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Neerja Birla: Menopause is a bigger taboo than menstruation

Mental health, Menstruation and Menopause – issues related to these 3 Ms exist in every woman’s life. But they are rarely acknowledged. These subjects need to become as easy as any dinner table conversations, believes mental health advocate Neerja Birla, who is also an educationist, mother of two daughters and a son, and wife of Indian industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla.

At her own home, the 52-year-old has tried to normalise conversations by encouraging all her children to drop any euphemism. “We are very comfortable talking about it. It’s a very open discussion. If one of us is on our periods, we would just say, ‘I am getting my periods or I am PMSing. It’s light conversation. My kids also tell me, ‘You’re so fuzzy, you’re having brain fog or your memory is bad’. We make light conversation around either topic, and it’s not a big deal at all!”

Growing up, this was not the environment Neerja Birla saw. Like most girls in most Indian homes, she faced the social norms and myths around menstruation.

“Most households had certain protocols such as not going to the temple during periods or going into the kitchen. But gradually, I started debating the logic as I wasn’t resonating with it anymore. I didn’t think it was fair, and I decided that I didn’t want to put my girls through it,” recounts Neerja Birla in an exclusive conversation with Health Shots.

It was when her elder daughter, singer-songwriter Ananya Birla, hit puberty, that Neerja Birla began steering progressive change at home.

Perimenopause or menopause in a woman’s life has a similar stigma attached, believes the Founder and Chairperson of Mpower, an initiative of the Aditya Birla Education Trust.

What is menopause?

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes menopause as the end of a woman’s reproductive years. The transition to menopause typically happens to women between the ages 45 and 55, but younger women can go through it too. It is marked by 12 consecutive months since a woman’s last period. This transition may lead to symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, irregular sleep, urinary incontinence, mood swings, dry eyes, headaches and more.

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A lot happens, but women suffer in silence.

“I personally think menopause and things around it are a bigger taboo than periods. I don’t hear any women saying, ‘I’m perimenopausal or menopausal’ or ‘I don’t get my periods anymore’ or ‘This is what I am going through’… I don’t know why, even though it is the most obvious and natural progression for us,” she asserts.

Menopause can affect mental health

The two worlds of menopause and mental health tend to intersect.

“When hormonal changes set in, they can impact mental health. It can become serious if it’s not checked. Feelings of loneliness and depression set in. The menopause phase also happens during a time when your children are growing up, and they begin to need less of you emotionally and physically. For women, that begins to create a vacuum in life. It’s a huge change and transition, and it takes you time to get used to a new routine and expectations. All of this not checked may lead to mental health concerns,” says Neerja Birla.

Also read: 7 body changes you should expect with menopause

Neerja Birla shares an important message on menopause for women. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

How to break the stigma around menopause?

The solution in breaking the stigma lies in talking about it more – just as she is doing with mental health, and her younger daughter Advaitesha Birla is doing with periods.

“Menopause is like every other topic where you want to break the shackles around it. The only way is to drive conversation around it to normalise it. We have seen that happen gradually with mental health. Menopause is nothing to be ashamed about or feel awkward about, because it happens with every other woman. Everyone sails in that boat, but nobody talks about it,” she adds.

In her own social circle, for example, she can imagine how just uttering the word “perimenopausal” could cause an “awkward and deathly” silence. But she believes menopause awareness is a journey that has to start somewhere.

What also needs to be normalised is to seek support during this challenging transition.

“Not pharmacological support, but general emotional and mental support. If nothing else, just for people around women of menopausal age to understand that being a little extra emotional or being teary or feeling low or having gaps in their memory or being fuzzy is a part of it. That support will start by talking about it and normalising it.”

Watch Advaitesha Birla talk about breaking the bias around periods!

Women must prioritise self-care, says Neerja Birla

Self-care has been an important part of Neerja Birla’s life for physical and mental wellness and agility. Neerja Birla shares her own ‘health shots’ that work for staying fit and fabulous beyond 50.

1. Exercise

“Exercise is my go-to for self-care. I need that adrenaline and dose of rejuvenation every day,” she says. Just going for an hour’s walk also works wonders for her. In fact, she believes people really underrate the benefits of walking.

2. Family time

“Spending time with my children is my balm… It’s my safe haven,” says the doting mother.

3. Staying connected

She says, “Being in touch with family and friends with such hectic lifestyles, is truly a blessing.”

4. Nature

Neerja Birla prefers being outdoors and in touch with nature. “Being outdoors is therapeutic.”

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