation to facilitate centeredness and calmness, the more we will experience those states. The more we access and experience a state, the more likely it is to become a trait.

So, bearing the importance of expectation in mind, what do you think your ‘post menopausal zeal’ could consist of: Work, friends, big projects, spiritual growth, artistic pursuits, travel, the love of your life?

I pledge here and now to doggedly search out my inner, zeal-filled Helen when the time comes.

Further Reading:

The Female Brain (2007) by Louann Brizendine

Why Men don’t Iron: The Science of Gender Studies (2001) by Anne Moir and Bill Moir

The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain (2004) by Simon Baron-Cohen

Cathriona Edwards is a psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice in Dun Laoghaire and Ballsbridge.

She treats individuals and couples, teaches mindfulness, and, along with her colleague Sue Saunders, runs a one-day workshop in female emotional health entitled ‘Neuro Know How’ in the Dublin Human Givens Centre, Dun Laoghaire.

For more information, contact Cathriona at

Or follow her on Twitter: @flogardens or follow the Dublin Human Givens Centre at @DublinHGCentre

Photo by Iseult O'Brien.

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