Women, Hormonal Fluctuations and Mental Health: What to Know

By Lisa F. Crites

by ELYSIAN Magazine

As a health/medical television reporter for years, I have covered a myriad of mental health-related stories. I find psychology of the brain fascinating, plus the stories have provided a continual learning experience for my own personal mental health and wellbeing. 

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I would like to shine light on why women, unfortunately, are more inclined to encounter cyclical behavior when it comes to mental health than men. 

Naturally, mental health includes a person’s emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. Our frame of mind affects how we think, feel and act. That mindset also determines how we manage stress, relate to others, and make choices.

Overall, I am sure most are in touch with experiencing positive, active, energetic days full of productivity and fun. Though in contrast, many have experienced the emotion of sad, melancholy days, eventually evolving into anxiety and despondence, sometimes leading to depression. I have had a range of both experiences over time. My most disastrous mental trauma was my mother being killed in a car accident in my early 30s – this was followed by breast cancer diagnoses, my husband having an affair, and divorce, just to name a few psychological challenges. Unfortunately, life can change in the blink of an eye, as can our mental outlook. I, too, have asked myself, is my sadness potentially clinical, or just situationally based due to whatever life has most recently served? 

Sometimes simply being melancholy will pass, but when it becomes exacerbated to the point of interfering with responsibilities of our daily life, that is when concern should come into play. 

“It’s important to think of mental health symptoms in terms of a chronic nature,” said Dr. Rosezina Meadows, a counselor with 30 years of experience as a licensed clinician in psychological counseling and certified through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). 

“As an example, clinical symptoms of depression could include chronic sadness, dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits, significant weight loss or gain, low energy levels, irritability, isolation, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.” 

Other important signs of concern can include excessive fear or worry, alcohol or substance abuse, seeing or hearing things that are not there, and extremely high versus despairingly low moods. 

Sadly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four women (25.6 percent) received mental health treatment over the past twelve months, compared to 14.6 percent of men. But why the large statistical difference?

The quick answer is brain chemistry and hormonal fluctuations. Women experience hormone fluctuations regularly, and while evolving through these intense changes in life, the risk of anxiety and depression is biologically higher. Additionally, mental disorders unique to women involving hormones are perinatal depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, perimenopause-related depression, and of course post-partum depression, of which approximately 1 in 7 women experience after giving birth.

Genetic, social, and economic differences can also play a role in the development of depression, as does trauma; eating and body image disorders; sexual, psychological, and physical abuse; and socio-cultural imbalances. 

Accordingly, and comparable to statistics, Meadows also mentions the role women play as caregivers and why mental health is often overlooked and not managed timely.

“Women tend to take longer to seek treatment for mental health matters due to the cultural dynamics of caregiving. This often delays women attaining help in advance of a clinical crisis,” she said. 

Adverse medical conditions can also contribute to a person’s mental, emotional, and psychological state.

“When depression becomes the diagnosis, I recommend therapy, along with a full medical assessment. From a clinical standpoint, certain issues can symptomatically mimic mental illness, such as chemical dependency. The only way to rule out other concerns is through bloodwork and diagnostic testing,” Meadows said. 

From a biological standpoint, there are three primary neurotransmitters involved in clinical depression: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Individuals with clinical depression often have increased levels of monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A), an enzyme that breaks down these neurotransmitters, resulting in symptoms of depressed mood. 

According to Meadows, regular exercise can stimulate new brain cell growth, including increased levels of neurotransmitters. Additionally, she says a vital component of therapy is to support the development of healthy coping skills. 

My mother, an extremely wise, patient and innately positive person, always said, “This too shall pass” when sadness arose. As I was finishing this column, I thought of that adage, which is of Persian origin. The phrase reflects on the temporary nature, or ephemerality, of the human condition — that neither the bad nor good moments in life last forever.

I agree with my mother that most situations causing emotional turmoil will not last forever. “This too will pass” is a good thought for most difficulties, but we must healthily and/or medically manage these obstacles to move beyond the state of mental distress. If this article strikes a chord with you, I hope you will think about the importance of May being Mental Health Awareness Month in that its primary purpose is to raise awareness of mental and behavioral health (and the stigma connected), along with the importance of taking positive and proactive steps to improve your psychological wellbeing.  

I wish everyone the best.

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