I’m not too sure how I feel about the piece by Max Pemberton that I read in The Daily Mail yesterday. In some ways, I can see his argument makes sense but the symptoms I have endured, tell a very different story and you may know that getting older is not something I fear, in fact, I’m completely comfortable about ageing. Anyway, I’m going to sit on the fence here and let you read the article. What do you think?
Taken from The Daily Mail 10th July 2015
Poor Rachel. One of the secretaries at work is going through hell at the moment, as she tells me constantly, usually in quite an irritated tone and while frantically fanning herself.
Hot flushes, night sweats, headaches and difficulty sleeping. Not forgetting mood swings like a roller-coaster. Yep, it’s the menopause. Women of a certain age will sympathise. After all, it’s well known that, for some, “the change” is no picnic. And there’s no doubt that what Rachel is experiencing is real.
Yet what’s interesting is that doctors and anthropologists are increasingly suggesting that problems with the menopause have their roots in our minds and our culture as much as in our bodies.
In fact, they believe that – rather than being an inevitable, physical curse – the discomfort women suffer may largely be the result of the West’s obsession with youth, and our reluctance to embrace ageing. Sounds far-fetched? Hear me out.
There’s a group of illnesses that few people know about. Even within medicine, they are confined to footnotes in textbooks. And yet, around the world, millions of people suffer from them.
They are just like other illnesses, varying in severity and responding to treatment. What sets them apart is that they only occur in specific cultures or societies. They’re called “culture-bound syndromes”. One example is Amok. We’ve all heard the term “running amok”. It comes from a syndrome common in Malaysia, Singapore and some other Asian cultures.
A young man, after experiencing severe loss or bereavement, will become quiet and then fly into a sudden, uncontrollable rage, attacking people at random, then lose his memory. Because it’s considered a medical condition, the sufferer is usually dealt with leniently.
Another culture-bound syndrome is called Koro. This occurs in Asia and is a condition in which men suddenly believe their genitals are shrinking inside their body and they are going to die. Men become so convinced it’s happening that they can vividly describe the sensation and even tie weights to their nether regions to stop it happening.
This can occur in epidemics, with whole towns suddenly believing they’re affected, overwhelming A&E departments.
Anthropologists have described dozens of these culture-bound syndromes. For years, Western doctors viewed them as bizarre anomalies, but what’s become apparent is that we have them, too.
Agoraphobia, Gulf War syndrome, ADHD, multiple personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have all been identified as Western culture-bound syndromes. They simply don’t appear in other parts of the world and seem to have origins that are specific to our history and lifestyle.
In fact, the flashbacks reported in PTSD are actually a relatively new phenomenon and first started being noticed shortly after filmmakers began using flashback sequences to represent past events in films.
That’s not to say these things aren’t real, but it does show the power that culture and society have on how we experience distress and illness. So, what does this have to do with poor Rachel?
Well, amazing as it sounds, not all cultures have the menopause. At least, not in the way women in the West experience it.
Certainly, regardless of their culture, women stop having periods after a certain age. But academics have realised that many of the typical physical symptoms – the hot flushes, the mood changes, the night sweats – are not universally experienced.
In an in-depth study, the medical anthropologist Margaret Lock described how in Japan, where old age is venerated and the elderly are held in high esteem, very few women reported these problems. Indeed, the Japanese have no specific expression to describe menopausal hot flushes.
Some of the physical changes associated with decreased female sex hormones, such as dry skin, were still experienced. But they were not felt to be as troublesome or upsetting as in the West.
Some have suggested a link to genetics or Japan’s soya-rich diet. But a key factor seems to be that Japanese women regard entering old age as a positive experience because of the respect they will then attract.
In sharp contrast to how the ageing body is viewed in our culture, they rejoice in growing older.
This is not a reason to dismiss women’s experiences of the menopause, and it certainly doesn’t mean the discomfort they feel isn’t real. It simply shows that the underlying mechanism is far more complicated than simply a biological process.
For me, rather than diminishing women’s symptoms, it shows the power of the mind and how little we really understand the interaction between our mind and body.
– Daily Mail
By Max Pemberton