By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
Hormones. You can’t live without them, but sometimes it’s hard to live with them, and that includes when you’re on your feet all day, teaching and dealing with teens who are as temperamental as you feel. How to cope? Being aware of what’s happening and being kind to yourself are good places to start.
Women may suffer from PMS (premenstrual syndrome), an often trying time of bloating, moodiness, and irritability that typically occurs about a week before the menstrual cycle. Not only is it is a tough time for you to be in a leotard, it may lower your patience threshold quite a bit. Mapping out your monthly emotional cycle is well worth the effort. By keeping tabs on when you need to be vigilant about politeness and decorum, you might avoid snapping at a client or coworker—or worse, a student. Simplicity can work here. Just mark on your calendar the days when you feel up, down, sad, impatient, or bloated. Then consciously work to sync a lighter demeanor or whatever is individual to you, such as smiling more, on those days. Keep logging data; it may take several months to see the pattern.
The premenstrual time is often when women crave sweets and fat. By using your monthly pattern cues, you can make a pact to designate one day of giving in to the cravings instead of trying to use willpower, and then possibly failing the whole week with uncontrolled eating. Stress-reduction techniques such as working out (hard enough to sweat) by walking, running, and jogging can also help if you start before, or right at the beginning, of your bloated period. You can reduce bloating by lowering your intake of salty foods, and even by reducing food intake for the day. And take heart. Bloating is usually not as obvious to others as it is to you. If you feel like you need a boost, wear more makeup or use jewelry or scarves to draw attention to your face and upper body.
Being nice to yourself can also go a long way. Along with bloating and general discomfort, many women experience migraines and cramps once their period hits. Use mood-lifting music, take a few minutes to yourself, or sit down more and let others demonstrate. Maybe even take a day off. When you’re feeling irritable or in pain, it’s time to tune in to what you need, both physically and emotionally.
But what if you’re past that point, and instead, you’re fanning yourself in a studio that seems to get hotter and hotter? Do you feel an intense desire to shed more layers although you’re already in a leotard and tights? Find yourself long on irritation and short on patience? Lucky you. Menopause is waiting in the wings, watching. The stages of life are inevitable, but there are pros along with the cons for the change of life.
First, the good news. Periods have lost their power over you. While perimenopause may last for a good 10 years when you go in and out of having a period, it will eventually end. Once you reach full menopause, your period and its difficulties are gone. But you’re exchanging one set of symptoms for another. You may lose the discomforts that accompanied your monthly cycle, only to learn firsthand about the discomforts of hot flashes.
Again, there’s more good news. Hot flashes often don’t continue past the first part of true menopause, and there are ways to mitigate them. Adding just a bit of cardio work, such as 20 minutes of brisk walking or jogging, can help regulate the master gland, the hypothalamus, to regain temperature control. Younger dancers, often being slight in build and body weight, are no strangers to feeling cold a great deal of the time. Now warmth is easier to maintain.
Regular exercise also helps with other menopause symptoms such as irritability and impatience. Repetitive-motion exercise such as cycling, elliptical training, walking, running, jogging, and swimming all give a good dose of serotonin that helps to maintain a positive, stable mood.
It’s important for women to recognize the significance of the less obvious symptoms of menopause: mood swings, irritability, insomnia, depression, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, and crying spells. Women sometimes worry, “Am I losing my mind?” when these symptoms occur. It’s important to see a doctor to rule out other causes, but if menopause is the culprit, you might want to consider treatment, such as hormone supplements.
Estrogen supplementation does work in early menopause for the regulation of hot flashes and mood swings. If you’re dealing with menopausal discomfort, find a gynecologist who has a lot of patients going through menopause and who has kept up on research in the field. Every woman’s case is different. Some are more willing than others to put up with the hot flashes, irregular sleep, and other baggage of menopause. Some women have family histories of breast cancer or heart disease to take into account.
Bear in mind that if you decide against hormone replacement, you’re not without options. Another excellent way to relieve menopausal symptoms, in addition to exercise, is to watch your diet. Taper off on caffeine, chocolate, red wine, and spicy foods, which can increase the frequency and severity of hot flashes. The Mediterranean diet, which is richer in fruits, vegetables, fish, and olive oil and lower in saturated fats than the typical American diet, is a good way to provide optimal nutrition that will help support your body as it goes through menopause.
Declining estrogen production contributes to the loss of bone density in post-menopausal women. Dancers in particular are vulnerable because the risk of osteoporosis is greater for women who weigh less than 135 pounds and who may be low in vitamin D because they spend their days teaching indoors, away from direct sunlight. But the good news for women who teach dance is that spending long hours on your feet in the classroom helps to retain bone health. I encourage you to attempt to keep your legs and feet conditioned to jump, even if it’s minimal, because impact gives the most bone density.
Men are not immune from the ups and downs of emotional life, even though society tells them (unfairly) that they aren’t allowed to show weakness or signs of depression. Testosterone makes men virile, true—but if you’re a guy, remember you’re human too. That wonderful testosterone, helping you to achieve, can also be a downfall. Male teachers, in showing others how things are to be done, may overshoot their abilities, even while marking. Men are well advised to pick and choose what to demonstrate and to be confident in their pedagogic roles.
There are benefits for both men and women once the hormones start to fade. Freedom from birth control allows you to nurture a healthy sex life, which works wonders on serotonin release, giving a cardiovascular lift and a glowing complexion to boot. Menopause may seem like a loss of femininity, but can actually be turned into a feminist experience. This is the time of life when delegation and work satisfaction can finally yield some “me” time for both sexes. Most of the small children running around your feet are your students, not your own.
Remember, too, that you are not alone, even though you may not have a partner at this time. (Divorces and spousal passings are prevalent at this time of life.) Participate in life. No matter what life stage you are in, expand your world by challenging yourself to try one new thing each year. Going to conferences can help you find new friends and foster new avenues of pursuit. Keep making plans for your personal future. Create your bucket list and go after it.
And finally, acknowledge the signs of hormonal highs and lows and face them head on. This is not a rehearsal. This is your life, and life has one command: to live. Your students will love you for it.
I have faith in you.