Fi Darby found her life spiralling out of control when the effects of the menopause began. But then she discovered a way to ease the debilitating symptoms: spending time outdoors, swimming and walking
“The water worked some kind of magic that day. I felt more alive than I had in a long time. My anxiety lifted almost immediately.”
Why don’t we women don’t talk more about the menopause and its symptoms? I am not sure, but it does seem to be a last taboo. Which is probably the reason why, in my mid-40s, I unexpectedly found myself confronted with a debilitating range of symptoms, and a lost career.
I was a secondary school teacher, a good one, committed to outdoor extracurricular education and popular with my students. A round of redundancies put my job on the line and I found that, after nearly 20 successful years in education, I was unable to cope. At the time I didn’t realise it, but the fluctuating hormones associated with menopause transition had brought on anxiety and memory loss, as well as physical symptoms that made managing a strict timetable almost impossible.
So I lost my career. It was a time of much sadness for me. A time I’m not sure I would have got through without the support of my family, friends and later my GP. Now that
I’m happy to talk about the menopause, I’ve met many women who have had similar experiences. There is, however, still little research done into the impact of the menopause on women’s careers.
I have always enjoyed being outdoors and sharing my love of outdoor activity with others. At the time I experienced my first menopause symptoms, I had a hectic weekend timetable teaching young people expedition skills as a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and Ten Tors Challenge leader. As the menopausal depression and anxiety grew, I found myself spending more and more time inside. It seemed easier to withdraw from the world than admit to my inability to cope with it.
The little voice in my head that had once told me I could do anything was now whispering that it would be ridiculous to even try.
There were plenty of tears. The world seemed to be carrying on without me and
I felt powerless to join in again. I had changed, in less than a year, from a capable, confident woman to a confused, anxious one. Unwilling to leave the house for work, I was trying my hand at writing for a living. This led to more time spent inside, weight gain and even less confidence. I love my freelance lifestyle now, but at the time it felt like a very lonely existence.
And then, one chilly November morning, I received an invitation. Just hours later I found myself chatting happily on a stony beach wearing only a swimsuit. I was so pleased to be outside again that I hardly noticed the shivers and freezing grey sea. The water worked some kind of magic that day. I felt more alive than I had in a long time, so I went back again the next day, and the day after that. My anxiety lifted almost immediately and, over time, I started to notice some of my other symptoms reducing as well. Stomach cramps, tender breasts, confusion and, yes, the ubiquitous hot flush, all but disappeared when my body switched its focus to ‘surviving’ the numbing effects of cold water.
A COLD-WATER CURE
I’ve swum outdoors most days for the last four years. I feel mentally and physically healthier than I have for a long time, and I know it’s the water helping, because, after three days without a swim, my menopause symptoms start to creep back in again. Although I’m convinced my body’s physical reaction to cold water is the main factor, there are other aspects of outdoor swimming that have
“I feel physically healthier than I have for a long time, and I know it’s the water helping”
helped to heal me. I now have daily contact with a like-minded group of people, and my holidays almost all include activities related to swim-spot hunting.
I’ve swum in Scottish lochs, under Welsh waterfalls and in Norwegian fjords. I’ve walked up Lake District hills to find tarns, navigated across Dartmoor to find rivers and enjoyed sunrises half-submerged in distant reservoirs. Outdoor swimming has brought me back to the walking and wild camping I once loved so much. In turn, these additional outdoor activities have also helped with my menopause symptoms, in particular the confusion and weight gain.
Since I started swimming, my new career has progressed well, too. Almost evangelistic about the benefits of the outdoors, I have grown my outdoor-writing portfolio, and now also earn money as a freelance outdoor leader. All of this and I still have time to head for the beach most mornings, and the woods most evenings as well.
One thing I have learned about the menopause transition is that the process takes a long time. I am 52 now and still experiencing symptoms. Although I’m convinced the outdoors has much to offer all women of my age, my first recommendation would always be to talk to someone. Once I did pluck up the courage to mention my problems to friends, I realised I wasn’t alone. My GPs have been really supportive, and helped me consider a variety of medical options as well as other therapies. They have also been interested in my experiences with cold water.
SCIENCE PLAYS CATCH-UP
Dr Heather Massey, senior lecturer in sport, health and exercise science at the University of Portsmouth, is an expert on both the dangers and beneficial effects of cold-water immersion. “There’s some anecdotal evidence to suggest women have experienced a reduction in their perceived menopausal symptoms. However, there isn’t yet scientific evidence to support this.”
Specific studies on links between outdoor activity and the menopause are lacking. However, a relationship between outdoor swimming and improvement in mood is being gradually uncovered. One study with two novice outdoor swimmers found this to be true for both short-term and long-term mood improvements. Another study with three experienced swimmers found sea swimming provided mental healing as well as escape from everyday issues.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on people’s approach to both exercise and the outdoors. I can definitely see a quiet outdoor revolution happening at our beach. Two years ago there would have been myself and two other friends at our early morning swimming sessions. It isn’t unusual to count 15 or more now, and many of them are women my age. Almost every day someone walks past and says, “I must try that”. My answer? “Yes you must!”
Living in Devon, Fi Darby is an outdoor writer, blogger and children’s author. She is also an Ordnance Survey Get Outside Champion and co-author of the outdoor blog Two Blondes Walking.
“Walking and wild camping have also helped with my menopause symptoms”